The Sustainable Future of Footwear

Salomon announces recyclable running shoe and sustainability program
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Burning through a pair of sneakers feels like somewhat of a victory. When the rubber starts to wear down and the upper begins to fray, that typically means you put in hundreds of miles, gym sessions, and some damn-hard work. But did you ever think about what actually happens when you get rid of those trophy shoes? The short explanation: They probably go to a landfill. Enter the need for sustainable footwear.

The longer answer: Not only does tossing your footwear affect the earth, but even just making that pair of shoes can do some serious damage to our environment. When you wear them out, you likely buy another. (Of course, you probably own multiple pairs of shoes specifically for running, training, and lifestyle.)

To put it into perspective, a 2013 study found that a single pair of running shoes can contain 65 different parts and 360 processing steps to construct. This culminates in a 14 CO2-equivalent carbon footprint, on average—equal to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions you get from driving about 35 miles. And that’s from just a pair of shoes. That same 2013 study says running and jogging shoe sales averaged 34 million per day, and it’s likely to rise even higher in 2019 and beyond.

Clearly there’s room for improvement, which is why big brands have turned their attention to sustainable footwear—despite it being a more difficult category to make earth-friendly. “The sustainability challenge is real, and the entire industry is making headway,” says John Stokes, head of global sustainability at New Balance. “We’re dialing in our focus on the materials we use most and introducing new options that lessen some of those biggest impacts. At the same time, we’re thinking about the future of manufacturing and more systemic changes that may shift how things have been done for a long time.”

While New Balance works to test out performance shoes made from recycled materials (more on that below), other brands in the fitness and outdoor space are working toward their own goals. Nike’s been on the sustainable forefront for years, using recycled materials in their Air products and cutting back on waste with the manufacturing of FlyKnit. Most notably, they also take ditched sneakers, grind them down, and turn them into sport surfaces (like the track on World Headquarters campus). Brands like Merrell and Salomon have similar Earth-friendly missions.

Here’s a deeper look at the sustainable future of footwear.

New Balance <Test_Run> PRJ 3.0
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New Balance Launches Limited-edition Recycled Run Shoe

Dubbed the <Test_Run> PRJ 3.0, this shoe is just that: a test run for how New Balance designers can use surplus materials in performance shoes. The upper, midsole, and sock liner all feature excess resources from factories, which means every shoe that comes out is unique—no two shoes look or even feel exactly the same. What’s more, 30 percent of the Vibram EcoStep outsole is made from recycled materials.

Seth Maxwell, a footwear designer at New Balance, says the idea came when the team was visiting overseas factories. “We saw racks of surplus materials that were either no longer needed or leftover from seasonal production runs—perhaps the factory ordered too much or didn’t use as much as planned,” he explains. Usually, the factories toss these materials, but Maxwell and co. decided to come up with a new strategy. “We knew that we would be able to find a creative solution to use some of these leftovers—in essence, giving them a new life,” he says.

The shoe itself still offers performance properties. You get New Balance’s signature Fresh Foam underfoot, except that it’s made from a single piece of foam that allows for extra softness. You also get a single strap up top, along with mesh for breathability. “In all, one can expect many fun adventures in this shoe,” says Maxwell.

The Test Run 3.0 retails for $180; available at newbalance.com and at select retailers only while supplies last.

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Merrell Bare Access XTR Sweeper
Merrell Bare Access XTR Sweeper Courtesy Image

Merrell Turns Its Focus to Footwear With Bare Access XTR Sweeper

After trail races, you’ll see a “sweeper” pick up the debris left behind by runners. Because they don’t get enough recognition for their work to combat littering and pollution, Merrell’s made a shoe dedicated just to them. The Bare Access XTR Sweeper features 40 percent recycled plastic in the upper mesh and laces, along with a 30 percent recycled scrap rubber outsole that comes from the partnership with Vibram’s Ecodura. The midsole material also features 10 percent algae, which reduces the use of fossil fuels and helps clean water in the manufacturing process.

Merrell has worked for years on more sustainable shoes, aiming to ensure the eco-friendly factor doesn’t mean they slack in durability. “I think especially for outdoor performance footwear brands, durability is a huge factor here,” says Erika Derylo, brand manager for Merrell. “People are hard on their shoes, especially hiking and trail-running shoes. And if you’re out in the middle of nowhere with no cell service and your shoes fail, you’re in trouble.” That’s why Merrell put their shoes through serious testing to make sure the recycled materials—from the upper to midsole to outsole—hold up to rugged exploits.

“Durability is the best form of sustainability, too—the longer our shoes can be used before ending up in the landfill, the better,” says Derylo. “Our goal is to never sacrifice the longevity.”

Salomon Concept Shoe
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Salomon Pledges to Make a Single-Material, Reusable Run Shoe

While Salomon may never actually release the “Concept Shoe” (above) to the market, the product team put their heads together to dream up what the future of footwear looks like for the brand. Their vision: Create a shoe that features high-performance running properties, but that’s made solely from thermoplastic polyurethane (or TPU)—so when it gets worn out, the team can grind it down and turn it into a ski boot.

This is all part of Salomon’s Play Minded Program—the brand’s plan to diminish its environmental impact by reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent, removing PFCs (a substance used on textiles to repel water, which does not break down in the environment), and instituting a more circular production cycle, as they’re aiming to do with the sustainable Concept Shoe.

“Most products in footwear today are made of many materials, so we came up with the idea of the Concept Shoe—that it can be recycled into something else and promote a more circular economy,” says Olivier Mouzin, project manager at Salomon. The main goal is getting the shoe down to one material without losing the technical features, while also extending the life of that material.

Keep an eye out for the sneaker to come, likely in 2021.

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