Although some people do not yet see the benefits of green footwear manufacturing, the rest of us do our part to make better choices for our world. Green manufacturing is a complex topic, and there are no easy answers. Today we will cover just a few points in an evolving subject that is nevertheless pressing.
When it comes to the shoemaking process, there are two difficulties to overcome. The first is technological. How can we produce eco-friendly products that are as good as, if not better, non-eco-friendly products? And, of course, how do we accomplish this at an affordable price? Science and good old human ingenuity are making great strides along this path. More on this later.
The second difficulty in overcoming challenges is simply human nature. Although no one likes to admit it, people don’t like change. So, for thousands of years, we’ve been making shoes from animal skins, and we’ve become, in a way, attached to them – without much thought given to the animals to which they were originally attached. This topic bears some true research to understand the pros and cons of every material option available, and their impact on people and the planet.
Some of us see change as worth it when considering environmental issues like the potential use of toxic chemicals used to tan leather and the ethical issues of using animal skins. Footwear manufacturers are tasked with the responsibility to make sure they are doing their homework when selecting materials to understand the processing of those materials, their life use and the end of use implications.
Much of our attention is dominated by challenges like global warming and the carbon footprint created by turning natural resources into energy. These are enormous and overwhelming, so it’s easy to think, what difference will it make when buying shoes?
According to the United States International Trade Commission, footwear imported to the United States in 2020 amounted to $20.7 billion. And this was down $6.7 billion from 2019 because of the pandemic and a disrupted supply chain.
However, for 2023, the total is expected to go back up. This footwear is made outside of the U.S., in countries like China and Vietnam where shoe factory working conditions are less regulated. Although approximately 96 to 99 percent of the total U.S. footwear market is imported, a few companies like COMUNITYmade make high-quality hand-crafted shoes locally.
Although daunting, as an individual, you can make a difference, and you don’t have to give up high quality or say no to fast fashion. In fact, some of the most highly prized shoe styles available today use full grain leathers, vegan materials, and recycled materials made from plastic water bottles.
Awareness – It might not yet be #1 on Tik Tok, but the more people learn about sustainably made footwear, the more popular it becomes. And what consumers are interested in is a powerful incentive for manufacturers and retailers to stay ahead of customer demands. So today, brands that respond more quickly to consumer preferences are rising to the top.
Good deeds inspire others – The more consumers show interest, the more brands respond. The more brands step into the market, the greater the competition to source new eco-friendly materials. More volume brings lower prices, and so on. The rest is economics 101.
There is a lot of talk about the sustainability of leather and what the alternatives might be. Consider that true full grain leather is a bi-product of the food industry and when treated with care responsibly, it is one of THE best materials on the planet for shoes. When treated properly without the use of toxic chemicals, high quality leather molds to the foot, lasts for years to come and is bio-degradable. In the end, full grain leather may be more sustainable than the alternatives that may break down during wear or not biodegrade.
There are those who prefer alternatives to animal leathers however for various reasons. Some of these materials have been around forever, and some result from the latest in materials science and engineering.
Plant-based materials – There have been some interesting developments in the area of plant based materials that look like leather. They are bio-engineered and can be used in a variety of applications in fashion.
Cotton and Hemp – These have been harvested for tens of thousands of years. They are perfect for summer. Breathable, soft, and long-lasting, uppers made of cotton or hemp can be dyed and designed with more colors than you can imagine. Growing cotton does consume a lot of water, so natural fibers made of hemp and bamboo are taking over.
PU/Polyurethane – Three cheers for the science nerds – polyurethanes are a class of biodegradable polymers, and when processed during recycling, there can be used in tissue regeneration for bone grafts and implants. For shoe designers and engineers, polyurethanes have opened up infinite new applications for shoes in just about every category and style you can think of.
Plastic shopping bags, bottles, and shoes – Plastic shopping bags Single-use plastic bottles are a major component of the pollution we see in our oceans. Sea life often ingests these plastic items by accident, and many perish because of it. Luckily, this type of plastic can be repurposed into a tough yet comfortable material for shoe uppers. Even better, many of these shoes can be thrown into the washing machine and air dried. Who knew buying sustainably produced shoes could improve the world’s air quality by reducing stinky slip-on?!
Cork insoles can be beautiful – Contrary to popular belief, not all cork goes into ugly sandals with straps. (No judgment here.) Cork is a natural product that has been sustainably sourced from the bark of cork trees for thousands of years. As a result, it provides an almost unmatched level of comfort in an extremely lightweight and waterproof form.
The Mayor, as it is known, is proof that the latest in footwear fashion can be sustainably produced. Working in collaboration with the people at COMUNITYmade in Los Angeles, the fine craftspeople at Pingree in Detroit make a wildly popular urban utility sneaker built to last. The Mayor combines the comfort of a sneaker and the styling of a boot, using premium, upcycled leathers from the automotive industry in Detroit model around proprietary shoe-lasts for the perfect fit.
At COMUNITYmade, we’re very proud of our people and our environmentally responsible methods. We consider ourselves a community of designers and craftspeople who strive to create the highest quality, custom-made shoes. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, please visit us. We’d love to show you around.
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