Best foot forward for sustainability
With the tangible effects of climate change -- record-setting temperatures, devastating floods and other ecological disasters -- clearly being felt by people around the world, consumers are increasingly making sustainability part of their everyday lives.
A recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature, found that "the most dramatic growth in engagement and awareness has occurred in Asia", as evidenced by the increasing volume of Google searches relating to nature loss and biodiversity.
In Thailand, one recent example was a request to invoke an agreement between China and Laos that could halt plans to build another hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River. Environmental studies must now be completed before any final decisions are made, given the potentially great impact on communities downstream in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The apparel and footwear industry, a major contributor to the economies of many Asian countries, has been aware for some time of its environmental footprint and is responding accordingly. While fashion, comfort and performance rightly remain strong considerations for footwear manufacturers, many industry players are making sustainability a top strategic priority in response to the change in consumer sentiment.
Many brands are committed to addressing key ecological concerns and to incorporating sustainability into their purpose, processes and messaging -- and their efforts to make a positive impact on the environment are winning the hearts of customers and employees alike.
Beyond ethical considerations, there is also a clear economic impetus for them to do so. Consumers expect businesses to combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility -- and they're not shy about voting with their wallets.
The EIU report showed that the volume of Google searches related to sustainable goods has expanded by 71% worldwide since 2016. Another survey by Hotwire showed that 47% of internet users worldwide had switched to different products or services because the company they patronised had violated their personal values, with protection of the environment being the top concern.
Another study by Havas Worldwide showed that two in three consumers think that businesses bear as much responsibility as governments in driving social change.
Perhaps the most salient piece of research for the footwear industry comes from a McKinsey survey, which showed that 66% of US consumers (75% of millennial respondents) make sustainability a key consideration when making a luxury purchase.
The word "sustainability" covers a plethora of environmental concerns, and technology has played a key factor in driving sustainability innovation.
At the same time, the pace of change in the technology space means that no company can do it all by itself. Businesses must work together to effect end-to-end change in the footwear industry, combining expertise with a passion for genuine change.
At BASF, sustainability is deeply woven into our brand purpose -- we co-founded the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. We are also drawing on our over 40 years of experience in the footwear materials segment to help similarly passionate footwear brands make a difference.
The materials that go into the manufacture of footwear have a very significant effect on our environment, and we're constantly on the lookout for partners with whom we can collaborate to develop co-created solutions that differentiate our brands in hyper-competitive marketplaces.
The integrated production systems for Elastopan and Elastollan, two of the materials we have developed for footwear with sustainability in mind, combine recyclable thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) and bio-based materials. This represents a biomass balance approach that drives the use of renewable resources and sustainable methods without compromising on performance or quality.
For example, Elastollan requires lower injection temperatures, enabling shorter cycle times, stronger cold flexibility and easy demoulding in the manufacturing of shoe shanks. This reduces processing time by up to 30%, reducing labour costs and creating significant energy savings for improved sustainability.
One of our partners used Elastopan to simplify production of sneaker insoles without compromising on comfort or performance. Consumers get a better walking experience with more energy in each step and cushioning that distributes foot pressure from heel to toe.
The cold curing process used in the development of Elastopan insoles is also energy efficient, which means it requires low temperature. It is free of release agents, which is another notch in terms of our sustainability efforts.
One of our partners in Thailand is combining sustainability with performance by using Elastopan high-rebound PU foam in the midsole and insole of its Reaxion safety shoe, offering all-day support and comfort.
Another partner has developed a shoe that uses recycled polyester for its upper, which can in turn be recycled for fabric manufacturing. The bottom uses TPU that can be ground down for a variety of purposes -- for example, in the manufacture of ski boots.
BASF has also developed a TPU with over 55% bio carbon content to meet the highest sustainability scores for yet another partner in the development of high-end shoes.
I would argue that in the future, sustainability will continue to be an essential driver of exciting innovation in the footwear industry. As the world faces problems like climate change, scarcity of resources and marine littering, it is more important than ever that industry leaders combine their resources and expertise to find solutions that appeal both to their bottom line, and to consumer demands.
Given that the development of such solutions has both ethical and economic drivers, I look forward to future innovations, and would challenge industry players to find out how they too can commit themselves to sustainability efforts.
Minli Zhao is vice-president for the consumer industry of BASF Performance Materials, Asia Pacific division.