The natural material leather is inevitably linked with shoes, and people have been making clothes from leather for thousands of years. And no wonder: it is flexible, robust, breathable and water-repellent. But the list of positive attributes is countered by a long list of problems in leather production: a lack of animal rights and transparency, deficient environmental and health and safety standards, environmental impact. The spotlight is on the globally widespread use of Chromium III in tanning, which can result in the emergence of the allergenic and carcinogenic Chromium VI. This also affects the end user, because sweat can cause the chemical’s release. Added to this are environmentally harmful chemical coatings used to make the material soft, supple, glossy and water-repellent or to cover up small blemishes. Workers in the developing and emerging countries – where according to UN statistics around 70 per cent of the leather is produced – are often completely exposed in contact with the noxious, polluting chemicals.
Initiatives are developing solutions
That the shoe industry is no longer ignoring these grave problems is primarily a consequence of the consumers’ growing environmental awareness and the associated concern among manufacturers and retailers about their own reputations. Michael Tackenberg, Chairman of the Board of Cads and board member of the Rosenheim-based shoe manufacturer Gabor, states: “The critical public will not become less aware in future, that much is certain.” Trade and industry must therefore aim to step up environmental protection so as not to lose the majority of consumers. This has been recognised by brands such as Buffalo and Gabor, producers such as Ara AG (Lloyd, Salamander) and vertical chain stores such as Reno or Deichmann, who have joined the German cooperation Cads. In a range of working groups, they are developing e.g. standards for the safer handling of process chemicals or focusing on new findings on Chromium VI avoidance. Cads was founded in 2007 under the aegis of the Federal Association of German Footwear and Leather Goods Industries (HDS/L) at the Deutsches Schuhinstitut (German shoe institute DSI) as an initiative for the elimination of the use of harmful substances in shoes, and subsequently added the social and environmental sectors to its remit.
Also in the business of chemicals management are the Netherlands-based ZDHC Foundation and the Swiss enterprise Bluesign Technologies, who recently announced a collaboration. Both have set themselves the goal of eliminating substances harmful to both the environment and human health throughout the textile industry supply chain. In cooperation with Stahl, a leading producer of chemicals for leather products and high-performance coatings, in April this year Bluesign Technologies added leather chemicals to the Bluesign Bluefinder. This is a web-based search engine for textile manufacturers for achieving the Input Stream Management. With more than 10,000 entries, it is the most comprehensive positive list of chemical formulations worldwide. The ZDHC Foundation pursues the same mission, but approaches it the other way around: It works with a Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL) of hazardous chemical substances that may not be used intentionally in manufacturing facilities. The list published in 2014 for the textile industry was extended a year later to include the leather production sector. More than 90 companies including brands like Adidas, H & M and Nike have signed up to the programme.
Innovative recycling materials meet vegan leather alternatives
In addition to the many initiatives, foundations and working groups working on application-orientated solutions, the revolution in the shoe industry is seen especially in the speed with which companies are launching sustainable material innovations. The American sporting goods manufacturer Nike for example has recently joined the “Make Fashion Circular” initiative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to create a new circular textile sector through collaboration and innovation. In this spirit, as early as autumn last year the sportswear giant launched “Flyleather”, a 50 per cent recycled leather material. To make this Nike uses waste from the leather manufacturing process – according to the company, generally around 30 per cent of the animal skins are thrown away – and processes this together with synthetic fibres to make a new material that, like imitation leather, can be dyed, cut to size and used for a broad product range without compromising on quality. The production process is resource-friendly because it uses 80 to 90 per cent less water than required for conventional leather and the CO2 footprint is halved. “The earth is the athlete’s biggest playground, so one of our greatest opportunities is to create breakthrough products while protecting our planet,” states Hannah Jones, Nike Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of the Innovation Accelerator.
The label Ecoalf is also known for its surprising recycling ideas. With “Ocean Waste Footwear”, the Spanish enterprise will be launching a shoe collection on the market for the first time this coming September. In doing so, it connects two innovative projects aimed at removing pollution from the oceans. The first is “Upcycling the Oceans”, for which Ecoalf turns PET bottles from the ocean into top quality polyamide yarn that is then used to make robust fabrics. The second produces outer soles made from algae-based foam developed by the American company Bloom. This addresses the problem of excess algae and the associated environmental challenges.
In addition to innovative recycling materials, more and more companies are looking for vegan alternatives to completely replace leather. Renewable raw materials such as fungi, maize, fruit waste, cork or pineapple leaves – there are more options than ever before. The Munich shoe label Nat-2 is for example attracting attention with gumboots made from maize and sneakers made from wood or fungus. The latter are manufactured by the Berlin company Zvnder, which makes a vegan leather from tinder sponge, a tree fungus. This is one of the most successful models to show the ever-growing importance of the development especially of plant-based materials with properties and processing requirements similar to those of leather.
Sustainable in every way
So the sustainable alternatives exist. But why has the shoe industry lagged behind the textile industry for so long? One reason is the many components that make up a shoe, which makes them difficult to compare with a pair of jeans or a t-shirt. That it is nonetheless possible to make an all-round environmentally friendly shoe is shown by companies such as Melawear and Ekn Footwear. The latter combine soles made from recycled sole remnants and laces made from organic cotton with recycled yarns and vegetable-tanned calfskin leather to make. The contemporary shoes are handmade in Portugal. With the first GOTS- and Fairtrade-certified sneakers worldwide the Lüneburg label Melawear demonstrates how an independently certified social and environmentally compatible production can be maintained along the entire supply chain. The vegan shoes are fabricated solely from natural materials such as organic cotton from India and natural rubber from Sri Lanka. In addition, the Fair Fashion label combines other important sustainability factors by way of sleek design, high quality and a cradle-to-cradle approach.
If one considers the shoe industry from a different angle, it is not a latecomer, but a pioneer. While environmental standards are only gradually coming to play a more important role in the shoe industry, the sector assumes a pioneering role as regards disruptive technologies and automated production. The sporting goods manufacturer Adidas especially is pushing ahead, showing for instance with sneakers personalised at point of sale and the automated “speedfactory” what a complete reorganisation of the existing production chains looks like. If one considers that automated processes enable a local production that not only responds to customer wishes, but also allows for production close to the customer, it becomes evident that the new manufacturing methods brings benefits. These are not only economic, but also environmental, achieved for instance by savings on transport-based emissions, the prevention of over-production, the conservation of resources thanks to apposite manufacturing techniques as well as digital product development and a seamless networking of production steps, which ensure an optimal level of material consumption.
Sustainably produced shoes are still poorly represented on the mass market. However, especially the increased awareness of environmental standards among consumers means that the subject is arriving at the centre of society, bringing a widespread implementation of sustainability issues in the shoe industry. Emerging in association with the new technologies and the opportunities of digitalisation is a field of tension from which ultimately everyone can benefit – companies, consumers and the environment itself.
At the next FashionSustain Conference taking place on 3 July 2018 at the Kraftwerk, Berlin, international keynote speakers will present visionary ideas on the central topic of shoes, sneakers, leather and leather production under the headline “Jump into the Future”. At the trade show duo Ethical Fashion Show Berlin and Greenshowroom showing concurrently from 3 to 5 July 2018, exhibitors such as Nat-2 or Werner 1911 will show what tomorrow’s fashion looks like today with their sustainable, trend-orientated and innovative collections.
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* Cads – Kooperation für abgesicherte definierte Standards bei den Schuh- und Lederwarenprodukten e.V.