Footwear Industry & its Impact
Sustainability as a focus has started to creep into the footwear industry which running shoes are a part of. Brands have picked up the need to look at sustainability as one of their pillars of focus as consumers become more environmentally orientated. This focus on the amount of carbon emission and environmentally harmful materials used in our running shoes have created a new segment of consumers who wants to minimize their impact on the Earth. This new segment has drove new firms to enter the highly concentrated running shoes market.
Based on a report from Quantis in 2018, the global apparel and footwear industry accounts for about 8% of the global carbon emissions. In comparison, the telecommunication industry accounts for about 1.4% while the aviation industry takes up 2% of the global carbon emissions. Of the 8% the footwear industry makes up 17% of the carbon emissions or just about 1.4% of global carbon emissions, having similar numeric impact as the telecommunication industry.
 Measuring Fashion: Insights from the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries study (2018), Quantis Report.
Brands Tackling the Challenge
The world and nature are the playground for runners, climate change will have an impact on the place which runners can do what they love. As such, for runners who are looking to minimise their environmental impact, what are some of the brands which they can opt for to purchase their next running shoes. In this article we will go through some of the brands, in no particular order, that are worth taking note of.
Salomon is French sports equipment manufacturing company founded in 1947. Salomon group is part of Amer Sports, Finnish company, which is a subsidiary of Anta Sports, a Chinese company. In 2019, Salomon announced their Play Minded Program which the Index.01 is part of. The company also pledged to reduce its overall carbon emission by 30% by the year 2030 and by 2025, 70% of the waste will be recycled or re-used.
The Salomon Index.01 is marketed as the innovation which can allow the brand to achieve recyclability. The Index.01 started off in 2018 with the Salomon team and came into the eyes of the world in 2019/2020. To achieve recyclability, one challenge was to reduce the number of materials used in the pair of running shoes, especially the upper of the running shoes. Salomon’s concept shoes were initially made with full TPU (Thermoplastic polyurethane) which had some tradeoffs with comfort and durability. Therefore, a change in the upper had to be made to use recycled polyester.
In terms of specifications:
Price: US$ 200.00,
Drop: 9 mm,
Forefoot stack height: 19.5 mm,
Heel stack height: 28.5 mm,
Weight: 285 grams.
It is a challenging task to make the running shoes recyclable. Running shoes have complex design in order to achieve the fine balance between performance and comfort. Sticking to its objective, Salomon made the Index.01 easy to separate between the upper and TPU bottom unit – consisting of the midsole and outsole. This is an important step for recyclability, and it need to start from the design stage. Without this consideration, running shoes will face similar issues where parts of it cannot be recycled as they cannot be cleanly separated into individual material type.
After the Index.01 is returned at its end of a runner’s lifecycle, it is broken down into TPU chips. The Index.01 is not a truly circular product as it is recycled into part of skit boots. However, it is certainly applaudable to extend the lifetime of the materials used in the Index.01. This is perhaps just the first step in Salomon’s roadmap to achieve their 100% circular economy.
Zen Running Club (ZRC)
Zen Running Club is a Dutch-based company with the goal to create products “Made from good decisions” including its running shoes and apparel. ZRC was started by three friends who wanted to push the boundaries of performance orientated running shoes and gears using plant-based innovations. The company is pending its B Corp certification as ZRC is a very young company, to be certified a company needs to be in operation for at least 12 months.
The ZR 01 (Zen Run Zero One) is the company’s pioneering running shoes which is plant-based and vegan approved (by The Vegetarian Society). The ZR 01 utilize TENCEL Lyocell for its sock-fit upper and castor bean material for its sockliner. TENCEL Lyocell is sustainable fiber from eucalyptus tree using an innovative spinning process. The slight rocker midsole uses sugarcane as the base material.
In terms of specifications:
Heel Drop: 9mm,
Forefoot stack height: 24mm,
Heel stack height: 33mm,
Weight: 286 grams (US M 9 / UK 8 / EU 42).
The ZR 01 is currently available for shipping to the North America and Europe regions only. At the current point in time, it will be good to understand more about what Zen Running Club does to be sustainable. What is clear for ZRC is their focus using materials which are sustainably obtained. For example, the Sugarcane and TENCEL Lyocell both reduces or eliminate the use of irrigation and instead rely on natural rainfall.
However, in addition to the materials which they use, it will be beneficial to understand how the company handles the full life cycle management for their running shoes. As a relatively young company starting amid the pandemic and the added challenge of achieving reduced environmental impact is certainly an applaudable one. To be fair, it will require some time to understand and assess how a company does in terms of its promises for sustainability. As such, ZRC is certainly one of the companies which is worth taking note of.
Allbirds is a New Zealand-American footwear and apparel company listed on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange. The company was started by Tim Brown together with Joey Zwillinger when Tim started the journey to bring sustainable resource into the footwear industry. The company adheres to the Sustainability Principles and Objectives (SPO) Framework, a set of environmental, social, and governance criteria. Allbirds pride itself as a company with high standards for sustainability, as such the company also employs third part (ISS ESG) to assess and evaluate the company’s performance against the SPO Framework. In addition to its materials, Allbirds also partner with Sole4Souls to continue the lifecycle of lightly used shoes. Allbirds’s shoes are made using New Zealand’s superfine Merino wool, which is thinner and softer than regular wool, making it super comfy on skin.
Allbirds started off with their sneakers (e.g., Wool Runner – their first) before transiting into running shoes with their first ever running shoes, the Tree Dasher. The Tree Dasher is Allbirds’ offering for road runners and more recently the company also has launched their trail offering, the Trail Runner. Tree Dasher was launched in 2020 by bringing in performance into Allbirds’ already established sustainable, cushion, and comfort technologies.
In terms of specification:
Heel Drop: 7mm,
Forefoot stack height: 15.5mm,
Heel stack height: 22.5mm,
Weight: 265 grams (US size 8).
The Tree Dasher midsole, also known as SweetFoam, is dual-density midsole made from sugarcane and is the world’s first carbon negative green EVA (Ethylene-vinyl acetate). In the upper, Allbirds uses a one-piece upper made from FSC Certified eucalyptus trees while the insole is made from castor bean as compared to using petroleum-based foam. Allbirds claim that the Tree Dasher is carbon neutral by utilizing natural materials and buying offsets and has a footprint starting from 11.3kg CO2e.
Allbirds has also expanded their performance series with a trail offering, the Trail Runner SWT. The Trail Runner SWT (Sugar, Wool, Tree) features the similar technologies and materials as the Tree Dasher with the necessary innovations for the trail.
Heel Drop: 7mm,
Forefoot stack height: 18.0mm,
Heel stack height: 25.0mm,
Weight: 350 grams.
An added TPU seam tape and heel counter is added to the Tree Dasher to provide stability and protection. The outsole includes cashew nuts looking lugs, standing at 4mm, which help runners to overcome the trail routes. As I am not a trail runner myself, it would be difficult to comment on the performance of this design with respect to the different levels of trails.
On is Swiss sports company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. On was established in 2010 in Zurich, Switzerland by 3 Co-Founders: Caspar Coppetti, Oliver Bernhard, and David Allemann. Since its start with the road running shoes, the company has expanded into other gears (e.g., apparel), trail running shoes, and sneakers (Cloudnova).
The Cloudneo which was announced in late 2021, expected to be available in summer 2022, is ON new running shoes under the Cyclon subscription program. Based on what ON shared about its Cyclon program, the Cloudneo is 100% recyclable and created using bio-based resources. For example, its Upper and ON’s Speedboard are made 100% from material derived from castor beans.
In terms of specifications:
Price: US$ 29.00 / month,
Drop: 9 mm,
Forefoot stack height: 24.6 mm,
Heel stack height: 33.6 mm,
Weight: 255 grams.
The Cloudneo has a rocker midsole/outsole profile and comes with ON’s Twin CloudTec (i.e., the two layers which you see at the mid sole). The midsole is made from a Pebax foam (Polyether block amide) which, according to ON’s specs, delivers 65% more rebound than its Helion Superfoam. One of the reasons why the initial running shoes under Cyclon and the Cloudneo looks so different is due to this new midsole material, also known as PA11 (Rilsan) is a solution from Arkema, ON’s partner. ON initially created the Cloudneo with compression zones instead of using their CloudTec due to the complexity of handling the new foam which is light and soft. This likely refers to the earlier images for Cyclon subscription program.
In terms of the benefits that Cloudneo can deliver, based on Life Cycle Assessment, On has stated that Cloudneo produces 50% lesser carbon emissions compared to the average On’s running shoes. This 50% is from production to the first round of recycling. In addition, energy consumption for factories were reduced by 70% and 90% less waste in total.
The Cyclon subscription program and the Cloudneo are great examples of the company’s commitment to create a full circularity for one of its running shoes. At the same time, there are questions such as which type is expected to be more popular among the existing and new subscribers, and how sustainable it will be if ON needed to make more of these shoes to cater for the Cyclon’s demand. One of key question is how ON will handle the Cloudneo or running shoes when a subscriber cancels his/her subscriptions. Will be running shoes under Cyclon be collected back or will it be left outside of the cycle? Either way, someone will be upset about it. In addition, it is important to know how many times the materials can be recycled before it becomes redundant. This is crucial not only for consumers to be aware but also for the brand to take note of.
That aside, the Cloudneo is not only good looking but very much performance orientated. It is one the promising program to help reduce the environmental impact from footwear. We can look forward to its availability in summer of 2022 and watch where On will bring this subscription service to.
Adidas x Allbirds
The last entry in this first part is the collaboration project between Adidas and Allbirds to create the lowest carbon footprint running shoes – Futurecraft.Footprint. The goal is to create a pair of performance running shoes that comes in with less than 3kg CO2e. It would probably be the least there is in terms of CO2e, if you compared to even Allbirds’ Tree Dasher not to mention the other brands and products.
The pair of running shoes will be commercially released in 2022. The main synergy in this collaboration is to tap into the capabilities of each company, to bring forward an idea for the industry and for the environment. Adidas is a global company with the scale, experience in mass production, and resources to bring forth a low-carbon high performance running shoes while Allbirds can provide their expertise into the full Lifecycle-Assessment (LCA) and their experience with making low-carbon sustainable footwear and materials.
In terms of the specifications for this pair of running shoes, I have taken reference from The Run Testers video uploaded on YouTube on 12th May 2021. For readers who are interested, please do watch their video to hear their views on the prototype which they have in hand. Back to the shoes, the midsole foam is 18% Allbirds’ Sweetfoam and 82% Adidas’s Lightstrike coupled with the outsole which are made with natural rubber.
Heel Drop: 9.5 mm,
Forefoot stack height: 16.5 mm,
Heel stack height: 26 mm,
Weight: 154 grams.
One of the key pointers which was important is that we could see some of the carbon emissions comparison between services and products. For example, in the promotion video, you can observe that Adidas and Allbirds have very generously provided comparisons to flight, bike, eating a meal, and plastic bags. This provides consumers with an idea about how much reduction or how small this emission will be. But on top of which, we could also see that there were comparisons to Adidas’s Ultraboost 19 (10.30KG CO2e/pair), Adidas RC3 (7.86KG CO2e/pair), and Allbirds average (10.00KG CO2e/pair) carbon emissions. This transparency and open information are a key step as we tackle into the issue of sustainability. However, not much concrete information is available in terms of what will happen to this product after it is used by a runner. There are possibilities of it going into landfills, or perhaps broken down, or other plans yet to be announced.
In this article we have through some of the brands and initiatives who are creating greener and more sustainable running shoes. As the world inches towards being more environmentally friendly and sustainability being a key part of discussion, the footwear which generates much carbon emissions would need to play its part. The companies in this article tackle the subject of sustainability in their own ways. For Salomon it took the approach of creating a brand-new pair of running shoes which can be upcycled for ski boots. On the other hands, ZRC, Allbirds, and Allbirds X Adidas took the approach of using more sustainable materials and reducing their carbon emissions per pair. On is perhaps the only one here which utilizes both approaches with its circularity as well as using more environmentally friendly materials.
This is a new industry trend where new products are created from scratch in order for the companies to achieve their sustainability goals. In addition, this also allow a first advantage into this new segment of consumers who are looking to reduce their individual environmental impact. The idea and effort by all these brands are applaudable and very welcome. Yet challenges remain for both established brands as well as young companies to make this mainstream. The whole supply chain needs to be considered for this to be truly termed as the forerunner in the race of sustainability.
In the next part on the theme of sustainability, we will examine the major brands and what they are doing to reduce the environmental impact of their long-established running shoes. While Adidas has been mentioned here for its collaboration with Allbirds, the company also has other initiatives tackling the problem of waste and plastic. Other brands include Reebok, Nike, as well as Adidas among others.
Till then, just keep running.