Apr 29, 2024
by Karl Smith
Earth-Friendlier Footwear Still Isn’t Going Far Enough
by Karl Smith
Apr 29, 2024

When it comes to footwear, it’s fair to say that we’re evolving. Things are changing and, in general, they’re changing for the better. The thing about evolution, though, is that it isn’t a high-speed process – by definition it takes time, even on a micro scale.

And that’s fine; progress is still progress, after all, and to make the big leaps requires research, development, trial and error. That is to say, there’s no point in making massive change if that change ends up failing for lack of preparation. At best that puts us back at square one, and at worst it takes us even further back, creating friction and resistance to future progressive ideas.

But what if that work has already been done? What if the speed never changes even when the concepts are tried, tested, and proven to work? What if progress isn’t just slow, but actively being held back by a lack of commitment and an unwillingness to shake up the status quo?

Well, that’s exactly the situation we find ourselves in now: a place where we know that Earth-friendlier footwear is not only possible but, by and large, also preferable.

In terms of the latter, we know this is true not only from an environmental standpoint, but also – with the benefit of market research – we know this is to be true from a consumer point of view as well. In terms of the former, we’ve seen shoes produced without plastics, with next-generation materials, and with design elements which buck aesthetic trends in favor of sustainable credentials. We’ve seen the UNLESS DEGENERATE sneaker made with Natural Fiber Welding’s various material technologies, we’ve seen the modular and fully-recyclable Nike ISPA Link and CAMPER ROKU, and – more than that – we’ve seen these shoes, pushing the boundaries of footwear as we know it and taking huge risks to do so, succeed beyond expectation.

Why, then, are the majority of purportedly Earth-friendlier footwear releases still such a disappointment?

Why are big-name brands with the infrastructure and the built-in consumer base and the clout to bring about real, tangible change, still taking baby steps when others are making strides? Why is Nike’s cutting-edge sustainable technology relegated to a sub-brand? Why would adidas create a mycelium-based sneaker and limit it to only 200 pairs? Why is Dr. Martens pushing a new range of upcycled leather boots while its “vegan” material languishes in a state of plastic stasis?

At best it feels like one missed opportunity after another. At worst it feels deliberately regressive, trading on the eco points of small concessions to sustainability, all the while steering clear of anyhting like big change.

Take the recent PUMA RE:SUEDE release, for example. Back in 2021, the German sportswear company created a somewhat Earth-friendlier version of its classic suede sneaker. To do this, PUMA used the lower-impact leather tanning solution created by Zeology and replaced other elements with materials like hemp and TPE. The shoe wasn’t vegan – which was an “interesting” choice considering the brand was committing to progressive alternatives in other elements of the shoe – but it was a step up from its predecessor. And, most impressively of all, the sneaker was compostable under the right conditions.

All of which looked positive but came with the caveat of being a pilot scheme with no commercial release date. Now, however, PUMA has taken that trial to the next level – releasing 500 pairs of the RE:SUEDE 2.0 for general sale, proving that they consider the shoe strong enough to market.

Again – great. But it does, once again, come with a couple of “however” points that need to be addressed.

First and foremost, 500 pairs is not a lot – especially for a brand on PUMA’s scale, which produces over 35 million pairs of shoes every year. In fact, it’s actually the same number of sneakers used in the trial program, so it’s hard not to think they could have done better (or gone bigger) here.

Secondly, the RE:SUEDE 2.0 was released for Earth Day – which, you know, makes sense thematically but also runs counter to the concept of cutting back and lessening impact. Again, it’s hard not to think PUMA could have saved this back and thrown its own weight behind the shoe, rather than riding on Earth Day’s PR coattails.

Still, progress is progress – and this is progress. That a brand on PUMA’s level is releasing even 500 pairs of circular sneakers to a mass-market audience (albeit without the potential to actually service the mass market) is a very big deal for the footwear industry.

And, of course, PUMA isn’t alone in this.

Released earlier this month, the ASICS NIMBUS MIRAI made grand promises of a circular revolution – but did it deliver?

Based in Kobe, Japan, ASICS has built a solid reputation over the years for high-quality and high-performance footwear; they’re not always the most hyped sneaker on the market, but an ASICS model is more or less guaranteed to do the business. What has historically been less guaranteed, however, is the brand’s commitment to sustainability – frequently failing to hit the Earth-friendlier mark, even when that’s what it seemed to be aiming for. Until last year, that is, when the Japanese label gave us the GEL-LYTE III CM 1.95 – the lightest CO2e emitting sneaker currently on the market.

And so, with the release of the NIMBUS MIRAI, ASICS looked set to continue carving out that new, planet-forward reputation. Featuring an FF BLAST PLUS ECO midsole, crafted from 24% renewable materials like leftovers from sugarcane, the MIRAI is made with an easily-detachable upper, crafted from a single uniform material, the designed to be easily recyclable up to 87.3%.

“These minuscule gestures, which are themselves positive, are not progress at all in context of the bigger picture. Without more emphatic commitment they mean nothing; without scaling back in other areas and scaling up in the right places, it doesn’t matter if a brand is moving forward in some small way – the push and pull just ends up leaving things stuck in exactly the same place.”

All of which sounds great on paper. Paper, however, isn’t the problem – it’s plastic. More specifically, it’s the virgin polyester which constitutes that “uniform material.” There’s another issue here, too, in that the impressive recyclability percentage assumes a return to the brand and processing under its own strict conditions – which, realistically, most pairs of the MIRAI just won’t be.

What we’re left with, then, is another bold idea from the Kobe brand which, in reality, falls a little flat – billed as a new chapter in circular design, the MIRAI ends up being a mostly plastic sneaker with the capability to be recycled. Basically, MIRAI may mean “future” in Japanese, but – unfortunately – this is nothing new at all. But still, progress is progress, right?

Well, maybe, but asking that question each and every time a new “Earth-friendlier” sneaker is released is starting to get a little old.

More than that, in fact, it’s starting to feel like something more insidious – something like sleight of hand; a diversionary tactic to keep conscious consumers semi-satisfied while, off stage, brands are still hammering high-impact production in every other aspect of their output.

These minuscule gestures, which are themselves positive, are not progress at all in context of the bigger picture. Without more emphatic commitment they mean nothing; without scaling back in other areas and scaling up in the right places, it doesn’t matter if a brand is moving forward in some small way – the push and pull just ends up leaving things stuck in exactly the same place.

In part, of course, this is because the status quo is the safe choice for brands – especially for big brands with shareholders to appease and public reports on their finances widely available. But how safe is it really? For how long can treading water – going just about far enough to please just enough people without going so far as to frighten the markets – reasonably work as a strategy?

Courtesy of Allbirds, it looks like we’re about to find out: a former unicorn of the Earth-friendlier footwear movement, the San Francisco footwear brand is now suffering such a sustained crash in its share price as to be warned of non-compliance by the NASDAQ exchange.

Reading this now you might well ask how that’s relevant – whether, more than anything, this is further proof that pushing too hard and too fast for progress can’t be profitable. You might ask whether other Earth-friendlier footwear brands ought to see this as a warning sign – whether, rather than the ingrained machinations of the high-impact footwear industry at large, it’s the sustainable sneaker movement which ought to be worried.

The answer, though, is probably not. In fact, the truth is we should be asking a different question altogether. We should be asking whether we can really be surprised that Allbirds ended up here at all.

You see, while some reports suggest that the label is constrained by its B-CORP status, unable to turn a decent profit because of its commitment to those lofty ideals, the truth is that Allbirds as a brand has never really worked. The shoes are “sustainable,” but not “vegan,” never really managing to satisfy anyone, and – from a design point – there’s never been anything aesthetically groundbreaking brought to the table.

Yes, Allbirds has made some impressive strides in shifting the dial on just how Earth-forward footwear can be – last year’s moonshot sneaker is testament to that. But, at the same time, there’s the pressing question of who this progress is for; not just who’s buying into it, but, in the end, who’s actually buying it.

At the end of the day, if this is any kind of tipping point for sustainable footwear, it may even be a positive one: these are questions every brand should be asking before it’s too late, and this news is proof that inaction isn’t neutral – not ethically and not financially either.

Earth-friendlier footwear still isn’t going far enough. But, with brands now paying the price as well as the Earth, that may well be about to change. It’s about time.