The world of quality shoes is in general doing well in many regards when it comes to being sustainable and environmentally friendly. There’s still several areas where things can be improved though, some thoughts around this in today’s article.
Earlier this week I did a Q&A session on Instagram (can be found here for those interested), where one of the most interesting questions I got was about the main challenges for shoe brands and retailers who want to conduct business sustainably. Given the limited space in the aforementioned fora, I replied quite briefly, but there’s more to be said, which I can do here on the blog.
To start, the quality shoe industry in general, and especially in Europe and also the US, is relatively sustainable. I’ve been writing about it before, but to summarise we do talk about durable products that are built to last and be repaired, and the main production of this type of quality, often welted footwear is done in European factories with high standards, good working environment and at least decent salaries. The skins is a byproduct from the meet and diary industry, and those that becomes good quality leather used in this type of shoes comes from animals who have lived relatively good lives, if treated with antibiotics, squeezed together in small areas causing stress, and fed unnaturally to grow quickly the skins doesn’t hold up for the quality demands asked for here (that said, our acceptance of marks from natural life could be better).
Also chrome tanned leathers coming out of Europe are considered sustainable, there’s strict regulations and the tanneries have closed systems where no chrome thad do not emit any waste, so as long as you recycle your shoes as environmentally hazardous waste on the day they are thrown away (because the trivalent chromium used in tanning becomes more dangerous hexavalent chromium if burnt) no chromium will end up in nature. Vegetable tanned leathers have pros compared to chrome tanned when it comes to environmental impact, but also some cons, like more water usage during the tanning process. From a lifecycle perspective, real leather, also chrome tanned, way triumph “vegan leathers” made entirely or mainly out of plastic.
To add on to the above, when we start about challenges, even though welted shoes are being sold on as second hand to a relatively large extent, there’s still plenty of good shoes with lots of life left that are being thrown away. Especially people with good economy don’t think it’s worth the hassle of trying to sell their shoes on Ebay, StyleForum, Shoegazing’s forum (Swedish only), The Shoe Snob buy & sell etc. But here brands and retailers could do so much more to improve the circular economy of this industry. Offer discount on new pairs if you bring your old ones in, and those old ones are then fixed up in the factory/by a cobbler and sold as second hand shoes. We see some examples of this, Leffot in New York takes care of second hand shoes, and Swedish brand Kavat have both a good repair service and a thing they call Good as new where they sell second hand shoes they have repaired and made good again. Especially the latter don’t really make much money out of these services, one see them as part of their work for a sustainable society, they make sure to make money on the first sale, then the other parts are not a moneymaker but a sustainability maker.
Also, which I mentioned in my IG answer, is that brands and retailers can be much better at making it easy for customers to repair and resole their quality shoes. Most factories offer refurbishments, but basically no one informs customers about it in a good way. All who purchase shoes should get a note with info about this in the shoe box, and it should be stated openly on the website. Not everyone have access to a good cobbler, but everyone should have an easy way to resole their welted footwear.
Apart from these practical, concrete examples, there’s of course a bunch of ways makers and retailers of quality shoes can work to improve sustainability. Improvements of the factory, supply chains, material sourcing, logistics, and so on.
And to finish this article, don’t forget that we as customers can do a lot as well. Connected to the things mentioned above, make sure to have our shoes repaired and make sure to sell them on if there’s still life left in them. We should of course make sure to care for the shoes we have, treat them well so they last long, quality shoes have the possibility to last very long, that’s our responsibility to make sure they do.
Do you have thoughts around the topic, feel free to share and discuss i the comments section below.