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 :

Mathieu Risacher

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

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