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How sustainable is the footwear industry?

By Regina Henkel

Apr 6, 2022

Fashion |Background

Photo: Maksim Goncharenok via Pexels

The topic of sustainability is also gaining momentum in the footwear industry - although one hears far less about it compared to the apparel industry, especially when it comes to leather products. Why is that and where exactly does the industry stand?

Leather is one of the most important raw materials in the footwear industry. But how can one tell if the leather - or even the whole shoe - has been produced sustainably? With the help of certificates, for example. In the apparel industry, many such sustainability certificates have emerged in recent years for a wide variety of areas. Even though the myriad of labels has become confusing, certificates help consumers recognise whether a brand is taking responsibility and whether one product is more sustainable than another. So let's start with the certificates: What labels and initiatives does the footwear industry have to offer?

Certificates and initiatives: How to recognise sustainable leather?

There is the Leather Standard by Oeko-Tex, which, like the Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex, certifies the safety of the product for human health. It serves to protect the consumer and not ecological or social standards in the process chain.

The “Naturleder IVN certified” standard of the International Association of the Natural Textile Industry (IVN) is considered the strictest certificate for sustainable leather. It contains specifications for all stages along the process chain from the raw material to the sale and use of the finished leather (not the processed leather product though). However, this standard is at best known in German-speaking countries and there is no English-language equivalent for it, it is called “Naturleder IVN certified” even in English.

Then, there is the London-based Leather Working Group (LWG), which is a multi-stakeholder initiative with various players from industry, trade, NGOs and institutes. However, it certifies companies, not products, and is therefore little known to consumers. Its membership has grown enormously in recent years: from 160 organisations at the beginning of 2017 to 1,300 today, including many big names from Adidas to Zalando.

And then there is Cads, the German industry initiative based at the German Footwear Institute (DSI) in Offenbach. It was founded in 2008 to improve product safety and to set limit values for harmful substances, hence its full name “Cooperation for Assured Defined Standards for Footwear and Leather Goods Products e.V.”. There are currently 76 members, including big names like ANWR, Sabu, Birkenstock, Görtz, Gabor, C&A, Deichmann, Ricosta, Picard, Lloyd and Lowa. The organisation does not award a certificate, so consumers are probably completely unaware of the initiative.

Sustainable Terracare leather from leather company Josef Heinen. Photo: Lederfabrik Josef Heinen

Cads: pioneering work for avoiding chromium VI

In fact, Cads has achieved quite a lot: “Historically, we were born out of the prevention of pollutants and in 2015 we published a guide for leather manufacturers for the first time to train them to avoid the formation of chromium VI,” explains Manfred Junkert, managing director at Cads. The manual has been translated into many languages and has become a standard work for the global leather industry. “I have often heard that our Cads handbook is something like the manufacturers’ bible. We've seen a significant improvement and impact of our work on producing countries in recent years,” says Junkert. It is always about pooling knowledge and passing it on to manufacturers. For example, Cads publishes a Restricted Substances List (RSL), which is developed and updated annually to eliminate harmful substances from the production process or further limit their use. Cads limits are often above the legal requirements and above the European regulation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), says Junkert.

By now, the focus has broadened to include social standards, environmental protection, a circular economy and awareness of CO2 emissions.

Those who join Cads voluntarily commit to meeting the deliberately ambitious goals. “Cads has always seen itself as an alliance of the willing. We try to be a pioneer,” Junkert adds. Only the external communication has been neglected so far but Cads now wants to change that.

How sustainable can leather be? Leather manufacturer Josef Heinen

Leather is a natural product that is a by-product of the meat industry. It is therefore not specially produced and not using it would not be sustainable. However, leather processing is considered particularly dirty, which is why tanneries today are mainly found in low-wage countries. German leather manufacturer Josef Heinen proves that there is another way: Now in its fourth generation, the company has been making environmental protection a top priority for decades.

More than 15 years ago, Heinen developed the Terracare label as a trademark for its sustainable leathers. Sustainability starts with the origin of the animal skins. “We only work with German slaughterhouses that source their animals from nearby and are well inspected,” explains managing partner Thomas Heinen. This way, he can ensure that all processes comply with the law and are as quick and painless as possible for the animals. To ensure that the hides are not damaged on their way to the tannery, Heinen keeps them cool. “This way, we preserve the hides and can completely dispense with their environmentally harmful salting.” This environmentally friendly measure is impossible in the globalised tanning guild: since most hides come from North and South America, but most leather is tanned in Asia, no cold chain can be maintained during the long transport.

The tanning process requires many chemicals, but much can be improved there as well. “In most countries, chemicals are all about price,” says Heinen. “There are good alternatives, but they are often much more expensive.” Heinen also works with chrome tanning and manages his chemical input using RSL lists and the REACH regulation, but also pays attention to how sustainably the substances are transported, whether they are biodegradable and whether they remain in the finished product later on.

First walkers by Ricosta, certified with the Blue Angel. Photo: Ricosta

Ricosta: the footwear industry’s first Blue Angel of

The German label for children's footwear, Ricosta, is one of the brands that use Terracare leather from Heinen in their products. In addition, Ricosta is a member of Cads and, by its own admission, the first children's shoe company in the world to have a product certified with the Blue Angel. Ricosta has just introduced this certification and chose it because of its high profile, even though it has not yet played a role in the fashion industry.

“The sustainability of the footwear industry is not communicated as much as it should be,” says Jörg Ertl, member of Ricosta’s management board. A Blue Angel certification could set an example. It stands for high environmental standards in production and compliance with social standards. Many of the company's products meet the label’s requirements, but the enormous amount of documentation required prevents more shoes from being certified with it. Ricosta established an environmental management system as early as 1997 and produces exclusively in its own factories in Europe. Most of the leather also comes from Germany and Italy. “We have the entire value chain in our own hands. That is especially important for children's shoes,” explains Ertl.

The shoe industry, however, does not need its own standard - for example, issued by Cads. “I counted once, there are 132 standards. That's madness and hard to keep track of. We don't want to hide behind the labels, but offer end consumers many possibilities to inform themselves, including live chats on our website,” says Ertl.

Jan Kratochvil (right) and Marek Brincil with Winqs’ award-winning shoe Zerofly. Photo: Winqs

New sustainable labels conquer the market

The fact that the footwear and leather industry is now starting to communicate its good deeds better may also have something to do with the fact that leather has increasingly fallen into disrepute in recent years. Especially on the part of veganism. Anna Blunck, head of buying at sustainable online marketplace Avocado Store, has also noticed this: “The most frequent question from our customers is: Is the shoe vegan? Many people believe that vegan is the same as sustainable, which of course is not the case. There is still a lot of education to be done,” she says in an online conference of the footwear industry.

Pressure is also mounting from elsewhere: Sustainable newcomers like Allbirds are taking international markets by storm, driven by social media, the DTC business and consumers' desire for sustainable shoes. Berlin-based start-up Winqs has just won an Ispo Award for its sustainable Zerofly running shoe. It is made almost entirely from bio-based or recycled materials. “Many plant-based materials today are even more efficient than plastic, which is popular for cost reasons,” says Jan Kratochvil, co-founder of Winqs. The company also offers a repair service and takes back shoes for recycling.

Kratochvil himself has worked in the footwear industry for a long time and has seen that many brands do individual lighthouse projects, but are not getting anywhere when it comes to converting them into mass production. “Which is also due to the fact that the traditionally positioned footwear industry is exposed to enormous price and margin pressure.” As a newcomer, Winqs has the advantage of being able to start from scratch, with a stronger DTC business, selective dealer network and without the obligation to continue previous distribution channels.

Circular economy is still in its infancy for footwear

Although there has been progress in improving individual process steps in footwear manufacturing, the question of how shoes could be recycled at the end of their useful life is still completely unresolved. A shoe made of mono-materials that nevertheless fulfils all functional requirements has not yet been invented. The alternative, namely the disassembly of the shoe into its components in order to return them to the production cycle, has so far failed due to feasibility. “The basic problem with shoes is the multitude of different materials in them. The effort required to separate these materials and return them to the product cycle is very high. In principle, our soles, which we inject directly, could be granulated after separation and the granulate used elsewhere. We are researching and working on different possibilities”, explains Ertl of Ricosta.

Timberland’s Euro Hikers whose soles are made of at least 40 percent recycled rubber. Photo: Timberland

Timberland recently announced that it is releasing a shoe in time for Earth Day that is durable yet easy to take apart and recycle. The brand has been working with recycled leather from production scraps and recycled rubber for some time. But even this is just a lighthouse project for now. As in many other industries, recycling and the circular economy are still in their infancy in the footwear industry.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.