When a new running shoe from the French company Salomon wears out, every single part of it can be reused: The shoe’s upper, itself made from recycled polyester, can be recycled again into new thread for fabric. The foam sole can be ground up and used in the brand’s ski boots. Nothing goes to landfill.
It’s a change from typical shoes, which usually aren’t recyclable because they involve a mix of materials and glues. “Those materials are all assembled together, so if you want to recycle the shoe, you need to somehow separate those materials from one another,” says Brent James, product line manager for running shoes at Salomon. “That’s a very complex, time-consuming operation.”
The new shoe, called the Index.01, is designed to limit materials—even the thread used to sew the shoes is the same material as the rest of the upper. The shoes are also designed to be easily disassembled. The company will use regional collection centers to gather used shoes, clean them, disassemble them, and then send the materials to local partners for recycling. Then the recycled materials will be sent to manufacturers. In the case of the recycled foam, for example, it will be sent to the factory that makes Salomon’s ski boots, where the ground-up sole of roughly one shoe will be used for each new ski boot shell.
In the future, it may be possible to make soles out of recycled PET (i.e., polyester) as well, so that the whole shoe would be made of a single material and would be even easier to recycle. “As a former designer I have studied many examples of cushioning solutions that do not require foam,” says James. “There has recently been a resurgence of ‘mechanical’ cushioning systems, and I could see executions that use recycled PET or other materials.” The company has also experimented with making shoes entirely out of its TPU-based foam.
The company sees a shift to circular products as necessary. “The footwear industry is a large contributor to pollution, and we have made a choice to be part of an industry shift that influences how shoes are made, how long they last, and what you do with them when it’s time for a new pair,” James says. As an outdoor brand, he says, both the company’s employees and customers expect it to make an effort to be more sustainable.
The company is working to incorporate ideas about circularity into all of its future products. “That is the ultimate goal, and these principals will influence our product development in the future,” says Olivier Mouzin, the manager of Salomon’s footwear sustainability program. That will involve both innovations in design and convincing consumers to change behavior. “When it comes to footwear, people aren’t used to recycling their shoes like they would a milk carton or a can of soda, so you need to make it easy for them,” he says. “So, there is the challenge of creating the infrastructure needed to recycle the products. We are excited about this big step, but it will take partnerships with companies who are experts in gathering and recycling materials, and perhaps even working with some of our competitors, to really transform the industry.”