Supply Chain Shakeup   //   July 5, 2023

Footwear brands are racing to pioneer carbon-conscious shoes

Carbon neutral. Carbon zero. Carbon negative. More footwear brands are announcing carbon-conscious shoes, albeit under different labels.

Last week, Allbirds unveiled the design of what it’s calling “the world’s first carbon zero shoes.” Allbirds says that its shoe, which is called M0.0NSHOT, “will be achieved without relying on a single carbon offset.” As part of its announcement, Allbirds published a 26-page playbook called the RECIPE B0.0K to help other companies follow in its footsteps.

Allbirds’ news follows similar announcements by other footwear companies — although each uses specific vocabulary to mirror different scientific processes. Last September, On Running revealed its Cloudprime shoe, which it says is made entirely from captured carbon emissions from sources like steel mills. On uses the shoe as a proof of concept of its CleanCloud technology, although it hopes to bring the shoe to market in the next few years. In fall 2022, Brooks Running announced its first carbon-neutral shoe, the Ghost 15. According to Brooks Running, 24% of the total shoe weight is from recycled materials. The shoe is available for sale through Brooks Running’s website, as well as through partners like DSW and Moosejaw. It lists anywhere from $99.99 to $140.

More footwear companies are stepping up their commitments to sustainability amid growing conversations around fashion’s environmental impact. For some brands, this effort involves using sustainable and vegan materials such as cactus leather and fruit skins. Other brands focus on using recycled materials like plastic water bottles, creating low-impact dyeing processes and sourcing materials from factories that use renewable energy. According to Circana, the percent of sales of running and casual sneakers using recycled materials increased more than five times from May 2020 to May 2023.

While companies continue to stress individual steps they’re taking, “that message has evolved,” Beth Goldstein, footwear and accessories industry analyst at Circana, told Modern Retail. “It’s becoming understood that sustainability is more than just one of those elements. It’s really a holistic strategy.” At the same time, however, “if the materials aren’t exactly the focus, ‘we’re doing a lot on the back end’ is hard to communicate to consumers,” Goldstein said.

To help with this, companies are increasingly folding carbon into the conversation. In 2020, Allbirds began labeling 100% of its products with their carbon footprints. (The company says that the average sneaker, industry-wide, uses 14 kg CO2e.) In accordance with the Paris Agreement, several companies — including Nike and New Balance — have resolved to become net zero by 2050. Brooks Running wants to have zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Accomplishing such a mission can be difficult, expensive and time-intensive, because it involves adjusting a company’s supply chain and manufacturing processes. Today, some companies turn to carbon offsetting — like investing in planting trees or solar or wind power projects — to “make up” for the carbon that they use to produce their shoes. Companies that do so typically label their products as “carbon neutral.” Companies with products labeled as “net zero” say they are eliminating carbon from the get-go, so there is no need to do offsetting in the first place.

Allbirds says that its new shoe, which it plans to release in 2024, “is the culmination of years of work to reduce carbon across our business and products since day one.” According to Allbirds, the shoe uses regenerative wool, a foam insole derived from sugarcane and bioplastic eyelets made from microorganisms that convert methane into a moldable polymer. The shoe is packaged in “the most carbon-efficient packaging we’ve ever had,” Allbirds added.

Allbirds certainly has an audience for its shoe, as many consumers today are interested in sustainability. A study conducted by Circana in January found that 27% of respondents who planned to buy footwear in the next six months said sustainability was important to them when purchasing shoes. This went up to 40% for Gen Z. “This interest in sustainable products is definitely being generated from that younger consumer,” Goldstein pointed out.

At the same time, consumers aren’t always aware of what carbon zero or carbon neutral may mean. “I think if you were to ask people, they wouldn’t be able to define it,” Sucharita Kodali, vp and principal analyst at Forrester, told Modern Retail. “They probably think, ‘Oh it’s a good thing, and there’s no harm, as long as it doesn’t cost me more.'”

Besides pricing, this educational aspect is crucial for companies to get right. Brooks Running, for instance, has an entire page on its website dedicated to its carbon-neutral shoe process, and Allbirds says that its RECIPE B0.0K “open sources” its toolkit, although co-founder Tim Brown acknowledged in an open letter that “we’re still in early days.” The RECIPE B0.0K contains brief chapters on M0.0NSHOT’s design, materials, packaging, manufacturing and transportation — information that other brands can use as a template to make their own shoes and that consumers can use to better understand the process.

Not every consumer will want to read a full report, though. And, as an additional complication, language can be confusing. “Everybody is kind of using their own messaging, and there isn’t quite standardization yet,” Goldstein said. “Maybe rules and regulations and standards are still kind of being set there.”

Kodali agreed. “I’m pleased that companies are doing this,” she said. “However, I think that the downside is that there’s no auditing of this. And nobody knows how authentic or true they actually are.” This is especially true in the United States, she explained, where “we trust authorities, but the issue is that authorities haven’t necessarily proven that they’re good stewards of any of this yet.”

Some companies say they’re keeping track of this information themselves. Allbirds’ RECIPE B0.0K, for example, says the brand holds itself accountable via a Life Cycle Assessment tool, which it says “is third-party verified against the requirements of ISO 14067, which specifies principles, requirements and guidelines for calculating the carbon footprint of a product.” At the same time, without state or federal regulation, people are forced to simply take companies at their word.

Still, brands that do take a crack at decreasing their carbon footprints — especially within the footwear industry — are taking the right steps, Goldstein said. However, there’s a long ways to go in terms of progress.

“The products that are out there, that are coming out in the very early stages, may not be the ultimate, but I think the learnings, the scaling and all of that will help bring that into the future,” she said.