Sustainable shoes?

Sustainable shoes?

Published —

Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs has worked in the fashion industry for more than 20 years. As we become ever more aware of the issues surrounding fast fashion, she turns her attention to footwear. 

Over the past 20 years I’ve worked for some of the most globally-recognised and pioneering fashion and footwear brands. And I’ve combined this with teaching at universities in London, Liverpool and Shanghai. In 2017, I co-authored Marketing Fashion Footwear, which – amongst other topics – addresses the strategic issues in design, production and manufacturing of footwear. It highlights the social and environmental challenges and new techniques needed for future success in the footwear industry, including the brand Gandys – a social enterprise that supports orphans in India and Sri Lanka; and creative ways that Ocean Sole has reused and recycled discarded flip flops from the Indian Ocean.   

Footwear is a phenomenal industry – 23 billion pairs of shoes are made each year and, for the last two years, it’s remained stagnant after growth of 15% a year for several years. This includes all footwear, fashion, sports, work and safety footwear. About 88% of global footwear is produced in Asia, with the majority made in China. Europe has maintained its enviable position as a leading exporter of high value designer leather footwear.

Pre-Industrial Revolution shoe manufacturing. Image via Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto

Footwear was traditionally retailed in shoe shops in the UK – however, the last decade has seen high street clothing retailers and supermarkets aggressively enter into the market and mirror the fast fashion clothing retail model. Fast fashion footwear is mass-produced, trend-led footwear, largely available in a self-service retail environment and sold in pairs through a variety of retail outlets not exclusively footwear retailers.

As costs rise in Asia, this production model will become both financially unsustainable – but is also highly polluting. A study by MIT in 2012 found that the production of a single pair of sneakers creates 2.7kgs of CO2 emissions – equivalent to driving your car about ten miles. While that might not seem much, it’s worth considering how many pairs you own, how far you walk or run in them and how often you buy a new pair?

In the US and the UK, we buy seven pairs each for every man, woman and child every year – and 30% of Americans are wearing a pair of Nike sneakers as you read this! That’s millions of running shoes produced every year – many of which ending up underused and in the bottom of a wardrobe – or, at best, as coveted collector items. According to, in order to find a sustainable way of living we need to be producing less than 2,000 kg CO2 per year and per person – on everything we consume. When you consider that a single flight from London to Paris produces 150kg CO2 – our seven annual pairs of shoes rack up 19 kg alone.

For the last 20 years we’ve focused on marketing fashion products to the detriment of making fashion products, this has created a troubled and opaque supply chain. While sustainable brands like Po_Zu shoes and Veja have sprung up, we need to do more to re-engage and empower the relationship between maker and manufacturer.

I don’t want to continue to be a part of the over production and over consumption problem – I want to be part of the solution. I’m passionate about social businesses and have been involved with the regeneration of a key part of Liverpool which has been spearheaded by the creative and digital sector. This is what’s inspired me to start the 3D Shoe Bird Project, and to look at the work at the intersection of design and manufacturing – to create bespoke pieces and distinct collections for people who care about sustainability.


Fashion isn’t frivolous

If we make well, it will make people feel well.

Fashion is not frivolous, exclusive or merely decorative. We all care about our appearance and how others perceive us – male / female / young / old / black / white. It’s a global industry worth approximately $2.4 trillion (according to The State of Fashion 2017 report from BOF & McKinsey) – and we have to do it better.

In the UK, the fashion industry is bigger than the automotive industry. It combines key features of the UK economy – our manufacturing heritage; our creativity and innovation. In 2016 – 2017, fashion made a £28 billion contribution to the UK economy (GDP). It employs 880,000 people and accounts for 6-7 % of the UK’s exports. By comparison, the automotive industry makes a £20.2 billion contribution to the UK economy and employs 816,000 people – but is the largest exporter with approximately 12% of the UK’s exports.    

Yet fashion is also one of the world’s worst polluters and we need to find alternative forms of materials, production and disposal. Europe has a long heritage manufacturing base; it has developed markets that are ideally positioned for a time when environmental and policy changes are introduced in Asia, making it too expensive to produce in. China’s ageing population of factory workers are already testament to this; the polluted beaches and low-paid factory workers in many places show us this is unsustainable.

Many designer and creatives – particularly women – don’t think of themselves in digital or tech terms. I don’t classify myself as anything – yet I’m trying to 3D print shoes as prototypes and samples for artists and emerging footwear designers – which is a much more affordable way of seeing your initial ideas come to life. There’s not too many people doing it yet.

I like finding things out and I’m passionate about using that knowledge for good and trying to solve problems. I want to use digital growth and innovation and bring this into my industry – with investment and support from anyone who has a common drive to solve some of these ‘wicked problems’.

Join us to create a collective of designers, artists, digital and tech people who’re keen to use 3D printing in your work at an early or prototype stage, which could lead to small scale commercial development of a footwear range.

@businessofshoes  @3dshoebirdproject

Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs is a fashion lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. Her sustainable shoe project is backed by the EU-backed OpenMaker project, supporting digital manufacturing innovation in Italy, Slovakia, Spain and the UK.


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