Sustainable footwear: the final frontier?

Unfortunately at the moment, footwear is not very forward thinking when it comes to sustainability. With apparel, the move towards alternative and sustainable materials is much more advanced, with innovative design and constant developments with the material technologies. In the footwear industry, however, sustainability is a slowly evolving concept. I’m working to change that.

The current footwear market

I’m looking at new and alternative materials to use when creating footwear, instead of real leather and artificial alternatives which both have their negative impacts. I’m also concerned with the production processes and how they could be different from the present ones. Finding new materials is one thing but once you have that the biggest challenge a new designer faces is finding a factory to partner with because the production of shoes is a complicated process. In my experience working with factories in Italy and Turkey, I’ve seen that there is the question of scale. It is harder to create small runs to test out new materials, because shoes are generally produced in bigger quantities preferred by the factories.

Changes afoot

One of the main focuses for my studies is thinking of ways to detach the designer from the factory for a smaller scale, more localised production.

Through the Kering Award competition (coordinated by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion a five-year partnership between London College of Fashion and Kering Group) I’ve just been working on the chance to develop a project for Stella McCartney, an innovative designer well known for her values in fashion. As one of the finalists for the award, my project focus was to find sustainable alternatives to materials used for their shoes. I worked with material scientists and on my own to develop a biodegradable bioplastic as an alternative material for their shoes.

I also looked at developing an alternative to one of their present materials, alternappa. To do this, I combined the sustainable viscose, a fabric already sourced and used in Stella McCartney ready to wear collections, with a %100 biodegradable biocoating, an innovation from my homeland Turkey.

I wanted to use the viscose, and coat it with this biocoating to make a material unique to Stella McCartney. I wanted the end result to look and feel great. I recognise the importance of the right combination of good quality and style. After having developed a shoe upper prototype using this material, I was happy to see it was actually easy to work with, great performance for stretch and flexibility, in addition to being visually appealing.

The future of footwear sustainability

While I didn’t win the award it was great to be able to work with a brand that is open to sustainability innovation and I’m going to continue talking about this great design cause.

For a bigger change to happen, to get people to think about sustainable footwear I’m constantly looking at the fashion industry’s way of thinking and functioning as a whole, and coming up with ways to work within that and challenge current practices.

In fashion, ultimately we strive to achieve beauty. I believe that when we are thinking about sustainable materials and applications, especially in footwear, we need to keep in mind that this is an object of desire, and style needs to always go hand in hand with sustainability.

Photo credit: Centre for Sustainable Fashion

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MORE: Inside Patagonia’s sustainable denim project

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