Reincarnating the shoe - that’s what some global brands in footwear are attempting to do with sustainability’s latest solution to a mounting climate change problem. A circular economy refers to an ecosystem where fashion is designed with its end-of-life state being top-of-mind. Circular fashion and footwear are designed specifically to be recycled into new items made from the old. From the individual fibres of a t-shirt to the type of glue that binds shoe parts together, circular fashion is dedicated to reimagining how garments are made to avoid deeper damage to the planet and its resources. 

Up to 92 million tonnes of clothing and footwear end up in landfills around the globe each year, making the fashion industry one of the most significant contributors to waste and carbon dioxide emissions. “Circular fashion is a closed-loop system that aims to design out waste,” states the Sustainable Fashion Forum. 

Europe’s share of footwear consumption in 2022 sat at 14.9% of the global total, equaling 3.58 billion shoe purchases across the continent, and of those shoe purchases, how many can we say once had a life in another home on another foot as another shoe? As circularity initiatives grow for clothing and accessories through resale marketplaces and brand-run programs, shoes have been largely left behind. However, 2023 saw a positive uptick in footwear brands who want to see their shoes live several lives. Omnia delves into why it’s so difficult for shoe brands to create circularity and who’s doing it right.

Why it’s harder for shoe brands to create circularity vs clothing 

It may be harder, but it’s still possible, and brands are proving it.

Footwear is generally made to last longer than clothing, especially in the sports and outdoor aisle, with plastic, rubber and leather used for most shoe products. National Geographic reports that 47% of all footwear is made of plastic and rubber, making the 23.9 billion shoes produced globally in 2022 one of the most sustainably challenged products in retail and textile production. Clothing, on the other hand, is a much simpler item to create a circular ecosystem with, as items usually involve one to two materials. “Footwear has up to 200 different parts that go into one shoe,” says Adidas’ Senior Director of Sustainability Viviane Gut. 

Because of this, some global fashion companies have made concerted efforts to install circularity initiatives including H&M’s goal to become completely circular by 2030 by utilising 100% recycled and sustainability-sourced materials. There’s Farfetch, the UK-based marketplace for pre-owned luxury fashion and accessories, whose second-quarter results for 2023 showed 4.1 million active shoppers and a 40% year-on-year increase in supply growth. 

In essence, creating a more sustainable t-shirt or reselling a used blazer is less expensive and more seamless than going back to the drawing board of recreating how the shoe is made. However, this doesn’t mean it isn’t being done: In November, the Business of Fashion reported that eight global brands including New Balance, Crocs, Target, Brooks Running, Reformation, Ecco, Vibram and On are banding together under the name The Footwear Collective to share knowledge and resources to expand the circular shoe economy, which is the first of its kind within the shoe market. 

In addition, Nike debuted its first circular shoe in August 2023 entitled ISPA Link Axis. As the world’s largest sneaker producer, Nike calculated their carbon footprint to be over 11.7 million metric tonnes of CO2 in 2020 alone, equating this impact to what the entire city of Amsterdam, Netherlands may offset in the same period, further proving how necessary it is for global brands to create circularity and end-to-end sustainability. Each component of the shoe is made from recycled materials and no glue, making it the ideal shoe to be disassembled and reinvented once more. Assembling the Link Axis is also more energy efficient, as it does not require time and resources to glue the sole to the upper parts of the sneaker.


Nike ISPA Link Axis


Where does the circular economy begin?

Creating a closed-loop ecosystem where garments essentially never become waste is central to a circular economy. However, at the heart of the conversation, the first question brand leaders and retail entrepreneurs can ask themselves is, if we can’t rely on consumers to resell our garments or take part in branded circular initiatives, how do we kickstart circularity from the inside out? How do we at least guarantee that our manufacturing and production practices are low-impact? 

Allbirds, the shoe brand that’s made a name for itself for its innovation in sustainability and carbon offsetting, has already done more than most to create a greener product when they launched a sneaker in 2015 made out of Merino wool from sustainable farming and recycling. The sneaker’s fame came from the fact that it only had a small carbon footprint of 9.9 kilograms, however, this success only motivated Allbirds to go further. In mid-2023, the brand launched a new sneaker at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen that offsets 0.0 kilograms of carbon dioxide, making it one of the first sneakers to be carbon neutral. For Allbirds, this is all part of their long-term goal of reaching a 50% reduction in their carbon footprint by 2025, culminating in a 0% carbon footprint by 2030.


Allbirds The Moonshot

In essence, circularity needs to start at the root including materials, manufacturing, transportation, product use, and end-of-life which may include the resale market, return initiatives, brand-run programs, and recycling. 


New rules for the new world

The very first shoe, created approximately 9,000 years ago and discovered in California, USA, was made out of sagebrush bark that simply covered the toes and the sole. Today, the sophistication and variety of footwear are evident from Prada to Nike to Timberland and everything in between. 

As fashion and footwear brands continue to release new items in the coming decades and centuries, one thing is for certain: The rules for producing, manufacturing and discarding will change. Policy, public scrutiny and changing consumer behaviour will edge and direct brands to revisit their production, distribution and end-of-life methods time and time again to ensure greener products are the end result.

Creating and taking part in a circular economy for shoes and fashion is one of the best solutions for brands and consumers to lower their carbon footprint, reduce landfill accumulation and make full use of the materials used. “When you use materials seven, eight, or 10 times over, then the footprint goes down dramatically,” said On’s co-founder Caspar Coppetti to the Business of Fashion, the Swiss shoe brand that’s been backed by Roger Federer. “You have to really go to the source and develop new processes, new technologies, scale them … and then there’s a lot more investment needed.”