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In the Race for a More Sustainable Future, Here Are 3 Things Brands Need to Address Now

The sustainability conversation has been going on for years in the footwear and fashion industries, but never has it had the kind momentum now in evidence. On a daily basis, companies are launching new sustainable product and announcing plans to change their operations.

Part of the credit goes to the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, many companies were able to take a step back and assess the situation through a different lens. And as other discussions about corporate responsibility ramped up in the past year, so too did the focus on the environment.

However, Ugg president Andrea O’Donnell also told FN it was simply a matter of time — literally.

The UN Paris Agreement established in 2015 a goal to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Nearly every nation signed on to the pact, and thousands of corporations joined the United Nations Global Compact, including Ugg parent Deckers Brands.

Ugg Fluff Sugar Sustainable Sandal
The new Ugg Fluff Sugar Sandal, made with sustainable plant-based materials.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Ugg

But O’Donnell said at the time, leaders lacked the knowledge to take action. “The kind of infrastructures to support businesses and help them understand what they needed to do wasn’t necessarily there,” she explained. “Now the UN and other organizations have come into this space [and can advise] on where to focus, how to strategize and how to build targets.”

But for all the progress that companies are making now, experts say much more needs to be done — and fast. “The pace is glacial at best. And when I hear that we’ve set a target of doing X, Y, Z by 2050, we may not have that option,” said Samata Pattinson, CEO of Red Carpet Green Dress. “When you recognize how much fashion is producing, these time frames and deadlines are too far in the future.”

According to the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, the shoe industry contributes an estimated 700 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions. In a recent survey, FDRA found that there is increased focus on sustainability among shoe companies, with 70% of respondents listing it as a priority. However, the study also found that a number of constraints are keeping brands from moving forward, including concerns about cost, knowledge and a lack of leadership.

Leadership Matters

Experts say that in order for the shoe industry to move the needle, the drive must come from the top. And for Lauren Fay, founder and executive director of The New Fashion Initiative, the key is for leadership to be diverse and inclusive.

“It’s getting different ideas to the table with different voices,” she said. “Power has been siloed in really specific hands in fashion — whether that’s white males or from an editorial perspective, a lot of white females, and that needs to change for the benefit of people and the planet overall.”

She added that one person heading the sustainability initiative internally is simply not enough. Teams needs to be place.

Rothy’s is one brand that’s broadening its knowledge base by establishing an advisory council of scientists and academics. The group will be composed of Pattinson from Red Carpet Green Dress, as well as Lewis Perkins, president of the Apparel Impact Institute; sustainability expert Michael Sadowski; Brittany Sierra, founder and CEO of the Sustainable Fashion Forum; and Jing Wang, director of North Asia for Green Building Certification Inc.

“The opportunity with the council is to make sure that we are getting outside thinking into our sustainability plans, but also making real progress against the goals that we have in place,” said Saskia van Gendt, Rothy’s head of sustainability. “The aspiration is to create something that works for Rothy’s, but to open-source that to the industry because we know it’s an industry-wide problem.”

Another essential step is to embed those eco-conscious principles into company culture, explained FDRA SVP Andy Polk, noting that will in turn reinforce the magnitude of the issue and its importance. “It’s empowering employees to think innovatively and what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” he said.

At New Balance, eco-friendly initiatives have been on the rise for the past decade, culminating in the company’s declaration this month that it will use 100% renewable electricity across its global operations and will attempt to send zero waste to landfills from its footwear factories by 2025. It also aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 as a signatory of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, as well as source 50% recycled polyester and 100% preferred leather by 2025.

“These are in our reach,” Chris Davis, New Balance’s chief marketing officer and SVP of global merchandising, told FN during the Fairchild Media Group Sustainability Summit. “I believe that as an industry, it’s essential to integrate our goals with our corporate business practices and KPIs to drive circular business models to [create] real change.”

Collaborating for a Cause

Another important factor in creating a sustainable future in fashion is collaboration, according to insiders. It is through an exchange of ideas that companies will start to shift the thinking on how they operate.

In May, Adidas and Allbirds revealed a partnership to innovate manufacturing and supply chain processes, and to explore renewable material resources together to create the lowest carbon footprint ever recorded for a sport performance shoe.

Like other industries, fashion companies have traditionally guarded their trade secrets in order to compete. But to reverse climate change, experts say there’s no space for that kind of mindset anymore.

“It is about realizing that maybe this industry has been in the wrong race for a while” said Hana Kajimura, sustainability lead at Allbirds. “What if we can expand upon all of that energy we put into breaking records and performance with our products and put that same attention into breaking carbon records. Our scale of impact is not going to be great enough if we go at it alone.” In that spirit, the brand this month made its carbon footprint calculator open-source and available online, at Freethefootprint.com.

For Adidas, collaborating with a brand they might typically see as a competitor required a change in perspective. Kate Ridley, SVP of brand at Adidas North America, said, “We have to have a certain a certain sense of humility. We don’t know everything. We’re not experts in everything. And we need support. We need to collaborate. That’s what innovation is. It’s being able to take risks and smash models that aren’t working anymore.”

adidas, stan smith, sustainability
In its End Plastic Waste effort, Adidas has dubbed the Stan Smith as an experimental canvas to test new materials.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Adidas

Beyond the Adidas and Allbirds collaboration, other companies have begun loosening the reins on information. In March, for instance, Keen established an open-sourced model for how it creates PFC-free footwear, issuing a challenge for the rest of the outdoor footwear industry to be PFC free by 2025.
And FDRA has launched its new Shoe Waste Program, which offers a waste diversion option for both brands and manufacturers that provides a return on investment. Steve Madden and Fila are two companies taking part.

“It’s a win,” said Polk. “Working together, pooling resources, providing the solution in the playbook. Now other people can chip in a little bit of money and have a real big impact. Plus, they can tell that story back in their marketing of how at the factory level they’re working at zero waste.”

Coming Full Circle

Circular production: It’s a concept that the entire fashion industry is striving for as the waste crisis continues to build. And it all starts with product.

“Circularity needs to be embedded from the beginning in the design of the product,” explained Fay. “It’ll be a question of the ones that make the effort and investment to make the changes who will survive and then the others will potentially not.”

For designer Maria Cornejo, minimizing waste comes down to reducing processes and components. During the FMG Sustainability Summit, she explained that getting creative with less and keeping materials simple is a big step to reaching circularity. She also urged fellow designers to create with intent and timelessness.

maria cornejo, zero + maria cornejo, women in power, power of women, shoe designer, fashion designer, cfda, new york fashion, work from home, work from home style, independent designers
Cornejo at home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Maria Cornejo

“That’s the thing about circularity… It’s not about a trend or season, its [about creating product] that has longer shelf life,” she said.

Though independent brands are doing the work, it comes down to the big-volume brands to make the greatest impact. Part of what’s needed is a shift toward materials that are long-lasting and have less impact on the environment. Examples include organic cotton, recycled polyester, ethical wool and plant-based leather alternatives made from pineapple, mushrooms, algae — the list goes on.
What comes next in the product lifecycle, though, is just as important to close the loop, by offering recycling and end-of-wear solutions.

“There has to be a redirection of how we produce,” added Pattinson. “If you are not addressing the fact that the production and consumption models are broken, then all of these other efforts, whilst positive, are still feeding into the same beast of a machine.”

Rothy’s recently committed to reaching circular production by 2023. To do that, the firm is rolling out a pilot recycling program this year, creating options that will allow for the deconstruction of a shoe into its main components, so it can then be reprocessed. Twice-recycled materials will then be incorporated into new products.

Rothy's, Mary Janes, shoes
Rothy’s new Mary Jane shoe style is created with knit from plastic water bottles and vegan leather outsoles.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Rothy's

Needless to say, that development process isn’t simple.

“This is uncharted territory, it’s not turnkey,” said van Gendt. “There’s no place where we can just send and recycle shoes. We have to develop this. The pilot will help us explore what partners and what systems we need in place in order to recycle shoes.”

For the first year, Rothy’s will be in a testing phase, starting with damaged inventory, and then over the next three years, it will start to develop a scalable and more sophisticated program, adding partners and eventually opening up the program to customers to send in their shoes to recycle.

At Veja, the end of life shoes make up 2.9% of its carbon emissions — a problem that it’s on a mission to solve.

In June 2020, Veja launched the Darwin project to minimize waste and support a circular economy with a facility in France that will clean and repair worn sneakers, and collect and recycle those that are beyond help. Due to pandemic restrictions, that facility was shut down after only three months. However, during its short run, Veja repaired 2,000 pairs of shoes — and that’s just a warm-up.

veja, sustainable lab
Veja’s new sustainability lab in Bordeaux, France.
CREDIT: Veja

“We produce 2 million pairs of shoes per year, and knowing that there are 2 million pairs that are going to be not usable [in the future] is a lot,” said Veja co-founder Sébastien Kopp. “Let’s attack the issue. Repairing is already something really important. It’s one step before recycling, but I think it has been misjudged by a lot of brands. It’s very essential.”

FDRA’s Polk said that, ultimately, achieving circularity as an industry is a challenge because shoes have been made the same way for hundreds of years — typically with many components — and companies may not be willing to adjust their processes. He added, “There’s still not a roadmap for the industry. We’re trying to build that right now.”

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