Walking the Sustainability Road

The innovation in the sustainable footwear industry has undergone a lot of changes over these years and the current trends speak for casual sneakers and canvas shoes, which are made with recycled rubber soles, upcycled products and sustainable or eco-friendly materials

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Sustainability is a buzzword which has stormed the fashion industry. The growing awareness around sustainable fashion is not only restricted to apparel but has made its way into footwear as well.


The vogue is such that the concept has forayed into one of India's newest airline's uniforms. Recently, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala-backed Akasa Air unveiled its crew's sustainable uniform which won accolades from netizens.

The innovation in the sustainable footwear industry has undergone a lot of changes over these years and the current trends speak for casual sneakers and canvas shoes. These are made with recycled rubber soles, upcycled products and sustainable or eco-friendly materials which are aligned with the consumers' philosophy.

Urgent intervention

About 300 million pairs of shoes are thrown out each year, which may take hundreds of years to completely decompose in a landfill. According to reports, Ethylene-vinyl acetate, found in most sneakers as the shock-absorbing component, is believed to take more than 1,000 years to break down. Moreover, by virtue of the way it is assembled, shoes are fairly difficult to recycle.

Many factors influence the environmental impact of a product. Virgin plastic, rubber and petroleum were the main constituents of shoes for most companies until recently. These materials have high carbon footprints and hence companies started exploring alternatives.

Innovation gigs

PUMA, a German multinational corporation manufacturing athletic and casual footwear, is trying to find new ways to reduce environmental footprint as part of its Forever Better sustainability strategy.

In 2021, the company announced a project, which finds solutions for the afterlife of products. The RE: SUEDE category is the company's experimental version of the iconic suede sneaker which was created using better sustainable materials. "As many as 500 participants have been selected to wear the shoes for half-a-year before sending them back to PUMA. Together with Dutch waste management specialist Ortessa, we will test if the shoes can biodegrade in a controlled setting to create compost," said Stefan Seidel, senior head of corporate sustainability, PUMA.

"We want to make sure that by 2025, 90 per cent of our products contain more sustainable materials and components. For footwear that means at least one main component will be made from more sustainable sources, such as leather from tanneries that have received a Leather Working Group medal rating or recycled sources such as recycled polyester, leather or rubber," Seidel added.

The RE:SUEDE range is made with materials such as zeology tanned suede, biodegradable TPE and hemp fibers. Compared to other biodegradable materials that were evaluated by PUMA, these materials ensure better comfort.

The biodegradable footwear line should be produced with an eye on creating the least possible damage to the environment. Nike, the American multinational corporation engaged in the manufacturing of footwear and apparel, is a major believer in sustainable practices.

"Since 2008, all Nike air soles are composed of at least 50 per cent recycled manufacturing waste. As of 2020, all of Nike's AirMI facilities in North America are powered by 100 per cent renewable wind energy. We reuse more than 90 per cent of the waste from materials used for our air soles to make new, innovative cushioning systems. Shoes labeled 'sustainable materials' are made from at least 20 per cent recycled content by weight," quoted the official Nike website.

In 2015, Adidas partnered with the environmental organization Parley for the Oceans. They teamed up to help end plastic waste through the power of sport. "Through our collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, we want to inspire and mobilize an entire generation to help shape the future of our planet. We are rethinking the standard materials we use and expanding our portfolio to include recycled and natural materials as well as exploring new more sustainable material innovations," quoted Adidas in its website.

Shaping the future

By 2024, Adidas aims to replace virgin polyester with recycled polyester, wherever possible. "We are redesigning how we work to bring innovations and services to keep products in play for longer, such as Made to be Remade. Through this, products will be remade and not thrown away. You wear it down and return it."

Reebok has raised the bar to take the idea of sustainability ahead. The brand believes that it is in the business to inspire positive changes with a trailblazing innovation of its plant-based performance running shoe.

The Forever Floatride GROW is an update of Reebok's award-winning Forever Floatride Energy shoe. The shoe is composed of four key ingredients: an upper made primarily of eucalyptus, algae sockliner and natural rubber outsole and the hero of the plant-based mission, a midsole composed of castor beans.

"The earth is a runner's arena, and we have a responsibility to help detox the world for the athletes who run in it," said Matt O'Toole, Reebok Brand president in a report. Reebok plans to ensure that every single one of their products are sustainable by 2030.

The younger consumers are more aware about the environmental impact of their choices. Sustainability has been an important topic for PUMA ever since it first introduced a code of conduct for suppliers in 1993. "In the past five years, consumers have become more aware about sustainability, especially the younger generation," added Seidel of PUMA.

According to a report by Startview Research, the sustainable footwear market is likely to witness a CAGR of 5.8 per cent from 2020 to 2025. In terms of regions, Asia-Pacific is estimated to be the largest as well as the fastest-growing sustainable footwear market during the forecast period, with China and India being the major growth propellers of the region.