The Sneaker Industry Is Lessening Its Footprint, From Upcycled Salmon Skin Detailing to Tire-Based Soles
As a whole, the footwear industry is responsible for 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But a sustainable sneaker revolution is coming, and these brands are at the forefront of the shift.
The footwear industry needs a serious overhaul. As a whole, it’s responsible for 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If you zoom in further, you’ll find sneakers—a segment so wasteful that, if it were a country, would be the 17th largest polluter in the world due to a combination of factors including coal-powered manufacturing and the extraction of raw materials. The production levels are also off the charts, with $152 billion worth of sneakers sold globally in 2022—a number that becomes even more concerning when you consider how difficult it is to responsibly dispose of worn-out sneakers.
“Footwear uses so many different materials and components that are hard to separate once they’ve been used. This makes recycling, upcycling, or even downcycling difficult,” says Alyssa Beltempo, a slow fashion expert and sustainable stylist. “In addition to that, the components and materials used are often not recyclable—think foam, glue, tanned leather—nor do they break down easily in compost or landfill.”
The good news? A sustainable sneaker revolution is coming. It’s something Gwenäelle Ferlicot, co-founder of ASHOKA Paris, has seen firsthand. "Today's consumers are no longer passive—they know the drifts of fashion, and even if they still want to consume, they want it to pollute as little as possible,” she says. “They are also concerned about consuming less, but better.” Aka shoes that aren’t only made more sustainably, but also won’t clog up landfills at the end of their life.
Big-name sneakers brands are taking notice of this rising trend. While their production levels are still off the charts, the industry is beginning to dip its toes into creating more sustainable options. Adidas has sneakers made with Primeblue, a material made in part with Parley Ocean Plastic. Then there's On Running, which created Cloudprime—the first shoe made using carbon emissions. Even Nike has created a sneaker, the ISPA, that can be easily disassembled with the goal of making the recycling process easier.
While that progress is great to see, some brands are innovating on an entirely new level. O.T.A. launched recycled tire shoes back in 2018 with the goal of utilizing a material that didn't have an optimal recycling channel to create a durable sneaker sole. "A tire that has done 40,000 kilometers on the road can easily do a few hundred kilometers on people's feet,” says Arnaud Barboteau, the brand's founder.
Since then, Barboteau has utilized other materials that would have gone to waste—one of the most surprising being leftover salmon skin from sushi restaurants.
“Always in this optics of using waste in order to transform them into desirable products, I had the opportunity to make a collaboration with a chain of sushi restaurants. I was able to recover the salmon skins used in a restaurant in the city of Lyon (which are normally thrown away) to work with a vegetable tannery in France in order to use this material for details on the shoe,” Barboteau says. “In terms of the design of this pair, we launched a salmon maki: black shoe for the Nori seaweed, white interior for the rice, salmon-colored tongue, and the end of the laces green with wasabi sauce.”
Ferlicot and her ASHOKA Paris co-founder, Frédéric Vergoz, have gotten creative with the materials used to make their sneakers as well. The brand not only uses apple skin waste from the food industry, but also bio-sourced material made from cereals.
“It has always seemed obvious to us that being an eco-responsible and vegan fashion brand meant using the most ecological and innovative materials possible,” Vergoz says. “And now there is a real craze among consumers for these new alternative materials that are less harmful to the environment.”
The next time your sneakers are too worn out to wear a step further, consider supporting a brand that’s made it its mission to produce sustainable options that have the environment in mind. Your feet—and the planet—will thank you.
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