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A greener future for footwear: How eco-friendly chemicals can revolutionise sneaker production

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Image: UPM

The latest sneaker drops from the world’s leading sportswear manufacturers are likely to be made with plastic components.

For example, a foam used in most sneaker midsoles is derived from fossil fuels. While the thought of wearing plastic shoes rarely enters the fashion dialogue, these materials are manufactured from petrochemicals, which is derived from fossil fuels, the same as plastic.

Innovation in the footwear industry

Thankfully there is innovation on the horizon. UPM, a leading biochemicals company, is investing 750 million euros to build a biorefinery to create the next generation of sustainable biochemicals. These biochemicals would replace fossil-based raw materials with a multitude of end uses, including textiles and materials for the footwear industry.

German-based UPM Biochemicals is partnering with Korean-owned Dongsung Chemical to accelerate the introduction of renewable, sustainable forest-sourced materials into the Asian market and reduce fossil resource consumption. One strategic element of the partnership between these two giant chemical producers is to develop renewable products using bio-based raw materials, initially for footwear.

FashionUnited spoke with Marvin Strüfing, Sales Director at UPM Biochemicals, to ask about application possibilities and scalability. Mr Strüfing said any sneaker or sporting shoe made with polyurethane (PU) could be replaced with a bio-based material. PU is used for both upper materials and midsoles or padding foam, and is cheaply available in thousands of different colours and textures.

The eco-friendly chemical alternative is called Bio-MEG and is produced from sustainably sourced, certified hardwood obtained from forests in the regions around Leuna in Germany, where the new biorefinery is to be built. The biomass does not compete with food resources and has a reduced carbon footprint in comparison to fossil fuel-based MEG.

Mr Strüfing iterated that any polyurethane maker could utilise UPM’s BioPura MEG as an alternative material, making sneaker production that much more sustainable and a green alternative to the fossil MEG in polyurethane. The footwear industry has taken note and some brands with serious sustainability goals have already expressed interest, however due to NDA’s their names could not be disclosed.

Why a little foam in a shoe is a big problem

Considering the billions of sneakers and shoes manufactured every year, the amount of PU and fossil fuel-based materials needed to meet demand is furiously rising. The process of extracting fossil fuels has grave consequences for the environment and like PET bottles, the foam in footwear is an equal contributor to the world's reliance on plastic.

Replacing petrochemicals with natural alternatives is just one step towards a sustainable future and a greener alternative for sneakers and footwear.

Next gen materials