Sustainability from head to toe

Sustainability is no longer simply a trend in the fashion industry. Sneakers and clothing are increasingly being made from biomass, organic textiles or locally sourced materials. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Reebok has launched a sneaker with an upper part made from organic cotton and a sole from corn. (Image credit: Reebok)

Reebok recently launched its first sustainable shoe.

“We took our tried-and-true sneaker silhouette and made a shoe from things that grow,” the American company’s website said.

One hundred per cent of the NPC UKL Cotton + Corn’s upper section is cotton. Corn and other biomass comprise around 75 per cent of the sole.

“So you can feel good about what you’re wearing,” the website said.

Engrained in textile industry’s DNA

The new $95 sneaker illustrates how fashion has embraced sustainability.

“Sustainability is no longer a trend, this is fact in all industries, and no more importantly than the textile sector as we look to new terminology from bio to circular economy products,” wrote ISPO, the German-based world’s largest trade fair for sporting goods and sportswear, recently.

“Now sustainability is engrained in the textile industry’s DNA.”

Manufacturers produce around 20 billion pairs of shoes a year, according to industry figures. Around 300 million a year end up in landfills. Those numbers are off-putting to well-heeled customers who can pay to look good but want to avoid the guilt associated with today’s throwaway culture.

Plastic is still plastic after recycling

“It didn’t start out with corn and cotton,” said Reebok Vice President Bill McInnis in an interview with CBS. “It started out with recycling, compostability, where do we want to land? Our issue with recycling is, you recycle plastic, it’s still plastic. You’re not getting rid of the problem.”

The idea follows a decision by Germany’s Adidas to partner with Parley for the Oceans, an environmental group seeking to curb plastic pollution. The company announced earlier this year that it had sold around 1 million sneakers made from plastic hauled from the seas.

Sustainability is more than just products

The trend is not only in shows.

Elle UK magazine recently devoted an entire issue to sustainability. Among those profiled in the issue was Francis Corner, a pioneer in sustainable fashion. Along with her colleagues at the London College of Fashion, Corner said designers, models and customers need to consider the economics of fashion as well as materials and methods of production.

“We’ve woken up to the issue of having an emotional connection with clothes,” Corner told the magazine. “There are more people in the world in slavery than when it was repealed 200 years ago. Sustainability is about considering plastic, water, pesticides, pollution and the energy it takes to transport those materials. But it’s also about the people making the clothes. We shouldn’t want to put something on that somebody has suffered making.”

Targeting the environmentally minded

Others have already taken her cue.

California-based secondtoNAKED recently launched with the aim of cornering the market on active wear and yoga gear for the environmentally minded. The platform sells only apparel made from organic, alternative or recycled raw materials made locally in the United States.

“We are thrilled to be the first company to provide an online shopping experience for women that want active wear that is both creatively designed and contribute to conserving our planet,” said the website’s founder and chief executive, Bastien Faure, in a statement.

“secondtoNAKED aims to be an active part in shaping the way the industry creates, sources, and purchases apparel…with a heightened sense of what is good for the environment and for people.”

Not without its controversies

Sustainable fashion has stirred controversies. Purchasing locally made clothes sounds like a good idea, but it might also harm a seamstress in the developing world trying to improve her life situation. Alternatively, buying mass-produced goods means supporting potentially lax labour standards in South Asia. Similarly, Reebok’s shoes are a nice effort. But few low-income families will be purchasing the expensive shoes.

Linda Greer, a scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, has said companies need to take more steps that won’t necessarily boost prices or harm workers in developing countries, like taking more control of their production process.

“They are comfortable with a dense fog of opacity about their own supply chain—which makes it conveniently possible to ignore the impacts of their manufacture,” Greer wrote in a blog post in April. “In particular, the vast majority of brands still don’t know where their fabric is dyed. BIG problem, since this step with the heaviest environmental footprint.”

The corn shoe might be pricey, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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