Making Things Better
The fashion industry is among the most environmentally destructive industries on the planet,1 and unfortunately the footwear sector is particularly damaging. Shoe manufacturing typically incorporates animal agriculture and associated deforestation,2 toxic global tanneries,3 expansive supply chains and transportation, exploited labor,4 inefficient manufacturing processes, and massive waste.5
There is no more time for incremental change. The whole system is a nightmare (but real). So we’re doing something about it. Here’s how:
We conduct R&D, design, engineering, production, fulfillment and customer service all in house, in an integrated, interconnected process. Customer feedback informs product development; material science informs production technologies; and so on. Vertical integration is the foundation for everything we do.
In the wider industry, designers, pattern makers, factory workers, suppliers, distributors, marketers, customers and everyone else involved in the complicated process of manufacturing goods is siloed. It’s basically impossible to make systemic changes because the system is incredibly massive, unregulated, and spread around the world. And it gives brands deniability in affecting any real change.6
In an analysis of our ongoing ethical and environmental sustainability efforts, we’ve examined 6 fundamental aspects of the life cycle of footwear identified by the Better Shoes Foundation:
- Anti-trend. While we strive to create stand-out pieces, we design everything to be worn or used season after season. That means optimizing for several factors to create happy customers and minimize wasteful returns:
- Comfort. Nobody wants uncomfortable shoes; ours have padding and arch support.
- Customizable. Customers can choose colors and styles to suit their personality and lifestyle.
- Inclusive sizing. We collected and studied foot tracings from thousands of customers, and combined that data with an analysis of 1.2 million 3D foot scans7 to develop a proprietary fit algorithm. Customers can choose from 128 shoe sizes for a perfect fit.
- Adjustable components. When customers can further optimize the fit of their footwear, shoes can be worn through pregnancy, weight fluctuations, swelling, and general life changes.
- Optimize for sustainable materials and process efficiency. From start to finish, we understand the materials and processes we’ve developed, and we design from that standpoint. That means sustainability is built in from the first sketch rather than an afterthought.
- Minimal components and processes. Athletic shoes, for example, contain 65 different components and 360 unique processes. Footwear production is so complicated that more energy is spent on production processes than in fabricating materials (incorporating carbon-intensive leather does change the equation).8 Fewer than 30 unique processes go into the fabrication of our shoes.
- American hardwoods. All of our wood soled shoes are made from sustainably-sourced domestic hardwood; through US forest management, there is twice as much American hardwood growing than is being selectively harvested annually.9 Wood is about 50% carbon; a pair of our mid clogs contain around 8 ounces of wood per shoe - or about a half pound of carbon total. That's the equivalent of 1.8 pounds of carbon dioxide sequestered within the average pair.10 Our wood scraps are reclaimed for various projects.
- American-made nylon. The fabric used in most of our products, an abrasion-resistant synthetic leather, is produced in one of the most environmentally-regulated states. It does not use PVC’s, plasticizers, phthalates, formaldehyde, lead, cadmium, dioxins, or ozone-depleting chemicals. Waste materials are recycled within the manufacturing process. Furthermore, cow skin leather is 7 times more climate impactful than synthetic leather.11 12 While nylon is typically made from fossil fuels (we are always looking for more eco-friendly alternatives), synthetic leather has an 85% lower carbon equivalent impact than tanned animal skin.
- American-made hardware. Most of our hardware is made on the East Coast, and our zippers are produced in the Chicago suburbs, keeping our supply chain as close to home as possible.
- Other materials. We are always on the hunt for additional eco-friendly material options, such as bio-based padding, plant-based faux leathers, and soling with recycled content.
MANUFACTURING TECHNOLOGY AND PROCESSES
- Last-free construction. Lasts are a foot-shaped mold that shoes are typically formed around. Lasting has been an integral part of shoemaking for hundreds of years, yet is an antiquated process that limits mass production and is a barrier to mass customization.
- 2D digital patterning. Every component we make is digitally designed to fit like a puzzle piece on our fabric, so there is very little material waste. Our nylon fabric is produced by the yard - it is consistent in size, stretch, appearance and thickness unlike an animal hide. The skin of each animal is unique and definitely not shoe and bag shaped, leading to excess waste.
- Laser cutting. Laser cutting is a computer-controlled process that quickly produces intricately cut components. It offers vastly improved labor efficiency over die cutting while enabling the production of infinite variations in size and shape of components.
- 3D digital modeling. Creating computer models allows us to analyze components, tweak designs quickly and efficiently, and scale designs to any size. Digital modelling enables us to incorporate additional data such as 2D and 3D foot scans while facilitating the use of a variety of advanced fabrication technologies.
- 3D digital fabrication of components. We use both additive and subtractive 3D manufacturing processes such as 3D printing and CNC machining. These processes improve labor efficiency while allowing infinite variation of components and typically reducing waste.
- Future oriented. There are many advantages to tech-enabled advanced design and fabrication processes, both today and looking forward:
- Smaller physical footprint. Digital fabrication processes generally take up less space than a typical mass production factory.
- Production flexibility. We can make 1 or 1000 of an item; they can be all the same or each one unique.
- Emerging technologies. As safe, sustainable and compatible opportunities present, our flexible digitally-based systems are built to incorporate new technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, augmented or virtual reality, etc.
TRANSPORTATION AND DISTRIBUTION
- Made in USA. We source and produce within the US (the largest footwear market worldwide) and ship directly to customers, eliminating global transportation across oceans to warehouses.
- Minimal packaging. Our printed and packaging materials are made with recycled content, and we avoid excess materials such as a box-within-a-box or plastic bags.
- On demand mass customization. Our fast and flexible processes mean that, as opposed to mass production, we don’t make things that there’s no demand for. The fashion industry overproduces products by 30-40% each season.13
- Centrally located. The Chicago region is a transportation hub for North America, creating efficient transportation routes. In the future, we envision small scale digital factories globally producing local goods for local consumption.
- Durability is key. The production of goods is typically where the biggest ecological impact occurs; if an item needs to be replaced frequently, that can negate benefits of eco-friendly materials and processes. Sustainable consumer goods must be built to last, so we have a strong focus on careful workmanship including nailed and riveted construction.
- Ease of care. We use materials that are specifically designed to be easily wiped clean and show minimal wear-and-tear; fresh-looking items are more likely to be used longer and more frequently.
- Repairable. Our products, and our footwear in particular, are specifically designed with repairability in mind. We recommend using local cobblers to replace worn-down soling.
- Refurbishable. Our clogs can be disassembled and refurbished to nearly-new quality; we can simply sand scratches out of our wood bases and replace worn-out uppers, creating a new life for even the most well-loved shoes.
- Biodegradable materials. By volume and weight, the largest portion of our shoes are plant-based and thus biodegradable.
- Disposability options? The post-consumer life of a shoe is a difficult conundrum for the industry. Leather tanning processes that are designed to prevent animal skins from decomposing while you wear them also inhibit leather from decomposing upon disposal. Furthermore, most footwear, including our shoes, are made with a variety of materials that serve different functions, held together with stitching, welding, hardware, and/or glue. Processes that we designed to enhance the durability of our products can run counter to recyclability or biodegradability. We recognize work remains to be done!