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
Mathieu Risacher

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

Join the conversation

  • Rick Olivarez - 2 months ago

    i’ll take up the challenge…. I can 3d print shoes with a single material.

    • Mathieu Risacher - 2 months ago

      Let’s have a talk then, I’m sending you a message right away 🙂