Tracking the Future of Sustainable Footwear

Expanding the market for "green" shoes means more than changing materials of construction. We’ll need to 'steal our eyes back' from our culture and stop seeing improvement only in terms of material substitution. Lets explore this with a historic boot design, one completely bereft of the synthetic. This "Tracker" design by Russell Mocassin Co may not fit the upscale urban aesthetic, but it deserves a closer look it as it embodies much of what a sustainable future should offer. Save the shopping for later, we’re going to do some big picture scenario thinking first.

The present offers a fad-driven, daunting place from which to think of the future. Current offerings range from the elegant, to the wildly decorous. "New" designs are rapidly cloned, as soon as labor and materials can be more cheaply put together somewhere else. Holding corporate market share calls for constant design change. This seems to have created an unbreakable cycle.

Some people consume shoes in great quantity, while others keep only a few pairs. Some keep them polished; others come to work looking like they walked through the barnyard. Cost per pair can vary by two orders of magnitude. ‘Vegans’ prefer leather-free footwear, and hunters, oddly enough, seem to do likewise. Serious walking is almost exclusively a recreational pursuit. Nonetheless, "walking shoes" are regularly worn to work, and work shoes worn for recreation. Technologies leap-frog market segments periodically.

Greater uncertainties loom. After the 1960’s, US retail stores installed the famous "no shirt, no shoes, no service" signs; and many forbade sandals. Today schools ban "flip flops" and "open toes". Yet, we are a nation filling with immigrants of the sandal. In Europe, dress leather sandals are may be acceptable for warm weather dress, and the US is getting interested. Climate is changing, winter receding. Do we need snow boots, or more sandals?

Human biology is a driver too. It’s surprisingly common for people to have one foot a half-size different than the other. There are shoe swap clubs for those of mis-matched feet: they switch on size and style to get a fitting pair for each. Otherwise, these folk put up with a certain amount of foot sloshing and a bent-toed look on one shoe. When traditionally, they might have seen a custom shoemaker, this is the only recourse now.

Aging normally brings flat feet in many. The heavier you are, earlier in life you may seek out a model with more arch support. The trend toward the sneaker derivative design is not going away until the underlying culture and demographics change.

Given all of the above, you might think that we'd prefer our footwear be made close to home, offering the customer some direct involvement in design and material selection. Reality is exactly the opposite: all footwear comes from corporate R&D and market research, and the making is "off-shored". This has the flavor of what scenario planners call a "pre-determined" driver, a powerful force hidden in plain view.

Those few custom shoemakers that remain, feature traditional materials and keep customer loyalty by their specialty models, high standards of quality, long lived designs, and repair services. Russell Mocassin Co , one I put in this group, is an interesting example for a scenario exercise.

Lets begin with a puzzler. What was invented first: sox; or, shoes? Hmmm. In temperate climes, I think, moccasins came first. Anecdotal evidence: Europe’s "Ice Man" was found wearing moccasins stuffed with straw for insulation. In the Middle East, maybe it was sandals first, but first footwear for temperate climates had to be moccasins.

Jump ahead to the early 1900’s. What would shoe buying be like? You’d drive your Ford to the shoemaker’s waiting room, take an order sheet, and trace the outline with a pencil. If you had different sized feet, you’d trace both and indicate the difference. You’d then select a model, pick custom add-ons , make a payment, and few weeks later you stop by to pick up your "order". When soles wore out or an eyelet tore, you’d get them "re-manufactured" to original specification.

Our example company currently uses the mail to make tracings, orders, delivery, and "re-manufacturing" happen. But a front office visit is still welcomed. Nonetheless, putting the Trackers on now is to step into a time machine. A true moccasin feels nothing like the faux-moc construction that modern shoes have. The cradling now comes from plastic-based inserts instead.

I’m guessing that the design progression from moccasin to today’s box-toed, hard-soled designs is roughly this. By mid-1900’s, commercial shoemakers had mostly switched to uppers stitched and/or glued directly onto hard soles. City pavement walking had required extra layers of hard leather sole to hold off wear and allow for re-building of soles. However, by the late 1970’s makers largely dropped leather soles for rubber or urethane foam. Shoe nails disappeared; sneakers ruled; and ever more of us lived in the no-walk suburbs. The good news was that shoes got lighter and less expensive. Kids did not have to suffer poor fitting hand-me-downs. The bad news is you have to buy shoes more often, and much seems based on celebrity. There is more throughput, more collective waste. The trajectory to zero-natural materials in mass-market shoes peaked in the 1980’s, about the point when most of our oil was imported.

In a half a century, footwear went from being valuable, carefully maintained possessions to cheap commodities of shortened design life. What factors might plausibly lead to a more sustainable future for footwear? Keep your eyes open for these things happening by mid-century. Scenario planners call them "leading indicators".

  • Oil and gas become dramatically more expensive in a short period, and stay that way.

  • Little competitive blood is left to be squeezed from the stone of outsource labor, forcing industry to look for different materials and new business models.

  • Customers snap up more beautiful shoes made of natural materials. The idea of maintaining an attractive, status-conveying possession returns.

  • Plastics made from plant materials are widely used, driving down unit cost for non-leather uppers.

  • Custom manufacturing and personal services appear in many retail categories, with mall access to services offered in major population centers.

  • Relationships with today’s shoe importing nations fray over direct competition for oil and over poor labor conditions.

  • Social change here would possibly parallel those indicators with:
  • more walking in everyday life;

  • trend to reduced average body mass;

  • industrial policy and market preferences actively move toward "buy American", supporting working class jobs at the shoe maker and in local supply chains;

  • business designs products to last longer, offer convenient repair, and retain visual appeal.

  • Discussion
    Given that synthetic shoes are petroleum based and negate US manufacturing jobs with each unit of the sector’s growth, there is little sustainability gain from swapping for natural materials.
    All custom boots are expensive. You have to get high comfort and a very long lasting product to get the benefit of those prices. This is indeed something different. But the present is so full of variety and contradiction. Why not look forward to an unusual future, even if it looks old-fashioned?

    by: John Laumer

    Tracking the Future of Sustainable Footwear
    Expanding the market for "green" shoes means more than changing materials of construction. We’ll need to 'steal our eyes back' from our culture and stop seeing improvement only in terms of material substitution. Lets explore this with a