There have been many adjectives applied to women’s shoes – architectural, fetishistic, kittenish in the case of this season’s popular mid-height heels – but ecological isn’t one. Until now. As Earth Day, a day designed to inspire awareness of the environment, celebrates its 40th anniversary, the latest trend in sustainable fashion has emerged: the recyclable shoe.
An estimated 300m shoes are thrown out in the US each year, says Ken Barker, a former Adidas and Levi’s executive who now runs Naturally Advanced Technologies (NAT), a green clothing company. “The landfill impact of shoes is considerable,” says Barker. “There’s a lot of rubber in most footwear, and I don’t believe it’s too dissimilar from automobile tyres – yet you can’t throw the tyres into landfill, you have to recycle them.”
So why not the same for rubber shoes? Terra Plana, founded by Galahad Clark of the Clark’s footwear company, uses environmentally-friendly vegetable dyes as well as recycled materials in the production of its shoe soles. US footwear brand TOMS makes shoes from recycled plastic bottles and recycled rubber. Green Silence sneakers by the sports wear brand Brooks are made from recycled materials and claim to use 50 per cent less oil and energy in their creation than used in a standard style.
It’s not yet easy, however, to create a profitable 100 per cent recyclable shoe. The first challenge is the complexity of the shoes’ construction, especially modern performance sneakers. Most pairs have at least 40 different components stitched or glued together, each of which must be individually handled for recycling. The American TV presenter and eco activist Summer Rayne Oakes says: “That’s what makes shoes much more complicated – they have so many moving parts. It’s not as easy as taking a T-shirt made of organic cotton and just recycling it.”
Considerable advances have, however, been made by Terra Plana. In its POP collection, each shoe is made from only 12 components with a glueless construction that can be disassembled more easily once discarded. The Brazilian footwear brand Melissa, known for its sophisticated and colourful jelly shoes, uses a flexible thermoplastic called Melflex that, despite its man-made appearance, is 100 per cent recyclable.
The bigger footwear groups, meanwhile, are increasingly recycling old products. Timberland’s Second Life programme allows consumers to return any worn shoes for reprocessing. NAT’s Ken Barker points to Nike as a pioneer in this field, with its two-decade-old Grind programme, which now processes 1.5m pairs of shoes a year into a material that is used for athletic and playground surfaces, as well as other Nike-brand products. It also encourages the return of discarded shoes for recycling.
The ultimate goal, however, is to make shoes from components that will biodegrade as readily as apple cores. NAT’s Barker is working with two large footwear companies to produce shoes using his hemp-based, fully biodegradable Crailar fabric, while the Simple Shoes Bio-D range uses a pellet mixture of microbes added to the usual plastic and rubber to accelerate biodegradation.