May 13, 2024
by Karl Smith
Reshaping The Future of Footwear: Collaboration, Innovation, Circularity, and Creating Lasting Change
by Karl Smith
May 13, 2024

The future is always changing. In fact, in a sense, it doesn’t even really exist – it’s a reflection of where we are at any given moment and a projection of where we, collectively, want to be.

This is true in a general social and cultural sense, and it’s true – in a much more specific way – when it comes to the intricacies of the fashion and footwear industries. Particularly in terms of what, broadly speaking, we call “sustainability.”

The “future” of those industries is not by any means written; it is, however, taking shape. Or, rather, it is being shaped, crafted by the work of innovators and activists; by people and organizations with their own distinct ideas of what that future ought to look like – but also with a shared (if somewhat loose) progressive vision – based on their actions in the here and now.

This might sound conceptual, but it’s actually entirely tangible; material, in fact, rooted in the granular genetic makeup of products, rather than vaguely tethered to grand, insubstantial ideas.

When we talk about “Reshaping the Future of Footwear,” then – as we often do here, and as FVV co-founder Allen Zelden will be doing at the Rethinking Materials summit in London this week – we are not actually talking about some distant utopia where everything will simply be better and kinder and greener and more sustainable, but about how the needle is being moved at this very second.

What that means is asking questions – sometimes difficult questions – of those who are leading that change. It means probing on expectation versus reality, about the necessity of compromise and the value of what might be perceived as small wins, about the big picture and the micro-advances, and about just how possible it is to change a system that not only profits but thrives on the status quo.

At the summit in London, we have convened a group of people we consider capable of answering those questions. Luke Haverhals, CEO and Founder of Natural Fiber Welding; Dr. Carmen Hijosa, Chief Creative and Innovation Officer & Founder of Ananas Anam; Solene Roure, Creative Director & Co-Founder of Circle Sportswear; and Amrit Shoker, Head of Marketing at Zellerfeld.

Together, these somewhat disparate figures, representing various ways forward and through our current crises – from plant-based and plastic-free material solutions to lower-impact production methods – form something like a coherent whole when it comes to piecing together a possible future.

To that end, ahead of the summit, we thought it essential to ask some of these questions publicly – to give a broader forum to their ideas and convictions, and to allow room for a wider conversation to continue.

After all, the future belongs to all of us.

Working with big brands poses a moral dilemma; they are your best bet at reaching a wider audience and for working at scale, but their values will never align with yours. Beyond whatever project you’re working on together, in every other aspect of their work, they will be working against everything you stand for. How do you reconcile that?

Luke Haverhals: Anyone that is using NFW’s regenerative, decarbonized, naturally circular materials platform is, in my opinion, trying to make the world a better place. If you care about people and the planet, then we are probably going to be collaborative friends – even if we don’t have to agree on absolutely everything. (Just be ready to answer to the hard technical truth with scientifically competent discussion. The problems humanity faces are too important and too complex to be off base with our technical solutions.)
Specifically to the question – How do you reconcile (others’ actions and choices)? – I would simply say that everyone has their own conscious, their families, their friends, et cetera, to answer to. I do not really consider anyone on the planet as ‘answerable to me’. Instead, I wake up every morning answerable to being consistent with my own actions and beliefs – and I have professionally chosen to energetically pursue NFW’s PLANTS NOT PLASTIC™ materials platform because I love my wife, I love my children and think this choice is the right thing that I have been gifted to do for them and our neighbors around the world.
People matter. And if people matter, then the planet we all live on must matter as well. That is why NFW’s mission is so important at this moment in history.

NFW’s clean, regenerative materials and our efficient scaling model are the system change that people and planet need. Of course, NFW is working within constraints and we need to prioritize within our resources. Yes, NFW is working with many of the biggest brands in the world, but it is also true that we are working with small and medium brands as well.

Right now NFW’s pipeline has over 3,000 brands who have organically reached out to us. Over 3,000! We are working as fast and hard as we can with investor groups to grow our team and make the right scaling and priority decisions on who we can focus on in this moment – and so that we can grow into the next moment.

Carmen Hijosa: At Ananas Anam we are happy to work with every brand that is on a journey to become more sustainable and bring positive impact to people’s lives and our planet – be it big or small; the bigger the brand the more impact will have on our product’s value chain, our farming communities and the environment.
We try to see the big picture, understanding both sides’ pros and cons, and how, together the impact can greater. Also, as a small company, to access volume orders, is critical as it helps us create economies of scale and reach a wider audience. We always strive to implement a co-branding and or co- launching strategy, so that our voice and transparency is heard by the end consumer.
We also believe that however small the social and ecological impact might be, regardless of how many people the message will reach, it counts. It also counts that we bring to the end consumer a choice and a clear and transparent narrative as to why our product is important and of its positive impact on people and planet.    

Solene Roure: This is a BIG subject. I know a lot of designers and developers that are struggling to align their personal values with the values of their employer (talking about sports and fashion brands). The irony, is that I started at the biggest sports brand in the world, Nike, and that’s where I learned about the move to sustainable product.

I got introduced in 2005 to the Nike Considered project alongside some of the most legendary designers in the field. A few years later, I got a job at Puma, in London, and at the time the company’s mission was to be “the most sustainable lifestyle brand in the world”. However, in both companies, the will was there but the means and support was not. There was pressure to be sustainable, but there was not much education and there was a failure to implement processes.

The focus was to create new products, faster, with better margins. And at the time I understood: it’s business! That is until I found how much product was created, and that – if it didn’t sell – it was discarded

So I decided to work with brands that worked more responsibly, with higher quality and manufacturing standards. I worked at luxury brands in France and Italy, “sustainability” wasn’t a term that was commonly used is such places. I found solace in the fact that, in Europe, the employees and workers were well treated, and the brands supported higher-end and artisanal product. That being said, there are many “low hanging fruits” that the luxury companies could start “harvesting” to make their products less harmful to the planet. 

I thought that if I was promoted to a higher level working with brands I would be able to have more of a voice or an impact; I became a creative director, I started by asking to change small things, like for example to stop using real fur on sneakers, which seemed like an easy thing. But the brand would still release neon yellow rabbit fur sneakers without letting me know. And basically every little thing I was trying to change was not working.

So honestly, I was at a loss, I was burnt-out and disillusioned with the industry. In 2019, I got a call from Romain Trebuil to join a circular running start-up. At first, I was “only” creative director, but I noticed that if I wanted to have real impact, I had to become a co-founder and get involved in the business in a deeper way. I wasn’t able to hide in the design side of the industry anymore; I had to get my hands dirty, take risks and take responsibility. We had to create a whole apparel brand from scratch to sustain us until we were ready to launch a truly innovative product: a performance running shoe made of 75% natural material, in Europe, with an end-of-life solution. A Real game changer.

So to answer your question: To reconcile my moral dilemma, I had to refocus my career as a successful freelance designer, working for some of the most prestigious brands in the world.  I had to go back to square one, and create a whole brand with a very small team, to prove that product can be done in a better way and that it can look good too. The secret to launching a product like the SuperNatural Runner,  is to onboard suppliers, or as I call them “frontliners” (on this quest to sustainable production) by collaborating on a “cool” project to test new technology. A case study, they will be able to attract bigger brands (who can produce bigger quantities than us).

Everyone involved is taking a huge risk and the only reward we have for sure is knowledge. But, in the end, I think the reward will be bigger than that.

Now, I’m aware that not everyone is ready to do what I did, and that’s where it gets tricky.  In the transition we are living through, everyone has to get out of their comfort zone, I think if you work for a company that does not align with your values, you need to get organised, suggest projects, campaign for budgets and time. Push leadership to invest in being better. And if you are in leadership, it’s time to push investors to do the right thing. In short it’s time to speak up.

Unfortunately, things are going to change for the better if we don’t change processes.

On the topic of brands, it feels like materials haven’t quite cracked the culture question yet; when it comes to sneakerheads, we’re still only preaching to the converted – giving conscious consumers conscious options – but haven’t yet found a way to connect to the wider audience. Why should your average sneakerhead, who prizes design and narrative and legacy (and yes, clout) buy a next-gen sneaker instead of whatever new Air Max or Jordan or Samba is being released? What’s their incentive?

Luke Haverhals: Do you love someone? Anyone? If you do, truly love someone, you will care about their health.
Do you want anyone you love to have a heart attack or a stroke from nano and microplastics in their blood?

Do you want someone you love to have their cancer metastasize and proliferate due to cancer cells latching onto the nano and microplastics in their body?

Would you willing do something that causes someone you love to struggle with fertility?
It seems to me that any human is “education” and “awareness” away from having all of the incentive that they need. 
Science is now exploding with warning signs about shoes, clothes, homes, cars and offices that are exposing people you love to toxic nano and microplastic pollution. There is no recycling our way out of this type of problem, by the way. As more people are educated, I think more people will demand change…and NFW is scaling the change that fits human materials economies back into the circle of life.

Carmen Hijosa: If I had a clear answer, we would have cracked it already! Which is not the case.
It is true that new, sustainable materials have not broken through the narrative, legacy, and perceived added value in that vast market footwear segment which is the sneaker world. Indeed the ‘converted’ are a minority today.
I believe the fundamental reason for this is that there are not enough ‘super role models’ to bring about another narrative – the narrative of the need to see further than what is perceived as ‘cool’ and bring about an understanding and clarity on where materials come from, how they are made and the implications that desired sneaker has on the environment and the countless workers that made it.
The profound shift will come from education, and having to go against the vast financial rewards that today this market brings to the brands and brand ambassadors.  A hard one to crack.
Anyone out there that would like to join and collaborate on this challenge? We would love it!

Solene Roure: Right now, the only incentive sneakerheads have is their conscience. And the cycle of hype doesn’t really reward people for being a good thoughtful person. That’s not attractive. And sustainable brands are not attractive, they are downers, they are the adults in the room. No one wants to party with the sustainable brands.

I’m on a mission to prove that sustainable products can look good; that it can be exciting! It’s harder work but it’s definitely possible. So don’t be afraid to make better-looking product.

Sustainable behaviours and actions should be rewarded by governments, by employers, by social media companies. It should be rebranded as something fun, positive and action for growth.

We need great marketers to get involved, and I think there should be more grants towards that.

Celebrities and influencers have the chance to have a meaningful impact by leading and being examples of responsible behaviour. It’s great PR for them too. Powerful influencers can ask the brands they work with to do better, and they can lead people towards better choices. You have people like Coldplay and Billie Eillish, or Leonardo DiCaprio, but so much more can be done! I think people like Pharell have an opportunity at their fingertips to push for sustainability at the highest level, what is stopping him and his teams? I’m really curious.

I wonder if there is fear to tackle sustainability, because it’s harder work, and if you aren’t perfect you get attacked. Let’s remember that we need everyone to be more sustainable, and not just a few people to be “perfect”.

Iconic brands have to go back to their roots of being daring. Marketing teams are often disconnected from the product teams. Magic happens when they are aligned. A lot of the big brands struggle with design decisions and finding the balance between daring product, connected to youth culture, and safe commercial product. Sustainability should lead innovation. Creative marketing should support this.

In your mind, what does the Future of Footwear look like in, say, in five years from now? Will we be looking at a totally different landscape?

Luke Haverhals: In five years NFW will be making all-natural shoes that can safely return to the earth – using the largest-scale and most beneficial circular economy model ever invented: nature. 

NFW will be the innovation engine and putting these shoes into markets globally with 100’s if not 1000’s of brands. We will be using some incredibly sophisticated automation that enables people to focus on the creative (design & story) enterprise while robotic and machines take care of the busy work at low cost and high quality.

All of this will be ‘gold standard’ sustainability undertaken with transparency and with great care to live & exist within nature’s circle of life.

Carmen Hijosa: I don’t believe five years is enough to change today’s footwear landscape. I can say that we should be planting the seeds now for what should be the next stage.

As consumers, it will take a profound change in thinking, and decision making, which hopefully will be guided by an educational change in values and how we take onto ourselves our personal responsibilities as part of the bigger societal and environmental changes that will accelerate.

When it comes to manufacturing, value chains need to be transformed into more transparent and efficient systems. Possibly the more automated manufacturing will bring profound social issues that will need to be dealt with. Design for disassembly needs to be an intrinsic part of any footwear development, and waste management needs to be included from the start of any new footwear.

Solene Roure: I don’t think five years is enough for a totally different landscape, but of course we will see evolution.

We will see more and more automation in production. The popularity of sneakers type footwear is not slowing down, so I expect to see more moulded production, robotic weaving, new injection processes etc…That will affect the aesthetic of future products. That’s exciting and less labour intensive.

During the last 5 years we saw the rise of the photoshop designer followed by the AI designer. The disconnect between digital and the realities of making products are further apart than ever.  It’s easy to make a design rendering, but making that render a reality is a whole other world. So that’s not good for sustainable innovation, I’m still waiting to see how this trend evolves. I think we are continuing to go towards a world where tastemakers/celebrities will be “drawing” product, but there will be a need for technical designers to make this a reality, probably in the shadows, like a ghost writer.

I am of course curious about the progress of 3d printing and what companies like Zellerfeld are doing. I got to try on their early print outs. It’s super exciting. Because one material product is a very good candidate for circularity. I can’t wait for a 3D printed running shoe.

I also think biodegradable shoes will be much more present, thanks to brands like Purified, but with more daring designs. That’s super exciting.