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Stepping towards sustainability: Addressing footwear value chain emissions

Global consumption of footwear has doubled every 20 years since the 1950’s. As booming production is often coupled with heightened environmental damage, its critical to assess the impact of the footwear industry across several areas, including the use of hazardous materials and chemicals, air and water pollution, as well as solid waste generated during the production process.


In this article, we are going to specifically focus on the carbon impact of footwear production. Although most people are now familiar with the term ‘carbon footprint’, we are going to delve a little deeper, exploring emissions across the whole footwear value chain and considering the importance of data-driven insights when it comes to taking action.

green footwear


Understanding the carbon impact of footwear


The footwear industry is thought to be responsible for 1.4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To put that into context, global aviation, including passenger and freight, is said to account for 1.9% of greenhouse gases. It has been estimated that a typical pair of running shoes made of synthetic materials has a footprint of around 14 kg CO2e, about the same as driving a car for 35 miles, or to charging 1,700 smartphones.


Studies have determined that most of the emissions are released during the material processing (29%) and manufacturing phase (68%). However, the footwear market is very big and complex, and there are a huge number of variables that influence the carbon impact of a product. The challenge of carbon footprinting is understanding the carbon impact of dozens of discrete parts and hundreds of processes.


Furthermore, beyond the direct emissions from manufacturing and operations of the shoe makers (Scope 1 and Scope 2), a hidden impact of footwear production lies in Scope 3 emissions – those associated with the entire value chain, from raw material extraction to product disposal, including from cattle farms, tanneries, polymer suppliers, and logistics companies.


There are approximately 40 materials used during the manufacturing of footwear, with the most common today being leather, textile and a range of synthetic materials. Each one has a unique carbon footprint, depending on extraction, transportation and disposal methods, not to mention further variations due to things like geographical location.


Taking all these layers of complexity into account, normalising the carbon footprint of a shoe seems like an impossible task. This is why Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) and Product Carbon Footprints (PCFs) are such useful tools, enabling the analysis of individual, unique characteristics.


Don’t be mistaken – referring to historical research or similar products is a great way to benchmark and gain an indication of where emission hotspots could lie. But the insight obtained from undertaking a PCF is what will enable you to really understand the carbon impact of specific footwear.


Data-driven insight holds the key to sustainable footwear


As countries around the world look to tackle climate change, new legislation is continually being introduced that seeks to incentivise companies to cut emissions. Increasingly, these regulations are paying attention to the value chain and product-level impacts.


Two great examples of this are the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). CSRD was officially adopted by the European Commission in late 2022 and will require companies to report Scope 3 emissions when it comes into effect within the next few years. CBAM was adopted by the European Commission earlier this year, with the aim of preventing carbon-intensive imports and encouraging greener production practices. Recently, the government also announced that a CBAM will be rolled out across the UK. Again, once it takes full effect, organisations will be required to submit both direct and indirect GHG data relating to their products.


Legislation aside, more consumers than ever are considering sustainability when making purchases. In fact, almost one third (32%) claim that their trust in brands would be improved if they had a transparent, accountable, and socially and environmentally responsible supply chain. All in all, it’s clear that emissions data is becoming a necessity and a competitive advantage for product-led businesses, including those in the footwear industry.


There has been effort to standardise methodologies for quantifying the carbon impact of products and processes. Examples include PAS 2050 by the British Standards Institute (BSI), ISO 14040/44 by the International Standards Organization (ISO), and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Product Standard by World Resources Institute (WRI) and World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD). In addition, there are several Product Category Rules (PCRs) for developing an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for footwear, such as PCR 2021:04 Rubber articles for footwear and PCR 2023:07 Ski footwear.


Essentially, these are structured guidelines, principles or criteria that organisations follow to measure, manage and report GHG performance. In practice, using these methodologies for shoes means the following impacts must be taken into account for the upper, midsole and outsole:


  1. Raw materials and processing: Emissions associated with the extraction and processing of all materials in the shoe, scrap, alongside packaging materials

  2. Manufacturing and assembly: Emissions associated with the use of factory equipment and production methods

  3. Use of the footwear: Emissions associated with washing or repairing

  4. End-of-life: Emissions associated with the transportation and disposal of the shoes after use


Gathering relevant data throughout these life cycle stages from multi-stage supply chains is no easy feat. Most businesses can identify and track their immediate suppliers, but information is often lost about the suppliers of their suppliers.


But understanding the full network behind your products is valuable. Although it can seem overwhelming at first, conducting a PCF is a great opportunity to improve the transparency and traceability of production practices. Engaging with suppliers and mapping out value chains often uncovers hidden gems – efficiency improvements and cost savings. In addition, digging deeper can sometimes reveal labour and human rights violations that hold reputational risks for businesses.


When it comes to sustainability data-driven PCFs shed light on where the carbon hotspots lie within a product, allowing businesses to take the most effective actions to reduce emissions. For example, if the results of an assessment on a shoe signifies that a particular material used in the outsole is the source of a high proportion of emissions, actions can be taken to rectify this. The key here is the material-level data, which then enables informed decision making.


Treading a less carbon-intensive pathway


Reducing the carbon impact of an entire value chain requires a multifaceted approach, guided by GHG performance data. Here are some core strategies to get you started:


  1. Design considerations: Prioritising sustainability during the initial design phase means opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint of a product can be identified from the outset. In terms of shoe design, an example is where aesthetic features could be printed onto the base fabric rather than affixing the features to the shoe through cut and weld processes. This change has the dual benefit of reducing material and avoiding the electricity burden of the cutting and welding machines. Another example is using the right amount of material for the expected life of the shoe – not too much if it’s short, and not too little if it’s long.

  2. Choice of materials: Adopting materials with a lower environmental impact can lead to significant improvements to a shoe’s carbon footprint. Recycled materials, such as polyester or rubber are good alternatives to investigate. In addition, new scientific technologies have allowed the creation of sustainable materials that are bio-based, which can disintegrate more easily and return to nature, while also reducing waste.

  3. Circularity focus: Circularity means thinking about the product end-to-end, encompassing both the design and choice of materials. It’s important to think about waste and establish closed-loop systems throughout the life cycle of the product, including when users are finished with their footwear. An example is to consider whether there are opportunities to return a shoe to the company to repair or reuse its components. In addition, creating durable footwear that withstand wear and tear will extend product lifespans, reducing relative environmental impacts. Another example is to simplify the variety of materials, coupled with thinking about the means of recovery - if a shoe is mono-material, it’s possible to just shred it and make new shoes out of the material.

  4. Greener production methods: During the manufacturing processes, focus on optimising the use of machinery and opting for renewable energy sources. Review and modify procedures to make sure machines are not left idle, consuming unnecessary energy. Wherever possible, select factories that use a high proportion of onsite renewable energy, or if this is not yet feasible, purchase renewable energy credits. This will help to boost the market for renewables and display a demand for clean energy.

  5. Investigate emerging technologies: Explore technologies, such as Internet of Things devices and carbon accounting software, that can automate data collection and provide real-time insights into emissions. Not only can these solutions enhance the accuracy and efficiency of data gathering, they can ensure you remain compliant whilst also saving time and resources.

  6. Consider the entire value chain: Remember, emissions are hiding throughout the whole supply chain. An example is transport, where switching from air freight to cargo shipping to transport products can significantly cut emissions. Make sure to collaborate with industry partners and engage with suppliers whenever possible, whether this be for PCF data collection or to achieve shared sustainability goals.


Addressing emissions in the footwear value chain requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach that spans the entire lifecycle of a product. As consumers increasingly demand sustainable choices and governments tighten environmental regulations, footwear brands have a unique opportunity to drive innovation, enhance brand reputation and contribute to a more resilient planet.


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