Green Chemistry and the Shoe Industry

The US Environmental Protection Agency defines green chemistry as “chemicals and chemical processes designed to reduce or eliminate negative environmental impacts.” This can be achieved through “reduced waste products, non-toxic components, and improved efficiency.” In other words, rather than focusing on methods for cleaning up environmental problems, or legislating acceptable levels of environmental toxins, green chemistry focuses on redesigning the chemicals and processes used in manufacturing, so that these negative events never happen in the first place.

Businesses have traditionally resisted drives to become more eco-friendly, mainly due to the cost of making existing processes more environmentally sound. The green chemistry philosophy changes the economic equation. Companies are increasingly being forced to spend time and money on an ongoing basis to clean up or reduce the environmental effects of their operations. It can make long-term economic sense for a company to simply invest in redesigning their operations so that these negative environmental effects no longer happen, or are dramatically reduced. For this reason, green chemistry is being increasingly examined by the business community, and will be a major economic factor in the 21st century.

Shoe manufacturing has traditionally been quite harmful to the environment. Leather used in shoes is treated and processed with many toxic substances, including formaldehyde and other chemicals and dyes, some of which are made with cyanide. Imitation leather is made with polyvinyl chloride, another toxic substance. Most running shoes are made with latex, rubber, and ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), which takes more than 1,000 years to biodegrade. Glues and fixatives add still more toxic output to the shoe manufacturing process.

Fortunately, some shoe manufacturers are embracing green chemistry. Nike, for example, has a line of products called Considered Design. These shoes use special rubber that contains up to 96% fewer toxins than normal rubber. Use of solvents and glues has been reduced. In some cases glue has been replaced by high strength webbing. Shoes have been redesigned to use less material in the shoe, and more efficient cutting patterns are used, reducing waste. By 2011, all Nike footwear will be made according to these standards.

New Balance has also introduced a line of eco-friendly shoes, made with “environmentally preferred materials.” The manufacturing process has been redesigned to use less rubber and fewer solvents, and to more efficiently use materials, reducing overall waste. Other shoe manufacturers embracing green chemistry include Timberland, with their Earthkeepers 2.0 boot, and Keds, which has a new line of sneakers called Keds Green Label.

The success or failure of these products by Nike and the other companies named will determine whether or not the practice of green chemistry will be adopted by other manufacturers. Consumers should keep this in mind the next time they go shopping for a pair of shoes.