Shoes and the materials which are being used in footwear manufacturing have a detrimental effect to the environment. We were two brothers in our 20s when we inherited a footwear factory. We have manufactured sneakers for some of the most famous high - end brands in the world. We have seen the industry from the inside and we realised that both the industry and the consumers are oblivious to the environmental damage caused by the footwear industry. This realisation has sent us on a 6 year journey to develop a more sustainable alternative.
The numbers showing the negative environmental impact of footwear are staggering. Made mostly out of plastic and leather, over 20.000.000.000 pairs of footwear were manufactured just in 2019.
Raising the issue of footwear eco-impact
Most of the materials are made from oil derivatives like polyester, synthetic rubber (SBR), polyurethane (PU) foams and textiles, EVA outsoles and insoles, PVC outsoles, TR outsoles and reinforcements, synthetic reinforcements etc. These oil derivatives are sources of micro-plastics that pollute our grounds, seas, air, water, and ultimately end up on our plates. The second most widely used material is leather and while most people think that leather is natural, it is actually filled (tanned) with toxic chemicals. The most common of these used in tanning of 85% of the world's leather is a heavy metal called chromium which is the 4th most toxic pollutant in the world. When trends fade, we discard footwear while putting an unbearable burden on Earth's ecosystems. The manufacturing process creates huge amounts of waste as well. We felt obligated to solve this issue.
With the environmental movement on the rise the public is becoming more aware about environmental issues, but few people are aware of the environmental impact of footwear.
For this reason, one of our main tasks is raising the issue of footwear eco-impact. We have set our strategy to empower people to choose sustainability by creating and offering a sustainable alternative to classical footwear.
Passion and vision leading to change
The biggest challenge was to get from the idea stage to our first concept. The idea was ahead of time, and not part of the “zeitgeist”. None of our stakeholders was ready for it: the consumer, the suppliers, the wholesale market and especially the financial market. There were no grants, credit lines or VC funding available for this type of product, and sustainable fashion was a term yet to be coined. In this phase the project was driven solely by the passion and vision of the cofounders and the core team. The initial funding was done through boots trapping and allocating funds from our core business which was footwear development and production for various fashion brands. As time passed, and we were making more and more headway towards a viable and marketable product, the public mindset was slowly but surely changing. The topics of climate change and micro-plastic pollution finally started to make headlines, and the whole ecosystem started to steer towards our cause. The first major positive change was the creation of the UN sustainable development goals. Soon after public and private grants and projects started including eco - projects on the eligibility list.
It took us 6 years to create MIRET ecological sneakers - 97% made with natural materials. We have combined the strongest natural fibres to craft sneakers which are kind to your feet as much as they are kind to nature.
Not only can they substitute synthetic materials, but in many ways they are far better than plastic. Footwear is greatly different than garments. It consists out of a dozen different materials which become fused together during the manufacturing process making footwear difficult, if not impossible to recycle. These materials differ greatly in composition and cannot be recycled because they cannot be separated. Additionally there is 20% secondary waste created during manufacturing which does not get recycled and ends up in landfills. One of the possible directions of developing a more sustainable product which we were considering was to develop a shoe made out of recycled materials such as recycled PET bottles and plastic waste. Our conclusion was that we did not want to put plastic materials back in the circulation.The other approach of development which we have indeed adopted was to focus on natural materials. Our vision was to set up a manufacturing process which minimises the usage of synthetic materials in every step of the manufacturing process - from raw material production to the final assembly and delivery of the product to the customer. But the production of products made out of natural materials had its challenges and the greatest challenge was the price.
Synthetic materials are very cheap to manufacture and easy to shape into a final product, while manufacturing natural materials requires plants to be grown in order to obtain fibres, the fibres need to be processed and shaped into the final product.
All of these steps are much more expensive and more difficult with natural materials. Since the production of natural materials is more work intensive and more expensive, in the end more CO2 can be emitted than the production of synthetic materials. There is also a problem of the dyeing processes and chemicals of natural textiles and also the issue of using up fertile land in order to produce the fibres while this land could be used for growing food.
The second biggest challenge was to create a product which is durable enough to substitute a leather or synthetic alternative. For example, a 100% natural product which is 50% less durable has a 50% lifetime of a synthetic alternative, which results in this product being less eco-friendly because it’s CO2 footprint during it’s product lifetime would be almost double then the synthetic alternative. All of these issues were huge challenges in the process of the development of a more sustainable alternative to leather and synthetic footwear. All the products which humans produce for their use have a negative effect on the environment at a certain level. We have set our goal to create an alternative with a smaller impact than the current product.
So we have focused our efforts into finding manufacturing partners which had ecology and sustainability as their core values. This was the most important characteristic in order to have the same goals, to understand each other, to be honest and of pure intentions and for the partnership to flourish. In the course of 5 years we have encountered many manufacturing companies claiming their materials are sustainable but most often the materials would incorporate one sustainable angle while the material in whole was not sustainable at all. We are witnessing many companies using such materials and falsely advertising their products in the same way their suppliers are falsely advertising their materials. The search for our suppliers was long and difficult but in the end we were able to develop and substitute almost all non-sustainable materials with their natural, sustainable, durable renewable-alternatives.
During this process we have realised that there is no universal solution, but diversification and development of alternatives could be the answer for a more sustainable future.
The plants which we are using to obtain fibres from were carefully chosen too. We knew we had to incorporate many different plants because there are many shoe-components all of which require specific material characteristics. Also, using many different plants reduces the chances of big mono-culture farms which reduces chances of disease and pest infestations.
One of the main plants which we use is hemp which is grown on European farms and fully processed in Europe while maintaining every stage of the manufacturing process as healthy as possible to the individual and to the environment.
It is completely processed without any chemicals, naturally durable, antibacterial, breathable and with a low environmental impact. In total we are using 10 different plants and wool to craft our materials and sneakers. They are made out of 97% natural materials. The remaining 3% are non sustainable materials such as glue and stitching thread which are actually making our sneakers more sustainable as they are greatly improving the durability of the sneaker. By doing this we are greatly reducing the product lifetime CO2 emissions.
After the product development was finished we were ready to hit the market and we chose Kickstarter as our first selling channel.
This enabled us to lower the selling price and to kick-start an otherwise highly capital intensive industry. The greatest challenge in the promotion of our product was to raise awareness of the huge negative impact of footwear to the environment. Another great challenge was the intensified greenwashing efforts by many brands in the world. Last but not least, we had to choose a distribution and marketing channel. It soon became apparent that online sales and pre-sale via crowdfunding is the way to go. Not only we would get global reach, but we could offset the high cost of materials we use by cutting-out the middleman. By using the direct-to-consumer business model we could keep the retail price lower, and at the same time keep our communication with our early supporters direct. This helped us get feedback (both positive and negative), so we can constantly improve the product.