A Step In The Right Direction: How Technology Boosts Sustainability in The Footwear Industry

Every year, more than 22 billion pairs of footwear are manufactured globally, and unfortunately, the majority of materials used to create these shoes leave a lasting impact on our planet. As the world recognizes the importance of sustainability, however, people are becoming more conscious about how their everyday purchases affect the planet. Because of this, many companies in the footwear industry are ramping up their efforts to increase their sustainability with the use of innovative technology.

In this article, we’ll look at how new technologies boost sustainability and the advantages of implementing these technologies in the footwear industry.

The Current Situation: Sustainability in the Footwear Industry 

The footwear industry has a lot of improving to do when it comes to sustainability. Not only is the majority of our footwear made and sourced from unsustainable materials such as leather, polyester, and nylon, but also most of the big brand footwear we support comes from the fast fashion industry. As a result, every pair of shoes produced has the potential to generate a lot of waste, consume a lot of energy, emit a lot of carbon, and facilitate unethical working conditions.

According to a 2024 study, the footwear industry contributes 1.4% of global carbon emissions by producing billions of pairs of shoes every year. Moreover, around 300 million of these pairs end up in landfills, and since most are made from non-biodegradable materials, these shoes will stay there for centuries before they degrade or decompose.

Luckily, an increasing number of footwear producers are taking steps to improve their sustainability. In 2024, 40% of global footwear companies had invested in sustainability programs, and 48% had announced plans to explore innovative sustainability methods in their footwear production. This comes in many forms, such as:

1. Finding sustainable alternatives to conventional footwear materials

Rather than using virgin materials with high carbon footprints, some shoe companies are investing in natural organic fibers, upcycled or recycled plastic materials, and plant-based vegan leather. These materials are excellent options that are far more sustainable than the plastics, rubber, and leather most footwear currently uses. By switching to more sustainable materials, footwear manufacturers can reduce energy and water consumption, waste, pollution, and the amount of carbon emitted during production.

2. Increasing transparency in the supply chain

Another way to ensure sustainability in the footwear industry is to promote supply chain transparency. This increases the visibility of the production process, shedding light on how the footwear is manufactured and tested, how the materials are sourced, and the working conditions of the facilities. This allows companies to ensure that all their suppliers and supply chain stages are adhering to high environmental standards.

3. Investing in renewable energy

Finally, investing in renewable energy can have a major impact not only on footwear companies but in any manufacturing facility. Switching to renewable energy will enable the company to significantly lower its carbon footprint from manufacturing operations. In fact, making this switch is one of the most important steps toward achieving net zero carbon emissions in any industry.

How Technology Boosts Sustainability in the Footwear Industry

Technology allows the footwear industry to step up its sustainability game in a variety of ways. Footwear companies today are increasingly adopting new technology, much of which can be used not only to boost profits, but to increase sustainability within the company’s supply chain.  According to a 2024 report, the use and value of artificial intelligence (AI) technology in the fashion industry – including footwear companies – is expected to skyrocket from $228 million to $1.26 billion by 2024. And it’s not just AI that will play a role in the footwear industry’s future; new software tools and platforms, automated production processes, and new forms of energy will all impact the industry’s future. Here’s how these technologies can boost the footwear industry’s sustainability efforts.

1. Boosting Sustainability in Operations

One of the most important methods of ensuring an eco-friendly supply chain is promoting transparency and visibility of suppliers to ensure compliance with any and all regulatory environmental standards. Shoe companies that monitor their suppliers are better able to ensure sustainable practices throughout their supply chain as a whole. Many footwear companies are now taking advantage of supplier quality management software to optimize supply chain monitoring and sourcing through digitalization. Increased visibility can also help reduce carbon footprints by minimizing the need for in-person facility visits and travel,  improving efficiency throughout the supply chain.

2. Boosting Sustainability in Production

Making high-quality and long-lasting footwear is a significant step toward sustainability, as it lessens the need for consumers to dispose of and replace footwear frequently. To achieve shoe products of the utmost quality, some companies use advanced technologies to design and create footwear. This not only helps produce higher quality products, but it ensures that the footwear meets consumer safety standards as well as the regulatory requirements of the target market. Here’s how technology can be used to automate the entire footwear-making process.

Design: AI designing software can be used to create a 3D design of any footwear imaginable. This is done by inputting the desired specifications and features of the shoe, such as size, style, material, color, and in some cases even the materials to be used. Doing so helps reduce waste from prototypes and products abandoned in the design phase.

Cutting, Stitching, and Modeling: Automated manufacturing machines have robotic arms to cut and stitch the materials together based on the 3D design. Automated machines can adjust the cutting and stitching patterns depending on the materials used, ensuring optimal results every time. Other components, such as the shoe’s insole, may be manufactured more precisely with 3D printers. This reduces the need for the unsafe and unethical working conditions often seen in the footwear industry, and minimizes waste from human error in production.

Quality Control: AI-powered quality control software can analyze collected data and make adjustments to improve the process and quality of the final product. Increasing efficiency and minimizing defects with AI and automated machinery can greatly reduce waste and improve the longevity of the product.

Finishing: Once the footwear is complete, an automated manufacturing machine can be used to add finishing touches, such as polishRing or adding decorative elements, designs, or colors. Oftentimes, these dyes and polishes are harmful to the environment and to the workers applying them, so by automating this process, manufacturers can minimize waste, spill, and human contact with harmful chemicals.

3. Boosting Sustainability in Energy Sources

Along with AI technology and automated manufacturing machines, technology plays a significant role in making renewable energy more available, accessible, and affordable for the footwear industry. Here are a few ways the growth of renewable energy technology is used in the footwear industry’s manufacturing, operations, and delivery processes:

Smart Grids: Smart grids use advanced sensors, communication systems, and analytics to monitor and manage the flow of energy of an entire facility in real time. These grids can integrate renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, with the existing power grid, improving its efficiency and reliability, as well as detecting any changes in energy usage or malfunctions

Energy Storage: Energy storage systems, such as batteries, can store excess energy generated from renewable sources during off-peak hours and release it during peak demand hours. This ensures a steady and consistent supply of energy and reduces the need for backup fossil fuel-based power.

Clean Energy: Solar panels have become more efficient and affordable in recent years due to advancements in technology. New materials and designs have led to higher conversion rates, reducing the cost per watt of solar energy. Similar to solar panels, wind turbines have also become more efficient and cost-effective due to advances in technology. New designs of wind turbines have increased energy output and reduced maintenance costs. Additionally, the development of offshore wind farms has opened up new areas for renewable energy production. These can benefit the footwear company by reducing production costs through energy, while also stepping up their sustainability practices.

Additionally, electric vehicles are also becoming more popular and accessible, which is driving the demand for renewable energy. Many electric vehicle owners are also installing solar panels or wind turbines to power their vehicles. Electric vehicles can be used in transporting materials in manufacturing facilities, or even on deliveries.

According to International Energy Agency (IEA), renewable energy is expected to cover more than 90% of global electricity growth within the next ten years, replacing coal as the world’s largest source of energy by 2025. Several major footwear companies, including Nike and Lane Eight, have already committed to using 100% renewable energy to create their products. This will allow them to reduce their operating costs while also minimizing their carbon footprint, potentially enabling them to reach net-zero emissions in their production.

Technological innovation is already playing a significant role in improving the sustainability of the footwear industry in our modern age. As technology advances, sustainable practices will become more achievable and accessible in the footwear industry.

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