Tough Kids: Why These Brands Are Tackling Sustainability Despite the Steep Challenges

Sustainability has topped the footwear agenda this year, as company after company has stepped forward to reveal various ways they’re reducing their carbon footprint.

Brands in the children’s market are no different — although they face unusually high hurdles in their environmental journeys, namely that sustainable improvements often translate to price increases, and parents are a notoriously price-conscious customer.

“Sustainability has been a challenge. It’s always a challenge in kids’,” said Marc Loverin, senior director of design and product development for the Wolverine Kids Group, a division of Wolverine World Wide Inc. “We have these really blue-sky concepts where we want to go all the way. But we have to take it one step at a time.”

However, he noted new sourcing developments are making the process easier. “Things now are becoming more readily available to smaller suppliers, so the prices are getting more favorable. It’s really helping us to be able to adopt a lot more things across the lines,” said Loverin.

In January, the company will introduce kids’ versions of its Sperry SeaCycled collection, which features uppers made, in part, from recycled plastic waste. And within the Merrell and Saucony children’s products, Loverin’s team is widely using recycled PET linings and adding recycled rubber where possible, though brands don’t often call attention to the features. “It’s just something we do because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Sperry SeaCycled Kids Sneakers
Sperry will introduce kids’ versions of its SeaCycled collection, made using plastic waste.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Wolverine Kids Group

The increased focus on sustainability matches the consumer mindset. Today’s parents, who are primarily millennials, are highly engaged in sustainability. In fact, 26% of millennials listed it as their top concern in 2021, after health care and unemployment, according to a recent Deloitte report. And for that next generation of parents — Gen Z —protecting the environment was their No. 1 concern.

“The consumer is changing,” said Brandon Gingerich, director of sales at Badorf Shoe Co. “As these different generations are growing up, they’re making decisions and are quite vocal about what they want. So we have to adapt with that.”

For spring ’22, Badorf will launch eco-friendly versions of its classic Footmates sandals, made with microfiber nappa instead of the traditional leather. “We want to use the best materials and put out the best product. But when you start looking at materials now, you can question whether leather is the best in some areas,” said Gingerich, adding that microfiber nappa is more durable than leather, lighter weight, softer and water-resistant. He also noted that, contrary to most eco-friendly materials, sourcing with microfiber has cost savings, allowing Footmates to offer better margins to retailers.

And that benefit may be necessary to convince some clients. “Kids’ retail is not as prepared to make these moves,” said Gingerich. “Some of my retailers in California and Oregon or Washington are probably going to be far more interested in this initially than in other areas. So I’m trying to balance this and not move to fast.” However, he hopes to introduce more sustainable materials into Footmates’ classic shoes for fall ’22 and spring ’23. “This is what our consumer wants and we’re going to give them what they want.”

Footmates Vegan Girls Sandal
A spring ’22 Footmates sandal featuring a microfiber nappa upper.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Badorf Shoe Co.

Indeed, brands are highly conscious not only of the environmental concerns of parents, but of children as well.

Kyle Housman, CEO of Native Shoes, explained, “While the kids’ market historically hasn’t been the epicenter of this conversation, to us it just makes sense because it’s the way kids are learning. And there’s an opportunity for them to participate earlier in terms of understanding what it is that they’re doing.”

Native has been addressing sustainability since 2018, when it began grinding up worn-out shoes to make flooring for playgrounds.

To date, the Remix Project has recycled over 35,000 pairs of shoes. And the company has now set a goal for 100% of its footwear to be lifecycle managed by 2023, by scaling up the Remix Project and introducing more plant-based materials to its line. For several seasons, it’s been using Rise by Bloom, made with repurposed algae, and this fall will introduce Sugarlite, made with sugarcane resin.

Plus there’s more: “We’re looking for opportunities to reduce our impact on the material side, but we also recognize that the No. 1 opportunity that we need to tackle is energy in terms of how the shoes are made,” said Housman. “That’s where our focus has been [recently].”

Ultimately, brand leaders said the key to pushing the industry forward is strong collaboration in all corners of the business.

Wolverine’s Loverin noted, “As we’ve partnered together and worked with suppliers, it’s building a sourcing base that fosters this kind of development.”

For Native Shoes, meanwhile, its retail partners have been invaluable. “I’m super proud of what our teams have accomplished the last couple of years in terms of tackling sustainability and inviting partners along on the ride. It’s really about the industry showing up together. And Zappos, for instance, has been phenomenal in that respect,” said Housman. “I don’t think there’s one single group that’s going to solve these problems.”

Access exclusive content