Sneakers are embracing new materials to forge a more sustainable future. Sneakers are embracing new materials to forge a more sustainable future.
One day, our favorite sneakers could well be made from sushi, look like a patchwork of fabric scraps, or even decompose in the ground. Right now, the fashion industry is coming up with all kinds of ideas and techniques to reinvent this wardrobe staple to help make it greener.
Not content with having relegated heels, moccasins and other shoe styles to the back of the closet, in recent years, sneakers have managed to become real collector's items. And this shows no sign of slowing. Estimated to be worth some $70 billion in 2022, the global sneaker market is expected to exceed $100 billion by 2026, according to data published by Statista. But these impressive figures inevitably raise questions about the carbon dioxide emissions and the mountains of waste generated by these coveted objects. This issue has already been taken on board by some in the industry, who are trying to revolutionize the sector with innovations to make it greener.
From salmon to apple to dandelion
Sports brands such as Nike, adidas, Reebok and Puma are in turn proposing more sustainable sneaker models, but they have not yet found the formula—or the material—that will truly revolutionize one of the most polluting industries. In the end, it is smaller players who are trying to reinvent with innovations that are each more original—and eco-friendly—than the next. This is the case of brands like Ashoka Paris, which proposes sneakers made of apple and cereal waste, P448, which has launched sneakers made of apple skins from Italian orchards, or MoEa, which focuses on eco-responsible, vegan, and recyclable sneakers partially made from plants and fruit. And there are many other brands interested in the properties of these new sustainable materials—from cactus, to apple, grape and pineapple—which, in conjunction with other fibers, can deliver on resistance and on eco-credentials.
Other brands are going even further, experimenting with totally unexpected ingredients. For example, in 2022, the brand O.T.A. Paris unveiled a pair of sneakers partially made from sushi and maki leftovers. The concept might sound amusing, but it could prove an inspiration to others. The label has partnered with a French tannery to transform fish skins from a Sushi Shop restaurant in Lyon into a logo badge, and the sole of the product is made from recycled tires and rubber. For its part, American brand Cole Haan has turned to the dandelion to develop the outsole of its sneakers. Known as an alternative to rubber latex, the dandelion can be transformed into a specific rubber that fits perfectly with the aesthetics and technical requirements of sneakers. Meanwhile, French designer Eugène Riconneaus is combining style with environmentalism by collecting marine waste and repurposing it to make sneakers.
Also read: A French designer has created an eco-friendly sneaker from seafood waste
Upcycling and 3D printing
Clearly, new materials are a focus of research for fashion brands looking to make sneakers greener. But this isn't the only solution. Some brands are turning to existing materials to further limit the carbon footprint of the world's best-selling shoes. In other words, they're experimenting with upcycling. In 2021, France's Château de Versailles investigated this approach by presenting a collection of sneakers designed from fabrics used in the "Hyacinthe Rigaud or the Sun Portrait" exhibition. Meanwhile, the Caruus brand has set about making a pair of sneakers from old jeans and overalls. Helen Kirkum Studio goes even further by making its new sneakers from old pairs, while Sans Les Plumes uses excess fabric from public transport seating. These many and diverse projects show that the existing mountains of waste are more than enough to replenish the stocks of fashion brands, instead of ending up incinerated or in landfill.
And when they're not turning to waste and other existing materials, brands are looking to new technologies, some of which could address many environmental issues. This is the case of 3D printing, tried and tested by Hilos in the United States or, on a smaller scale, by the world-renowned designer Heron Preston. While Hilos does not yet offer sneakers, it uses this technology to create customized shoes that can be recycled ad infinitum. Heron Preston, in association with the American technology company Zellerfeld, has designed a 3D-printed sneaker that can be returned at the end of its life to be transformed into new pairs. A circular solution which, although still at prototype stage, could soon be rolled out to reach a wider audience.Also read: India is 'sneaking' in a billion-dollar industry in shoe boxes
The end-of-life issue
What should you do with your sneakers at the end of their life? That's an important question at a time when the majority of models are difficult to recycle, and not especially biodegradable. The brand Circle Sportswear has been working on the subject for nearly three years in order to release the 'SuperNatural Runner,' a sneaker designed as part of a circular economy in Europe from biosourced, biodegradable and recyclable materials. Merino wool, wood fiber, castor oil and natural rubber make up this shoe, whose upper is biodegradable and regenerative, while the sole is entirely recyclable. These characteristics considerably reduce its carbon footprint compared to a classic pair of sneakers. Although these are, strictly speaking, running shoes, there's no doubt that their innovative nature will inspire others.
"Today, 99% of running shoes are made halfway around the world in Asia and 95% from petroleum-based plastics. It's a complete reinvention of the industry. Our advantage is to start from a blank page, to be more agile, fast and to bring together innovative players to create a circular future for running, and in Europe," Romain Trebuil, co-founder of Circle Sportswear, told ETX Studio.
The OAT Shoes brand has also taken a close interest in the afterlife of sneakers by unveiling an entirely biodegradable pair with seeds embedded in the tongues. Once used, the sneakers simply have to be buried to decompose and give rise to... a flowerbed. All of these solutions reflect the willingness of fashion brands to embark on their green revolution, even if this shift is still in its early days.