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The future of footwear is circular

Rothy’s is working on making its shoes fully circular, but to really effect change, Saskia van Gendt, Rothy’s head of sustainability, writes, the entire footwear industry needs to get on board.

The future of footwear is circular
[Source Photos: Rothy’s]
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Over the last several years, many fashion brands have started taking action on sustainability—introducing giveback programs, planting trees, and creating products with recycled materials. But despite those changes, it’s becoming even more evident that there’s no quick solution for fashion’s contribution to waste and climate change, and without collective action, it will only get worse.

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One clear path to mitigating climate change and waste in our industry is circularity, which research has shown can reduce 45% of global emissions associated with making products while eliminating waste. The potential for circularity is huge, albeit complex. Rather than focusing on one aspect of product sustainability, such as materials sourcing, circularity fills every gap in a product’s lifecycle and paves the way for its next life.

Now let’s get to the why. There are many reasons to focus on circularity, but there are a few astounding stats that urge the need for change. First, the fashion industry is recycling less than 1% of all products into new items, all while using 98 million metric tons of nonrenewable resources (such as oil and plastic) each year, according to a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Those numbers are staggering. The second fact illustrates the opportunity with circularity: If you extend the life of a product by just 9 months, you can reduce its waste, carbon, and water footprint by a combined 20 to 30%. But to realize the potential of circularity and reduce the footprint of footwear, we’ll need to take some big steps.

After spending over a decade in sustainable design—from green building practices to personal care products—my assumption coming into the footwear industry was that there were more established recycling models already in place for footwear. I was wrong. You can take apart buildings to reclaim construction materials and recycle packaging from beauty products, but specifically in footwear, there are no end-of-wear options. Only landfills.

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According to sustainability consulting group Quantis, shoe production accounts for one-fifth of the fashion industry’s environmental impact and generates 1.4% of global carbon emissions. While a handful of other shoe brands have announced the development of a circular product or their efforts working toward circularity, there really aren’t circular solutions for the footwear industry at large. That’s mainly because circularity in footwear has proven to be elusive and complex.

Unlike apparel, shoes are typically made from a variety of different materials engineered to stick together, making them near impossible to disassemble. To put it into perspective, a cotton T-shirt is made of one type of fiber, which can easily be recycled. On average, a sneaker can be made of 30 individual materials, and a hiking boot may require 100 materials. The more complex the shoe construction is, the more difficult it is to disassemble and recycle its components. Because of this, the unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of footwear ends up in landfills. So the first step in tackling all of this waste is producing shoes with fewer materials and designing for disassembly, making them more viable for end-of-wear recycling.

But what’s most interesting to me, and what I’m most proud of, is how responsible brands such as Rothy’s, Eileen Fisher, and Stella McCartney are creating circular models without the pressure of regulation. We’re part of a new wave of mission-driven brands identifying voids in the market, such as the lack of recycling models in our industry, and using innovation, creativity, and customer engagement in order to mitigate waste and climate change.

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With a wholly-owned supply chain and a focus on long-lasting products, Rothy’s is in a unique position to tackle this long-standing industry crisis. So what does that mean? At the simplest level, our goal is closing the loop—to create products from recycled materials and eventually recycle those products into something new. This is uncharted territory, so we’ve set ambitious goals for the next three years to get there:

  • 2021: We’ll pilot our first-ever recycling program and with the help of Rothy’s first-ever Sustainability Council.
  • 2022: We’ll achieve zero-waste certification at Rothy’s factory and begin incorporating twice-recycled materials into new products.
  • 2023: We hope to hit a major milestone: full circular production by implementing recycling solutions at scale.

Initiatives such as the cotton industry’s Blue Jeans Go Green initiative are helping brands such as Madewell and Levi’s recycle jeans into insulation and are proving the potential for collaboration to identify circular solutions for apparel.  To tackle footwear recycling’s notorious complexity, we’ve convened an incredible group of thought leaders to make end-of-wear solutions available to the broader industry. The Rothy’s Sustainability Council consists of five scientists, coalition-builders, and sustainability experts across different backgrounds and industries. Currently, the council is working with the Rothy’s team to optimize our recycling. But the ultimate objective is to converge knowledge from the council’s diverse perspectives to pave the way for a closed-loop future for our industry more broadly.

To pioneer recycling solutions at a scale that matches the need, Rothy’s recognizes that we can’t solve this crisis alone. To date, footwear brands’ circularity efforts are so singular and fragmented that it’s hard to make collective progress or a measurable impact toward climate change. By definition, circularity requires the footwear industry to work together to identify solutions along the lifecycle of a shoe.

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We can identify design solutions to enable disassembly, making the shoe easier to take apart, and share that insight with other players in the industry. We can improve material sourcing and enable brands to use recycled materials in new products. We can develop durability standards to ensure that shoes are in use for as long as possible. We can work with other footwear brands to scale programs for end-of-wear collection and recycling, co-investing in equipment, and combining extracted materials to make the recycling process more efficient. But brands leading these initiatives alone is not enough.

More significant impact can only be realized with change at a national policy level, enabling circularity through the proposed infrastructure initiatives and carbon emissions targets. Right now, our definition of infrastructure is oversimplified to mean roads and bridges, ignoring the importance of modernized recycling infrastructure. Similarly, climate change policies and carbon emissions reduction practices should include circularity strategies such as recycling and incorporating recycled materials alongside the adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Rothy’s Sustainability Council and our pilot recycling program are large efforts toward our goal for full circularity, but I urge all brands and industry leaders to begin conversations within their own company, and with government officials, to begin making strides toward a circular future in fashion. With that, we can all take small steps and do what’s right to help mitigate the carbon and waste footprints of our industry.

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An environmental scientist with over a decade of experience in sustainable manufacturing and design, Saskia van Gendt is head of sustainability at Rothy’s, a San Francisco-based company transforming sustainable materials into modern shoes and accessories. At Rothy’s, Saskia develops strategies to minimize the environmental impact that Rothy’s supply chain has on the environment, advancing Rothy’s sustainable innovations in materials, production, fulfillment and more.

Prior to joining Rothy’s, Saskia worked as senior director of sustainability at Method, a brand renowned for their clean, sustainable, and effective cleaning products. At Method, Saskia implemented sustainability initiatives on the ground for the European business and at Method’s LEED-Platinum soap factory in Chicago. Saskia graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Environmental Science.