Mathieu Risacher
Sneaker Sustainability Consultant, Writer & Textile Engineer | IG: @Mat_SSC

All posts by Mathieu Risacher

Sustainability and Sneakers #03: How can you find your way to real and honest initiatives through greenwashing and isolated attempts?

As a sneaker sustainability consultant, I work with very diverse brands that somehow all face the same blank space when it comes to sustainability. My experience and the reoccurring interrogations led me to this statement : brands tend to be lost in the vastness of options because of the absence of knowledge.

« Where should we start ? », « How do we communicate about the legitimacy of what we’re doing ? », « When can we consider ourselves sustainable enough ? »

By writing this article, I want to shed a light on this uncertainty feeling that is shared throughout the industry, drawing a line between the marketing purpose and the durability purpose, both driving the change in opposite directions.

I’m going to detail my opinion and give you some pieces of advice in how to have a better understanding of where true sustainability lies, keeping in mind the different realities that brands might face.

If this topic is also one of your top-priority concerns then don’t hesitate to reach out, I’d love to offer you my expertise on the subject and discuss more specifically about how you’ll be able to figure out where you should start to implement or meliorate your commitment.

Understanding that sustainability is an unframed concept

I want to clear up the fact that my objective here isn’t to point out who’s doing « good » or « bad » – for the record, the great team of Good On You is already doing it, delivering this information in a tremendous way, go check them out!

I am convinced that any  « green » step is (somehow) leading our industry in the right direction thanks to all the communication and awareness it generates.  

I’ve been relying on such initiatives in my previous articles as I believe in the power of iconic brands’ aura.

Converse demonstrated this principle a couple of weeks ago, unveiling its Renew program, delivering their classic Chucks in three different upper materials, starting in July with recycled polyester, followed in August by discarded denim and keeping it up in early 2020 with their own blend of recycled cotton – originated from in-house scraps – and polyester.

 
Part of the Converse Renew line – made out of recycled plastic

However, my experience and what I see everyday led me to this point where I feel that there is a great lack of clarity with how any actor of the industry is able to claim sustainability. I understood that this misconception is obviously widespread over consumers and regrettably over a great quantity of brands as well, where designers, buyers and product developers try to navigate this smoky path, so recent and unheard of that they simply don’t have the tools nor skills to light it up.

Although, trends keep on dictating the market, demand for sustainability is still in constant growth, fueling the need of established brands to produce ever more lovable products, followed by a legion of emerging brands waving sustainability as their main concern.

But how could such a complex and technical knowledge just appear for such a new phenomenon? Since when did we really draw blueprints for conscious production? Well, it hurts to admit that we almost never approached it this way and even though the communication side is flourishing with innovative ideas,  you don’t have to dig so deep to understand that when it comes to the product, the expertise gap mentioned above is real. In this way, these « green » steps are eventually misleading our industry, romanticizing concepts like durability or circularity that need to be taken for what they are, disturbing and hard to implement next to our ordinary production processes.

Thus, there is only one question to ask ourselves : where can we find this very knowledge we miss ? Well, answers sometimes lie in places you wouldn’t expect. In order to be informed to face something so recent, we need to lean on something fairly old.

True sustainability lies in deep knowledge of materials and processes

To understand the real science of anything, for example how your laptop or smartphone is actually running, you have to zoom in to its inner components, reaching the smallest scale, understanding the electrical interactions that happen in the functioning of a processor, that will power and organize a complex network of elements and will result in your screen displaying this very article.

Well, I believe it works the same for sustainability. You have to zoom in to the smaller scale possible of your components to understand how they are made and what makes them sustainable to the core. You have to track an organic cotton canvas down to the crop that produced the fiber that is part of the yarn that was woven a certain way in a certain place. And there’s no difference for leather, foam, dye or any other component of your sneaker.

A  great example of this doctrine is none other than the role-model of all sustainable sneakers, Veja. Being fully transparent about any step of their process, the French brand is setting up some of the highest standards of honesty, unravelling every link of its supply chain, sustainable sourcing being their main concern. As if it wasn’t good enough, Veja also has its own material research section, providing and popularizing innovative alternatives. If you’re not familiar with their project, I sincerely recommend you to dig into it as it is full of engaging insights.

 
Veja – V10 Multico Nude

Unfortunately, fast fashion and outsourced production are two of the main factors that made this crucial information completely disappear from brands’ interest and thus from the makers’ mind. Where we used to be familiar with these notions, we’re now hardly capable to tell the difference between two fibers’ properties or between a knitted and a woven fabric.

Focusing largely on mass production of materials such as cotton, PET, viscose, cheap leather and faux leather, reducing costs by aiming for the most efficient production scheme, we’ve almost lost the know-how that is related to crafting textiles or transforming hides. Moreover, extremely rich materials such as hemp or abaca are today the furthest thing from finding their way to our sneakers, even though these fibers have been around for centuries, and appreciated for their fantastic natural properties. Knowledge has been forgotten.

Luckily, as we raise our awareness, an increasing number of committed initiatives are emerging, bringing this knowledge back for a wiser production. This philosophy has been adopted by Umòja, a French sneaker brand as well, that demonstrates the value of true commitment towards its environmental and social impact. Focusing not only on the importance of natural materials, but also making sure that the sourcing radius keeps a small scale, with production facilities being at its center, empowering all the crafters involved.

 
Umòja – Singou

So I think that you got now a clear view of what my standpoint is. To be able to tell if a product is properly sustainable, we have to bring back the knowledge of materials and processes that is today considered as rare but necessary, in order to understand our impact at its core. Only by doing so, we’ll have the tools to anticipate a design mistake (regarding its environmental impact) and to organize production around a conscious and durable concept.

Honesty is the key that opens the door to durable changes

Let’s start by breaking down a list of hot keywords that might trigger your senses when associated to a product.

Bioalternatives, vegan, eco-friendly, biodegradable, recyclable, recycled, organic, certifications, labels.

Each one of these words hold their own weight of good and bad. Depending on… the thoughts they are associated with.

Of course, these words are useful being part of a brand’s strategy to communicate clearly about an innovation that is worth spreading. We just have to question the purpose behind these concepts. If you’re reading this, I assume that you’re aware of the urgency in acting for good and disrupting established models. Then this is the moment when you have to engage your responsibility in what you’re choosing.

As a customer, question the fact that this pair of sneakers might be vegan but uses a PVC-coated/PET- based faux-leather, made out of harsh chemicals, that will crack and peel off in short term.

As a brand, question the fact that producing a recyclable shoe means that it should fit in common existing paths of recycling centers, or that a bioplastic-based shoe that needs to go through uncommon high-temperature industrial composting shouldn’t only be labelled « biodegradable ».

Here’s an example of vegan shoes showcasing great alternative materials, proving that some brands are working towards making recyclability and biodegradability accessible. Native Shoes recently unveiled their commercially-available concept called The Plant Shoe, a 100% plant-based and aerobically compostable shoe that has nothing to hide. This pair is the first of its kind, answering to the most popular definition of compostability, showing off the purity of its components. A groundbreaking innovation that will certainly trigger a great movement towards natural materials and zero-waste approaches.

 
Native Shoes – The Plant Shoe

We just have to focus on finding honesty or making honest changes. Find new ways to assemble soles and uppers so that they can be more easily recycled, concentrate our actions on wisely recycling other materials than PET that could still end up releasing microplastics or drifting in our oceans, commute a change towards carbon positive prime materials such as hemp..

I’m calling anybody involved in such matters to collaborate towards implementing good practices and spreading the core knowledge of sustainability.

To sum everything up, I’d like to say that to make a significant move into sustainability, we all have to find our « Why ». A purpose that drives our change in an organic way. This way only, in spite of all the labels, certifications and greenovations, we’ll not only act sustainable, we’ll be acting for sustainability.

Photographs credits :

Sustainability and Sneakers #02: A chronology – How can sustainable design coexist with style & performance at the core of the product?

By writing this article, I want to enlighten the importance of sustainability in the Sneaker Culture, from its disruptive loud start to how it has silently shaped the way we conceived shoes, as producers and as consumers.

Going through the milestones it has reached, proving that better practices are compatible with design and performance, my aim is to paint a picture of its future and to set the goals we need to achieve to spread the word to the consumer. This way only, rather than being an added value, sustainability will become a staple.

Debut and evolution of sustainability in Sneaker Culture

Today we’re able to state that sustainability is part of most of the major sneaker brands’ ethos, arguing around each’s deepness of commitment obviously.

However, this wasn’t a sure thing twenty years ago and it seems important to understand its history and progress to be able to rely on what has been done and move forward.

During the late 90’s, Nike was under fire after several social scandals have been publicly revealed. It was sadly a bad opportunity to start from there, but facing the fact that people actually cared about brand’s practices, it triggered a whole new approach on how to make products.

Following a series of measures in the early 00’s to set and reach better and greener goals, the first concrete iteration happened in 2006 when Nike gave birth to the Considered program, a commitment to « sustainability without compromising performance ». After a succession of designs that provoked astonishment in terms of aesthetics and construction, the pinnacle of this innovative thinking was reached in January 2008 with the release of the Jordan XX3.

 

Air Jordan XXIII

This shoe made the headlines – not only because it was Jordan’s memorable number that implied the necessity of an additional spark – foremost because it was the first shoe ever that would combine the highest level of performance sold by Nike with a Considered design, meaning reducing waste in the making and use « environmentally preferred » materials wherever possible. Sneaker News broke down every detail of the design and components of this shoe in a complete article. It’s important to say that its construction influenced numerous shoes and still does, regarding the design but also the materials that were chosen.

Three weeks later, Nike would go back-to-back, releasing another basketball shoe that would reinforce their will to meliorate their making process through design, with Steve Nash’s endorsed pair called the « Trash Talk ».

 

 

Once again allying Considered ethos and high performance, this shoe is a visual example of what sustainability can bring to a design as the upper is made out of manufacturing scraps assembled together as a patchwork. This technique aimed to showcase the company’s will to dig into closed-loop design and zero-waste illusion. The sole was also remarkable at the time as, besides incorporating the long time sustainable banner Nike Grind material in the outsole, the midsole would use scrap-ground foam from factory production, which is still one of today’s biggest challenges in better sole production.

Was this shoe a trigger for their next breakthrough innovation ? We’ll certainly never know for sure and somehow, the Considered program managed to silently fade away and no other style has ever been stamped with what remains now as a relic from the past, when Nike was really claiming its affiliation to sustainability.

However, four years later in 2012, the brand came up with what has now become a fundamental style across every sneaker brand : a knitted upper.

 

Pattern of the Nike Flyknit Racer

By introducing the Racer, the Swoosh presented to the world their Flyknit technology, inheriting from Considered ethos as one of its main added values is to significantly reduce the amount of waste, producing a one-piece upper directly attachable to the sole.

With everything in mind, we can tell from here that Nike literally paved the way for other major brands to shoot their own shot at merging sustainability, design and performance.

I feel like it’s important to disclose that the sustainable criteria that I’m pointing at here aren’t the most high ranked ones and might be perceived as overrated, especially taking into account the budget of the brand. Even more considering today’s trend and hunger for greenovations. Yet, put back in the context being ten years ago, regarding the scope of Nike’s audience, its production capacity, and its trendsetting power, such changes might have had a massive impact on what would come next.

Diverse solutions today have to make one tomorrow

Once far ahead in pole position of this movement, Nike has been joined by its many competitors in a race that has no finish line. It didn’t take long before Adidas unveiled its Primeknit technology the same year Flyknit came out, shortly followed by Puma and its own evoKnit. Today, knitted uppers are part of every brands’ inventory and this innovation truly became the first sustainable design to clearly interfere with Sneaker Culture. Many pairs could illustrate this fact, such as the Ultraboost Mid Kith « Aspen » endorsed by Ronnie Fieg, that became an instant classic when it was released.

 

Adidas Ultraboost Mid Kith Aspen Ronnie Fieg

In hindsight, it seems that this necessity for brands to catch up on sustainability actually triggered their development and, according to their identity, every player is now setting their focus on one piece of the puzzle.

To name a few, Reebok has set its sights on biotechs, promoting in August 2018 a pair « made from things that grow » with the re-edition of its classic NPC style. This time adorned with « Cotton and Corn », the innovation here is that the sole is partly composed of a bioplastic derived from corn

Despite the fact that bioplastics can’t properly substitute EVA and have to be part of a compound, it is overly important to introduce these materials to the public. Why ? Because once we’ll be done with our war against plastic, we’ll have to find new ways of making the same products, but better.

This could imply a great use of bioplastics that demonstrate outstanding qualities in terms of ecological footprint, technical properties and aspects. Even though they are hardly compatible in our actual recycling facilities, getting customers, as the industry itself, to be familiar with such materials will increase every parties’ knowledge and will therefore ease the job when the time will come to improve our product end-of-life management.

 

Reebok NPC Cotton and Corn

Meanwhile, Nike has chosen to follow its heritage by releasing, the same year, its Flyleather material. Made out of at least 50% recycled natural leather fibers, this material « looks like leather, feels like leather and even smells like leather ». Managing to reuse the worst material – in terms of ecological footprint – in footwear production can be depicted as a breakthrough innovation, as the process not only reduces significantly the amount of water, chemicals, and energy needed to create it, but also delivers an alternative that shows better results in terms of durability (according to abrasion testing). Furthermore, Flyleather is produced on a roll, which improves cutting efficiency and reduces losses. The Swoosh only needed a good fitting model to display this material at its best. How about using it on their « dirtiest » style ? Collaborating with A-COLD-WALL, reimagining the iconic AF1, Nike made a new statement by showcasing that sustainability could go together with neat design and hype.

 

Nike A-COLD-WALL* Air Force 1 low black

Last but not least, we can’t evoke such matters without talking about Adidas’ engagement against plastic. Recently making the headlines thanks to their own groundbreaking design, building the first ever recyclable mono-material running shoe, the Trefoil has been continuously pushing boundaries to make conception and sustainability belong together. The Futurecraft.Loop being their latest milestone, it has come from a long path where advanced technologies and creative forward thinking led to make what used to be impossible, possible. Just as its competitors, leaving the design by the wayside was never an option for the brand. Even back in 2015 when Adidas showcased the first pair of knitted upper sneakers that used a yarn made out of recycled ocean trash, in collaboration with organization Parley for the Oceans. Nobody would’ve thought that a pair with such green intentions could hit the resell market today for around $2800. What was at that time one of the greatest highlights is now becoming a staple as the 3 Stripes can brag about producing 5 million pairs of shoes containing recycled plastic waste from the oceans in 2018.

 

Adidas Ultraboost Uncaged Parley for the Oceans

Reducing the amount of waste, recycling and upcycling materials, using technologies to improve making processes, or materials themselves… No matter how they do it, the big brands have proven that it is now possible to merge good looking and efficient design with outstanding performance and sustainable criteria.

More than that, if you look between the lines, you can actually see that sustainability has been part of Sneaker Culture for years.

However, only now is it recognized as what it should be : the only source from where creativity can flow. This makes even more sense being said a few weeks after Nike published its guide to circular design, aiming to set a protocol on how each and every design choice should be considered, taking into account its social and environmental impact, its durability and its recyclability.

This reflection echoes to the subject of my previous article, questioning the importance of sharing knowledge about sustainability with both consumers and design teams. This way only will we be able to redefine how the products are made. This way only can we reach a sustainable mindset that will blend each innovation that has been discussed above to create consciously, using to the fullest the potential of every person implied in the process.

Joining forces, sharing knowledge, creating good content and spreading the word about it is mandatory if we want to operate the necessary shift of the industry. If this resonates with what you want to do, reach out to me and hopefully we can create something great for the culture & for the planet !

Photographs credits :

  • Cover picture, Nike Vapormax Random – Nike
  • Air Jordan XXIII – Flight Club
  • Nike Trash Talk – Nike
  • Pattern of a Nike Flyknit Racer – Nike
  • Adidas Ultraboost Mid Kith « Aspen » – The Sole Supplier
  • Reebok NPC Cotton and Corn – Reebok
  • Nike x A-COLD-WALL Air Force 1 – Nike
  • Adidas Ultraboost Uncaged Parley for the Oceans – Parley

Sustainability and Sneakers #01: How can collaboration and education help to solve the biggest challenges of the industry?

By writing this article, I want to share a personal standpoint on how are the design process, making process, material choices and waste management handled nowadays and emphasize the need for the industry to focus equally on the ecological challenges they all represent.

I also want to share my vision on that matter and express how, I think, we can progress if we get the right people to join forces. At the end of this script, I’m developing my thoughts on one solution that I’d love to set up. 

A matter of materials

Let’s start from the bottom and do something palpable. Supposing you’re not wearing slippers as I am right now, I invite you to take a deeper look than usual at your pair of sneakers and realize the diversity of the materials that has been used. Yet that’s only the tip of the iceberg as there is also a great variety of materials left unseen that serves for the construction of your shoes. Most of the sneakers we buy nowadays are made out of twenty to thirty different materials.

 

Deconstructed Nike AF1 Mid, left shoe. Focus on the diversity of materials and pieces.

Funny enough to share it, a left Air Force 1 was the only shoe I had available for deconstruction and doing some research, I discovered it’s actually one of Nike’s “dirtiest” style in terms of carbon footprint.

 

 

 

This then raises a whole set of questions when it comes to production realities: how many different suppliers involved for only one pair ? How much manufacturing and assembling steps ? What’s the energy cost of all these steps ? What’s the carbon footprint generated by gathering all these materials together ? How can a shoe be recycled efficiently ?

Most of the studies conducted upon that matter align on the fact that materials (making, sourcing, shaping) and assembling process are responsible for about 70% of a shoe’s environmental footprint. There’s a lot to do, right.. ?

Fortunately all these questions have answers, even several and most of the big brands are engaged in finding these. What we need though is to spread those answers to the designers and to the end-consumers to enhance this ongoing shift from the industry.

In the same studies I mentioned above, the design part, which either responds to a trend or sets a new one, is held responsible for only 1% of the environmental footprint. So what if we zoom out a little bit ? A key to this problem could actually be to give the knowledge to the persons in charge of selecting those materials.

Best case scenario, the most obvious decision would be to build a mono-material shoe. As you might know, Adidas came up with a breakthrough innovation concerning this solution and if you want to have an insanely detailed look into its perks & drawbacks, I highly recommend you to read this article on the Futurecraft Loop written by Nicoline Van Enter.

 

Adidas Futurecraft Loop, a mono-material shoe.

However this solution is still far from being implementable in our factories. We then have to keep pushing the research around innovations for tomorrow, while coming up with meaningful answers for today.

Started from the bottom, now we here.

Why not get our focus on the most used materials in the industry and concentrate our efforts on making them sustainable ? That’s the angle I want to take.

 

Seven Materials. And still the design possibilities seem limitless.

What’s important with this observation is that every single sneaker brand could make the commitment of reducing by three the number of materials they use per shoe. This would represent a design challenge that is totally attainable and that would make a substantial change towards sustainability.

We could debate now on the sustainability of these very materials. « Organic or conventional cotton ? More water or more pesticides I heard ? And about the leather, vegetable tanned is good but too slow and expensive. Should we go vegan ? Synthetic is harmful though. Bio-based leather isn’t available on the market and won’t fit any recycling process. Speaking about that, EVA is durable time wise but you can’t really recycle it and the amount of waste it creates is colossal.. »

That’s a puzzle.. And it’ll most certainly be the subject of a further article. This is why I think we need to get there all together, step by step, making significant choices with the materials we’re actually using and familiar with. Beside it, alternatives are good to implement for a lot of reasons and, depending on each brand’s context, are part of a solution.

What’s behind the design ? Or the necessity to share the knowledge

That’s a tough question we need to ask ourselves. Who would actually be able to visualize every step involved in the making process that a design is hiding ? It may sound complicated but in the end, it’s only a matter of giving the keys to the person that is responsible of it. Today’s technology allows designers to materialize their ideas via 3D sketching. It certainly can inform them on the amount of steps it takes to create materials, cut them down and assemble them. This isn’t more than a mindset that, if applied, would not only benefit global sustainability of a product, but also reframe designers’ creating process.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s easier said than done especially when you’re pointing at somebody else’s work. Yet I believe that major steps could be taken in this direction if everything comes in line towards a common goal.

As explained in the paragraph above, restricting the span of materials to be used would lead to new design challenges. Keeping this in mind, a collaboration between footwear designers, technical designers, software specialists, makers and pattern makers could lead to an effective way of maximizing the potential of each material.

Such milestones have already been reached a long time ago and I can’t help but highlight one of the dearest project to my heart that has been led by Nike : Considered.

If you never heard of this project or simply wish to have more details about its history, I recommend you read this well-written article from Sole Collector.

 

Nike considered 2K5

Even though this particular initiative is slowly aging, the subject itself is more relevant than ever and brands know about it. Some of them, such as Timberland, are putting some effort in this very direction by gathering wavy designers in their own factory, so that their creative flow can merge with actual production realities. This initiative is called Construct :10061, which intend to rethink the classic Timbs, referenced as the 10061. This project is setting an example of how collaboration and education can lead the biggest players in the Sneaker Game to a significant change in how shoes need to be made.

 

Construct:10061, initiative from Timberland. Designers working in the brand’s factory based in Dominican Republic.

I believe in the potential of such partnerships as it has the power of shedding a light on the making process, unravelling to the world its importance and how interesting it is. Moreover, such initiatives have never been this relevant since everybody is now involved in the run for transparency. This is truly what I want to set up and work on : relevant collaborations that will unleash every makers’ potential and lead to put sustainability at the core of the product, not the core of a marketing campaign.

If you feel this is a track you’d like to follow, don’t hesitate to share your thoughts with me and hopefully we can create something great for the culture & the planet.

Photographs & Charts credits :

  • Photograph; Cover picture, Jeff Staple designing the Wavy Pigeon – shot by Romane Poquet
  • Photograph; Deconstructed Nike AF1 Mid, left shoe – shot by Mathieu Risacher, Sneaker Sustainability Consultant
  • Chart; Carbon footprint by footwear style – Nike, p.22 , FY16/17 Sustainable Business Report    NIKE, Inc.
  • Photograph; Adidas Futurecraft Loop – Adidas
  • Chart; Most common materials used in footwear production – Mathieu Risacher, Sneaker Sustainability Consultant
  • Photograph; Nike Considered 2K5 – Sole Collector
  • Photograph; Gathering of designers in a footwear factory – Construct:10061, Timberland