Circularity in fashion is not a new concept. In fact, prior to fast fashion becoming the status quo, the fashion industry was considerably more circular. Clothing formed a long-lasting partnership with the wearer’s wardrobe, being altered, fixed, tailored and passed on to others before ever being thrown out. With the rise of fast fashion came the idea that clothes were disposable items, to be worn – an average of just 7 times here in the UK – and then chucked. If your clothes cost less than your average lunchtime meal, it is no wonder we hardly expect them to last any longer.
A linear economy, such as the one we currently have, follows the ‘take, make, dispose’ blueprint. Raw materials are extracted and resources used to make a product, which serves a purpose and then is disposed of.
With its disposal, all the raw materials and resources are lost – an estimated $500 billion worth of textiles each year. The only way to make money in this system is to sell as many items as possible, and pay as little as possible for the resources used to make them. In this way we have created a positive feedback loop of low value items and disposability, where one leads to the other.
A circular economy, contrary to the above, maintains the value of items long after their initial purpose. The blueprint is ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, where fewer resources are used because resources already in use (e.g. in the form of clothes) are reformed and reused again and again. In this system, value is created by maintaining products in the system – reusing and recycling – and minimising the raw materials required.
When it comes to circular fashion, one area that is lagging is shoes, possibly due in part to the lack of desirability of second-hand shoes. In the EU alone, 1.2 million tonnes of shoes are thrown out each year. In the UK, around 15% of waste shoes are reused (e.g. via charity shops), and the remaining 85% are sent to landfill. Another reason they are not frequently recycled and repurposed is due to their complex material makeup – shoes are generally made from a mix of materials. Rubber or EVA foam soles, leather uppers, plastic stitching – the list goes on. In fact, shoes can be made of up to 40 different types of material stitched or glued together, making them notoriously difficult to recycle.
Part of the problem is that brands and consumers don’t consider the full lifecycle of clothing and shoes; post-consumer life is rarely considered in the design process, leading to designs that are impossible to repair or recycle, severely truncating their potential useful life. By incorporating reparability and recyclability into the design process, the economy will be free to move in the circular direction, thereby making use of the vast quantities of wasted resources landfilled each year. The alternative is to produce shoes that are made from sustainably sourced materials and biodegradable, meaning that at the end of their life they can at least not contribute to landfill waste.
These are fundamentally different models to the current linear economy and will take some pushing to become the norm. However, there are some brands leading the way in sustainable footwear!
Another brand that performs a full lifecycle assessment to measure the full impact of their shoes is Hylo. The various materials used in Hylo’s trainers are all natural and plastic-free, meaning that theoretically they could biodegrade. Rather than recommending this, however, Hylo provide a returns service (in return for a £10 voucher) in order to have shoes broken down into new Hylo products – the ultimate circularity. The company is also carbon negative. As a relatively new company, the proof will be in the pudding and it remains to be seen if 100% recyclability of these shoes is viable.
Adidas’ Ultraboost DNA Loop trainers are a concept style made from 100% recyclable TPU material designed to be returned at the end of their life to be recycled into new trainers. Its creation from one material means that it is much easier to recycle than other shoes. This design is merely a concept shoe made to dip a toe into the waters of circularity, but its creation does beg the question: if creating such a shoe that performs well, is economically viable and has end of life options is possible, then why is this not the modus operandi for all of Adidas’ shoes? Or indeed all shoes ever?
Another ‘sustainability-lite’ option similar to Adidas, Salomon are releasing a 100% recyclable shoe called Index.01 that, at the end of its useful life, can be returned for free to be upcycled into Salomon ski boots. This is a great concept as it provides evidence that it is possible to create a high-performance shoe that is 100% recyclable – not just able to be downcycled – and presumably profitable. However, it raised the same question as above: why only one style? Will this technology be rolled out to other styles? If it proves profitable, will it be rolled out across other ranges, or is it merely a way of dipping a toe into the sustainability space? Only time will tell, but it’s a promising start.
US-based Thousand Fell takes a materials-first approach to making trainers, focusing on using materials that can biodegrade or be recycled. They have also partnered with Terracycle so that unwanted and worn-out shoes can be broken down into their component parts to make recycled raw materials, ready to be made into new shoes again. Some materials are downcycled, but nothing is sent to landfill, thereby creating a circular system where materials are used and reused continually. Again, as a company that launched in late 2019, it’ll be interesting to see whether the environmental credentials hold up a few years in, but it looks promising so far!
Nothing New Shoes launched in 2019, and do what they say on the box – the shoes are made from recycled materials, reducing the need for virgin materials. Using recycled post-consumer plastics, recycled fishing nets, recycled cotton and cork, the shoes are primarily made from sustainable materials built to last. At the end of their life, send them back. They’ll get partially recycled or sent to charity in return for $20 store credit.
It’s interesting to note that the vast majority of these footwear brands are only producing more sustainable footwear in recent years. As the main premise of circularity is that it requires customers to send products back, we will only be able to see the true impact of these brands in the coming years. We find ourselves in a space of limbo, albeit it with a lot of hope, while we wait to see whether consumer behaviour (i.e. returning shoes once they break) can match up perfectly to the technology of recycling and reusing. And, of course, whether the brands view it as an economically beneficial route to pursue.
Ultimately, it is both our demand for new items, and the ways in which we create them that is problematic. Frequently buying from sustainable brands won’t solve our climate crisis, nor will infrequently buying fast fashion items, if they ultimately end up in landfill. What we need is a mindset shift away from the disposable clothing model, in line with principles of circular fashion. Reduce, reuse and recycle all need to be co-opted by brands and individuals alike, from reducing the amount we buy, to calling for better material use and demanding end of life options from brands, to voting for governments who will implement systems that allow brands to become better.
Ultimately, it is both our demand for new items, and the ways in which we create them that is problematic. Frequently buying from sustainable brands won’t solve our climate crisis, nor will infrequently buying fast fashion items, if they ultimately end up in landfill.
What we need is a mindset shift away from the disposable clothing model, in line with principles of circular fashion. Reduce, reuse and recycle all need to be co-opted by brands and individuals alike, from reducing the amount we buy, to calling for better material use and demanding end of life options from brands, to voting for governments who will implement systems that allow brands to become better.
Ultimately, we need to create a model that benefits those moving to a circular production system more than those exploiting the linear one we currently have in place. Until we provide economic incentives to move towards to circularity, it will be difficult for those attempting a more sustainable model to ever get a foothold in the industry.
And as individuals we must play our part by buying only what we need, mending what we own and supporting brands that are leading the way in truly sustainable footwear. The options are out there, you just have to do a little legwork to find them. And in sustainable shoes, that should be a little more comfortable.