This week, ethical shoe brand Po-Zu will unveil its Star Wars-themed footwear at the FFANY trade show in New York as part of a major collaboration with the movie franchise. It’s a highly significant launch for Po-Zu, as it will enable the UK-based manufacturer to bring its products to a wider market and raise public awareness over the ‘dark side’ of the shoe trade.
The footwear industry is not known for its ethical or environmental practices. Used shoes are a landfill magnet – one study suggests less than 5 percent of waste from post-consumer shoes is recycled. Material toxicity is also a concern, with leather shoes being particularly problematic: 85 percent of the world’s leather is thought to be tanned using chromium, which is considered one of the world’s worst pollutants.
There are questionable supply chain labour practices too, with many workers exploited for what is often considered a cheap commodity. According to a recent report from NGO Labour Behind the Label, just over 2 percent of the final price of a pair of shoes goes towards the wages of workers who manufactured them, whereas about a quarter of the price remains with the brand company and one-third with the retailer.
Po-Zu founder Sven Segal believes the sector is lagging far behind other fashion industries when it comes to ethics and sustainability: “The footwear industry is highly competitive and sustainable practices do come at a cost,” he says.
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Part of the problem stems from how shoes are made. A single shoe can contain 65 parts that require 360 different steps for assembly. This level of complex construction also makes it difficult to separate the parts at end-of-life, for recycling or reuse. Like fellow footwear renegade Lyf Shoes, Po-Zu’s approach focuses on easier disassembly and repair – the company uses a glueless construction process, meaning that the main components can be removed pretty much intact.
Po-Zu is big on natural material use, as well, and has developed its own coconut technology utilising the waste husk of the fruit – the shock-absorbing qualities of coconut husk make an ideal material for shoe soles, according to Segal. The husk also moulds itself to the shape of a foot, whilst the fibres maintain breathability and aid insulation.
These types of circular principles have yet to be adopted more widely within the industry, but Po-Zu is aiming to change that. In October, the company launched the Better Shoes Foundation, an open-source platform that aims to shine a light on good practice within the sector across all supply chain disciplines – design, material selection, manufacturing, transport, consumption, and post-consumer life.
The site also includes resources such as a directory of sustainable shoe brands, links to national and international campaigns, and a summary of current legal requirements, standards and available certifications.
“It’s something that I wanted to do for a very long time,” Segal says. “I’ve been thinking what else I can do that is bigger than our own business? There are a number of little brands out there doing their own thing and they are very focused on their own specific way of making sustainable shoes, but it’s rare for us to step out and look at the bigger picture.”
Over time, Segal hopes to add to the platform. “The more we put into it, the greater benefit it will bring. I’d love to make the site more interactive, with perhaps an online forum for exchanging ideas, collaborating with other people and other brands to scale these activities up.”
While some of the larger sportswear brands such as adidas, Nike and Puma are working to bring more sustainable footwear to the market, Segal says this type of innovation is still thin on the ground, and can be time-limited.
“There is a lot more that can be done. Some of these innovations run for a while and then stop. I would love to see more closed loop footwear take-back schemes offered by the big brands, for instance, but there are challenges with logistics behind these schemes – it’s far from easy to implement.”
Po-Zu has been working with the UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to develop a shoe repair scheme, and expects to launch this as a pilot early next year. Segal says the trial will involve 50 to 100 pairs of shoes, but hopes it will eventually roll out to all customers.
“It’s about making the most of the resources that have been used in making those first pair of shoes and stretching those resources out as long as possible,” he says. “Take-back schemes for end-of-life [shoes] is quite a beast to tackle - we’re just not there yet. I think there’s a lot more that needs to done in terms of research and development in this field.”