Feet & fine: How vegan leather, biodegradable shoes are trying to save Earth

Several brands are tapping the sustainable footwear space to create products out of materials that are natural or recycled and help in reducing your carbon footprint

The heel counters are created with upcycled industrial fishing nets, outsoles composed of recycled rubber and cork, while the comfortable Ortholite ECO35 insoles are made of 5% recycled rubber content.
The heel counters are created with upcycled industrial fishing nets, outsoles composed of recycled rubber and cork, while the comfortable Ortholite ECO35 insoles are made of 5% recycled rubber content.

The climate crisis is real. Yet, small changes in your lifestyle can make a big difference to the planet. Did you know that something as casual as a pair of footwear—which is traditionally made from leather, plastic, rubber or petroleum-based materials—does not degrade under natural conditions? But the good news is that several brands are now producing footwear using components that are eco-friendly or recycled and helping in reducing your carbon footprint.

Just check this—100 billion plastic bags use 12 million barrels of oil and kill 100,000 marine animals annually. However, an experiment-turned-business opportunity for a 23-year-old green entrepreneur found a solution to this problem. Dubai-based Ashay Bhave made a sneaker prototype from a waste plastic bag fabric, developed and perfected over the course of two years, 2017 and 2018. Today, as the founder of vegan sneaker brand Thaely, which means plastic carry bags in Hindi, Bhave has recycled over 50,000 plastic bags and 35,000 discarded plastic bottles into pairs of shoes since July last year.

Plastics and petroleum-derived petrochemicals are one of the causes of unending wars, the makings and the failings of economies leading to the current climate crisis. Yet, there’s no denying how the fashion industry is the biggest polluting industry, considering the millions of footwears thrown into landfills which take a few decades to decompose. Sneakers alone account for 1.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Air travel is responsible for 2.5%. All this is swelling landfills adding to 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year.

However, words like sustainable and recycle are not new today. But in the traditional concept of Indian craft ecosystem, cobblers were an essential part of a symbiotic community to mend or recycle footwear. Different parts of the country had locally designed footwear like mojaris of Gujarat or Rajasthan; Kolhapuri or chambayali chappal of Maharashtra and phoola chappal of Himachal Pradesh. Raw material was locally sourced and carefully chosen keeping the socio-cultural and climatic context in mind. “With industrialisation and mass manufacturing post-independence, the identity of traditional footwear was forgotten or given less attention,” says Dr Sonika Khar, a faculty member from the School of Fashion at Pearl Academy. “Today, millennials are aware and looking for sustainable lifestyle products that are either made from ethical materials, or they repurpose/ recycle waste or support craft communities. The demand is growing for sustainable footwear; however, the product needs to be durable and affordable,” adds Khar.

There is still a long way to place a sustainability programme and set environmental standards in the footwear industry, but many players are already thinking out of the box. Adidas, Reebok, Nike, Crocs and homegrown labels like Thaely, Oceedee and others are now adapting eco-conscious measures by using recycled plastic or eco-friendly materials.

Singapore-based Chandni Batra took three years to develop products that are 100% free of carcinogens or hazardous chemicals released in the making of thermoplastic foams and synthetic rubber soles. “We were unable to source materials for footwear that is less reliant on fossil fuels, where waste and excess is addressed, or we could easily break down the layers or raw materials—from the upper to the sole. We wanted to make something for an informed, empowered consumer who is pushing for change,” says the founder of a sustainable footwear brand A Blunt Story started last year.

She developed footwear based on the trademarked materials ‘Uncrude’ and ‘Unwaste’, which are recyclable and made from plant-based and bio-based content. They replace petroleum-derived synthetic rubbers and polymers with natural-based ingredients such as cork, natural rubber, bio-based oils. The outsole uses agro-industrial waste (rice husk) to keep farmers from burning it down, footbed and outsole are recyclable, and consumers can send it back to the brand for recycling after use. Post-consumer fabric waste is reengineered from landfills into non-woven cushion for sandals replacing petrochemical foams that often use harmful blowing agents hidden between layers of pairs.

Another New York-based sustainable shoe brand, Nothing New, launched in 2019, has a range of sustainable, vegan and canvas sneakers made of 100% post-consumer recycled plastic which includes laces. The heel counters are created with upcycled industrial fishing nets, outsoles composed of recycled rubber and cork, while the comfortable Ortholite ECO35 insoles are made of 5% recycled rubber content.

India also got introduced to a natural, renewable and sustainable merino wool fibre in shoes. Hyderabad-based Neeman’s, founded in 2018, has secured Rs 20 crore (approx $2.7 million) funding from Sixth Sense Ventures last year in August for its technology-first, innovation-driven shoes, where the brand aims to disrupt the $11bn Indian footwear segment.

Sustainable footwear is a new space in India; hence, the scope is enormous, says Taran Chhabra, CEO and co-founder of Neeman’s. “Customer awareness is rising, making them conscious buyers. We cater to people in metros, tier 1 and tier 2 cities who look for innovation, so it is essential to give a range of sustainable fabrics with varied features. This gives them a choice to pick their preferred option or style. The unexplored yarn merino suits the Indian subcontinent as its temperature regulating property, sustainability and comfort make an all-day wear. Merino does not absorb sweat but wicks it away to give a cooling effect in summer and the reverse in winter,” says Chhabra, who launched sustainable flips flops, slides and recycled cotton sneakers, besides ReLive Knits, a footwear line crafted from 100% recycled pet bottles, bamboo insoles, castor bean oil, natural and recycled rubber. So far, the brand has recycled more than 1 million plastic bottles for ReLive Knits’ launched in August last year. The unisex ReLive Knits Sneakers and Slip On are available in seven and five colours respectively, priced at Rs 3,299.

Quality check

A lot of post-consumer fabric waste is utilised to make vegan footwear; so there is no compromise on quality. Like each pair of A Blunt Story utilises approximately 10-15 gm of post-industrial leather waste from the luxury automotive industry from the Middle-east which is REACH compliant, the European Union Chemical Regulation. The uppers are lined with bamboo fabric on the inside; sandals are designed to keep feet cool, dry, and free of toxins. “A lot of design and material development in the category is led in the West. We follow a design approach for hotter climates as most of the plastic traps heat in. So, we line up the footbed with moisture-wicking, anti-microbial bamboo fabric which is 96% bio-based, designed for the wearer and the planet,” says Batra.

Thaely uses ThaelyTex for the upper, a new fabric that looks and feels like leather but made out of waste plastic bags collected from housing complexes, offices and stores from in and around Gurugram. rPET, or recycled polyethylene terephthalate which refers to any PET material that comes from a recycled source rather than the original, unprocessed petrochemical feedstock, is used for the toe box, lining, laces and tote. Recycled rubber is used for the sole from scrap materials such as used shoe soles, tires and other industrial waste. For example, recycling four tires reduces CO2 by about 323 pounds, which is equivalent to 18 gallons of gasoline. Using recycled rubber in moulded products like sole, for example, creates a substantially smaller (by a factor of up to 20 times) carbon footprint as compared to using virgin plastic resins. Plantable recycled paper is used for the box, made from recycled paper embedded with basil seeds and dyed with waste coffee grounds.

The makers also keep inclusivity and localisation of sizing, their packaging 80% plastic-free. Delhi-based Neha Kumthekar, co-founder of footwear brand Oceedee doesn’t use bubble wrap, instead butter paper, dust-bags, and switched to seed paper for any communication in the packaging and has controlled the carbon footprint by avoiding the import of materials. But she feels finding the right partners to match product quality as well as viable unit economics for small brands is a challenge. “Many materials have been introduced in the market, especially for leather but there is a need for larger analysis and testing making it viable across different product lines and suitable for a completely neutral sustainable impact. Also, brands should encourage responsible disposal of products so that one can re-purpose components and donate for a better cause,” says Kumthekar.

But do such sustainable options affect the business cycle with time and effort invested in making a product? “An upgraded vendor capability in terms of technology and certification of the production process in being sustainable is important to set up this category. We have set aside a marketing budget for promotion outside and within stores,” says Alisha Malik, VP – marketing and ecommerce, of footwear retailer Metro Brands, who launched a new sustainable shoe collection Mochi Ecoz, made from recycled PET bottles converted into recycled yarn which is converted into fabrics for shoes. Eleven PET bottles are crushed to make 1 Ecoz Collection shoe in a range of Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000.

The demand is growing for vegan leather, a material that mimics leather created from artificial or plant products instead of animal skin, is growing among non-leather lovers. This year, Akanksha Chhabra, founder of Pastels and Pop in Bengaluru, the maker of handcrafted juttis, launched a vegan line of sliders. “Vegan microfiber material in sliders is similar to leather in appearance, durable, breathable, and flexible and water-proof—making it an ideal alternative. We use recycled rubber in the sole which ages with each wear and presents a beautiful, organic texture. Perforations on the sliders allow for additional ventilation, making them suitable for hot climates. Stain resistant and unlike leather, they won’t get smelly or mouldy easily,” says Chhabra.

The next step

While brands are offering the best sustainable choices, the awareness at the community level is missing. As recycling is one option to reduce carbon footprint, another way is to buy a classic pair that can be paired with multitude of outfits. “Donating used shoes is a great idea. Worn out to you doesn’t necessarily mean worn out to someone else. By donating your shoes you’re helping a less fortunate person have shoes to walk in. Recycling companies like Mumbai based Green Sole, refurbish old shoes into new ones so that shoes don’t end up in the landfills,” says Chhabra, whose juttis are worn by celebrities like Sonam Kapoor, Anushka Sharma and Taapsee Pannu.

Creative interventions like making a handcrafted shoe and not stocking up to save any wastage in inventory are some of the initiatives that brands like Oceedee follow. They control footwear waste by creative techniques like nesting and optimising the production cycles. “It optimises the process of laying out parts on a flat sheet of material to reduce scrap and minimise wastage in production, using a very limited colour palette of leathers that are versatile and used for different collections. The leather is ethically sourced from Tata International, a leading exporter of finished leather and leather products in India,” says Kumthekar, who has collaborated with Doodlage, a pioneer in up-cycling textile squanders into meaningful garments and products. The collaboration draws inspiration from geometric patchworks which upcycle leather offcuts grafted into the collection.

The big names are researching ways to create a fully biodegradable shoe. Like a durable yet sustainable shoe by Reebok. The Floatride Energy Grow is high-performance sustainable footwear made with castor beans, eucalyptus, bloom algae and natural rubber. Launched early last year, this running pair has lightweight cushioning, a flared heel reduces Achilles pressure for enhanced comfort, and flexible, breathable Lyocell mesh upper made with wood pulp. The brand is reducing virgin polyester from its material mix and eliminating it altogether by 2024. It is also focusing on efforts: [Ree] Grow—to create products from natural materials and [Ree] Cycled—to create products using recycled or repurposed materials. Crocs introduced new bio-based croslite material to lower carbon footprint in its commitment to become a net zero brand by 2030. This September, the casual footwear brand in partnership with Dow, a global materials science company, has incorporated new Ecolibrium Technology to transform sustainably sourced waste and by-products into a shoe.

Women’s brand Rothy’s is known for shoes and slippers in sherpa lining and insoles knit made of recycled water bottles, supported by Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle and celebrity Katie Holmes. Sperry has made Bionic, a line of shoes made from ocean plastic. Adidas Parley shoes incorporate yarn featuring Parley Ocean Plastic, made from recycled waste intercepted from beaches and coastal communities before it reaches the ocean. By 2024, the brand declared that it would use only recycled polyester in its products and is already sourcing sustainably produced cotton, as part of the Better Cotton Initiative, and hasn’t used plastic bags in its stores since 2016.“Sustainability at Adidas goes beyond recycled plastic,” Adidas executive board member Gil Steyaert said in a statement, adding: “We continue to improve our environmental performance during the manufacturing of products.”

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