Sustainability in the Footwear Supply Chain

Sustainability in the Footwear Supply Chain

The footwear and apparel industries have witnessed an ever increasing focus on supply chain sustainability and for many brands and retailers this is seen as one of the most critical areas of focus within their business.  For the supply chain, identifying what is covered under the term ‘sustainability’ and understanding the key steps that can be taken is at the core of improving the overall industry performance.

Sustainability is multi-faceted and many definitions are available[1]. In essence, it can be considered as an approach to ensure that resources are not irreversibly depleted and that the overall environment is not negatively impacted.  As such, there is much that the footwear industry can and must do to meet even a basic sustainability performance.

Sustainability is often seen by suppliers as a cost of doing business and many fail to identify the financial benefits in adopting a robust sustainability program.  There are many case studies in the footwear industry which have demonstrated product and process optimisations driven directly by the introduction of a sustainability program.  By looking to minimise the use of all types of resources such as energy, water, chemical and raw materials a concomitant reduction in processing and product costs can be achieved.

Within footwear manufacturing some key aspects to be considered are overall footwear design, raw material selection and manufacturing processes:

  • Designing footwear that allows fewer components to be used, ensuring that the material usage (e.g. by cutting or molding) can be reduced and enabling fewer and more efficient manufacturing processes to be adopted enables some of the greatest sustainability improvements to be achieved.
  • Selection of the most appropriate raw materials used for each footwear component can offer large sustainability benefits without negatively impacting on product performance. The use of recycled materials, lightweight products and materials with a better overall environmental profile also lead to significant benefits
  • Once the product design and material selections have been optimised, it is then necessary to look at each manufacturing operation to determine where sustainability improvements can be made. Examples include energy and water usage (which is also linked to product design and material selection) and types of products and products used to be combine the various components such as adhesives, direct moulding, etc

It is clear that global brands are committed to continuously improving sustainability.  It has also been observed that this commitment has led to a consolidation of the number of suppliers with whom the brands work and therefore increased business for those suppliers whose commitment and capability meet those of their brands.  Not only can a robust sustainability program help the footwear manufactures reduce costs it can also lead to increased market share.  Finally, we shouldn’t forget that ultimately the environment and subsequent generations will benefit which, after all, is the primary goal of sustainability.

[1] One generally used definition from the Bruntland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future from 1987 is “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”