Do you know how many parts make up your favorite sneakers? You might be surprised to learn that the average pair of Nikes typically has 23 individual parts. From the laces and tongue to midsole and eyelets, there’s much more to sneakers than meets the eye. When you consider that 24.3 billion pairs of shoes were manufactured in 2018, according to World Footwear, all those parts really add up. The scale of footwears impact on the environment — from raw materials to end-of-life — can’t be downplayed.
Unlike the fashion industry, the footwear market has received less attention when it comes to sustainability and ethics in recent years. Fast fashion brands tend to receive the most scrutiny for the rapid rate of production and consumption, while footwear tends to have a higher price tag and longer use-phase, therefore evading the criticism of conscious consumers, legislators, and activists. Sports shoes, in particular, are made of a wide variety of materials, from leather to plastics like Polyurethane (PU) or Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA, which makes rubber soles) and many more – each with their own complex manufacturing process, supply chains, and environmental concerns.
These materials typically have a high environmental impact, created using vast amounts of toxic chemicals, dyes, and water. It’s in the production of all these pieces that footwear creates a huge carbon footprint – making a pair of sneakers generates around 13 kg of carbon emissions, according to MIT.
“THE WORK OF MEASURING IS DIFFICULT FOR FOOTWEAR AS A PRODUCT DUE TO DOZENS OF MATERIALS AND INDUSTRIAL MANUFACTURING PROCESSES”
Tracing the supply chain of your trainers is a complex task. “The work of measuring is difficult for footwear as a product due to dozens of materials and industrial manufacturing processes,” said the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America in a 2021 report. “It isn’t like apparel where you have only a few materials sewn together, and therefore should not have similar expectations or be judged in the same way.”
For most brands, it starts with mapping their supply chain. However, simply mapping countries and regions isn’t enough anymore. Businesses must have granular knowledge of the individual factories and suppliers operating in their network in order to identify potential risks and implement effective, targeted and measurable ESG strategies. Incoming legislation means that failure to track, monitor and report your impact could result in hefty fines for businesses. Now it the time to take control of your supply chain to future proof your footwear business.
There are two common methods for identifying the sustainability attributes of a trainer: component-based content calculation and weight-based material content calculation.
Component-based content calculation
Since the introduction of the Labelling of Footwear Components Directive in 1994, all footwear products have been required to identify the main materials used in each component of the shoe – this can usually be found printed on its inner lining. Based on legislation around component-based content calculation, a brand can label a shoe as “sustainable” if even a small part is made from an environmentally friendly material.
This method is problematic and inaccurate. It presents a fraction of the true story to the consumer, effectively greenwashing consumers with oversimplified environmental claims. This method relies on assumptions and generalized data about the impact of materials, taking a top-down approach to understanding the impact of a shoe.
Companies such as Zalando currently require brand partners to demonstrate at least one sustainability attribute in the main components of a shoe, however they're in the process of phasing out component-based content calculation in 2022, favoring the more accurate weight-based content calculation method.
Weight-based material content calculation
Weight based calculations is a way of ensuring that you can account for the specific amount of materials — whether they’re sustainable, non-sustainable, or certified — that make up a product. This enables comparisons across product types and brands. For example, a retailer working with 5 different footwear brands would be able to calculate the quantity of a particular material, like recycled polyester, used across all of these brands through weight-based calculations.
Standardising this information enables comparison across the industry, helping retailers and brands to chart their sustainability baseline and progress through reliable data stored on blockchain. This method is considered a far more accurate way to calculate a shoe’s impact. When the product arrives on the market, a brand will already have the data to prove its sustainability credentials.
The future of sustainability in the sportswear industry is through real-time traceability. Now is the time for ambitious innovation and bold investment in traceability to keep on top of regulatory compliance and technological shifts that are transforming the industry as we know it. For complex products like trainers, weight-based material calculations are the most effective way to collect data, prove sustainability claims, and make a positive contribution to the sportswear market.