Shoes are responsible for one-fifth of the environmental impacts generated by the apparel industry, according to Quantis, despite representing less than a tenth of the industry’s total value. With the rise of startups like Rothy’s, efforts by established brands like Adidas and expansion into footwear by sustainability leaders like Reformation, sustainable footwear is seeing a surge.
The use of recycled materials in footwear jumped 70 per cent year-over-year in 2019, according to Katharine Carter, retail analyst at Edited, who points to cult favourites Allbirds and Veja as models of what consumers are looking for. Edited data shows that both brands see below-average discount rates and higher sell-throughs, which Carter considers key indicators of success.
The key to success for these brands isn’t their sustainable innovation, but that they make products people want to buy with added environmental incentives. Rothy’s, which makes shoes with a yarn produced from recycled plastic bottles, took off after launching in 2016 and is now valued at $700 million. President and COO Kerry Cooper considers the brand's formula a magic triangle: “It needs to be a beautiful shoe that’s incredibly comfortable, and oh, by the way, it’s sustainable.”
But startups alone can’t fix the $250 billion footwear industry, which is dominated by major brands. Due to factors including its size, complexity and lack of infrastructure for repair or recycling, the footwear sector is still figuring out what sustainability means for shoes and how to achieve it without alienating customers.
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