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One-At-A-Time: The Sustainable Footprint

Image via Veja

One-At-A-Time: The Sustainable Footprint

As textile scholar Kirsi Niinimäki once noted, 70% of a product’s environmental impacts are determined in the design stage.

We find this fact worthy of venture, with the potential of finding limitless opportunities to improve conventional design through creative invention. Opportunities to challenge the present in search of a lighter future. Opportunities for growth and refinement.

In the studio we believe design plays an integral role in determining the health of the world in which we live and we don’t take this responsibility lightly. Once a belief such as this is set into motion and represents an individual’s ideals and core values, it’s not something that can be switched off when finished with work for the day. It infiltrates into every crook and cranny of daily life, it stumbles over into our decisions on how we behave, do and essentially be. This sometimes can become overwhelming, but it’s also pretty exciting, the idea that we have the potential to be a generation that changes the destiny of our planet’s so-called forsaken future.

As we considered the opportunities of developing a cleansed world in a recent team discussion, we found our greatest challenge still stands as a form of creative confinement: our designs can only be as sustainable as the materials to which we have access. Invention and innovation can only take us so far in creation. We all rely on each other in this world; whether we stop to consider this thought or not, it’s the truth. Call us optimists, but we would like to believe that if everyone did their best to consider the impact of their decisions at play then together we could create gigantic frog leaps towards a liveable future for generations to come.

We have grown to understand (and are attempting to turn on their head) the confinements of materials in garment production. As we moved around the studio in earnest attempts to accomplish our duties of the day, working around and beyond them, we glanced down in wonder of our shoes; those trusty friends that aid those steps we are making. Does the footwear industry face such confinement in terms of material availability?

It was upon this recognition of our soles that our souls desired perception. To obtain informed perspectives. So in the spirit of sustainability, we embarked on exploring the world of footwear production in search of an answer. We found that our “carbon footprint” took on a quite literal meaning the further we investigated the materials and practices involved with shoe production. To understand our impact, we needed to dig deeper and learn if shoe materials also stand as pesky potential confinements in sustainability.

Image via Veja


One of the more common materials used to make shoes, leather is often considered in the footwear industry for its durability and aesthetic. What tends to generate the varying opinions regarding leather usage comes down to differentiation in values: animal usage or chemical derivation.

Although many animal activists pass on leather products, natural leather can be considered more environmentally friendly than synthetic alternatives due to its biodegradable character after use and wear. Yet the environmental impact of raising cattle is far from ecologically sound. The water usage associated with raising cattle and the energy used to extract the leather components are extensive. Beyond this consideration, it is worthy to note that, commonly, cattle raised for meat often differs from the cattle raised for leather production. We are still in search as to why this is the case.

To further complicate leather production, natural leather is often chemically treated to avoid deterioration, with the use of carcinogenic hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and chromium. And to toughen the leather for effective production, the material is often treated with hexavalent chromium, another believed carcinogenic (those scary things that scientists say have the potential to cause cancer) . In contrast, synthetic leather has similar—or even worse—properties consisting of toxic chemicals use.

The color dyeing of leather, known as tanning, is also worth considering when valuing sustainability. Fast fashion tends to adopt the chrome dying method for its efficient work model and uniformed look. Yet although these qualities may seem appealing in the short run to any producer, the long term effects of the carcinogenic and detrimental chemical processes associated with chrome dyes should be reason enough to search for alternative production processes. Aldehyde tanning, another chemical process used commonly for shoe production, is derived from formaldehyde-based chemicals. Need we say more?

Vegetable tanned leather is, although not perfect, a more desirable tanning process. Tannic acids found in natural plants, spices and foods are used to create deep shades of varying hues and leaves the product recyclable at the end of its life. The artisanal aspect of vegetable dying is intact, as each product must be hand created and takes nearly two months to develop. This process stands in stark contrast to factory-made chemical tans, and with good reason. After the vegetable-dyed product has been used for some time, a patina develops and creates a one-of-a-kind product unique to the individual’s wear and usage.

So which option is most sustainable? The question of the hour is not so simply answered. Ideally, refraining from natural or synthetic leather use at all seems most preferable. A difficult task to conduct, economically. But according to researcher Kirsi Niinimäki, an alternative to please both animal activists and environmentally-focused individuals is Naoron. This leather-like alternative is made up of wood pulp and recycled polyester—animal product free and chemical free. Even better, it is water resistant.

At (re)vision society, we understand this ongoing debate regarding natural leather, synthetic leather and other leather alternatives. Regardless, all options seem to have wasteful entities, which is where we’ve been focusing our current (re)vision society projects. To alleviate some of the impact of leather waste contributing to landfills, we have chosen to use leather offcuts that would otherwise go unused for our handles and trims in project #1. Although the product contains animal byproduct, we understand that creating new synthetics is equally as harmful and the scraps that were considered trash before are put to use, limiting our need to create new material.


A second material option commonly used for our footwear is cotton. Thankfully, this option is a tad more simple. Cotton is often grown with heavy amounts of pesticides, a potential downfall in combination with the large amount of water required to grow the fibre. Yet it has been found by researchers that organic cotton requires half as much energy to produce, as well as no chemicals and has proven to have 98% less water pollution impact than non-organic cotton fibres. Simple choice if buying cotton-based products—choose organic. A reputable brand producing sustainable and organic cotton footwear is Ethletic. They even go as far as to answer Fashion Revolution’s question, “who made my sneaker?”

Rubber & Plastic

Finally, rubber and plastic are commonly used materials to create our soles. According to Intertek, nearly 70% of rubbers used are synthetic and derived from crude oil. Due to the durability, easy mechanical manipulation and cost-effectiveness of synthetic rubbers, most producers choose this material without question. When shoe designers decide on plastic for shoe soles instead of rubber, often the plastic of choice is polyurethane or PVC. Both are highly versatile and cost efficient, making it an easy economical choice. Because both versions of sole production are quite questionable, we find there is ample opportunity to revise the industry’s design approach and develop innovative materials.

Such work is in the process. rPET serves as an alternative to PVC and is 100% recyclable, leaving no post-production waste. Similarly, Stella McCartney designed her bioplastic APINAT shoes with a sole that biodegrades upon its end of life, instead of remaining in the landfill for decades. Other such designers who adopted Kirsi’s train of thought of designing with the intention of making a positive impact include Cri de Coeur, Kailia, Po-Zu, adidas ocean waste-made sneakers, and adidas “zero-waste” soccer cleat.

One sustainable design company, in particular, proved to be quite admirable in their practices as we considered both their environmental and social standing. Veja, the French shoe design company, provides transparency in their products, processes and global social impacts that are associated with their designs. Veja purchases organic cotton from Northeast Brazilian small-scale farmers in a rural area with high wealth inequalities. They source rubber from one of the only places rubber is naturally grown—the Amazon. The rubber tappers adopt a process called “folha Desfumada Liquida”, or Liquid Smoked Sheets, to transform latex into rubber sheets without using any industrial intermediary processes. Veja’s leather choice is natural and they are conscious in controlling the supply of their products, as well as promoting the shift of tanning from chrome-based to vegetable extracts.

As we closed a chapter of our research for now, we found some solace with understanding the challenges we are facing across industries, but also excitement of the opportunity to break free of our current limitations. We believe that, cross-pollination across industries and continued collaborative conversations will spark new ways of altering our design, production and consumption behaviours.

Do you have thoughts to share? Let’s see how we can further a conversation that enlightens and inspires.


Our One-At-A-Time series explores the concept of taking small steps to curating a sustainable lifestyle. What began as an in-studio conversation of how to transition into sustainable living, led us to realize that taking small steps in our daily habits can alter our perspective, thereby altering our world. Living sustainably is an ongoing process of refinement and awareness, and the team at (re)vision society is dedicated to collaborating with our community to find answers that support health and balance. Sustainability can be achieved by focusing on one change, one action, at one time. Join us as we take small steps that can lead to a promising future.

Written by Kristin Agnes and Stacey Cotter Manière

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