• Claudia Ebbers

Online shoe shopping – who cares about sustainability?

Updated: Apr 21

One might think that the topic of sustainability is now everywhere used like a fashion statement - but does it also affect the online buyer of shoes? Not really, right? It is the others, like the manufacturers and suppliers, who must rack their brain. Maybe. But can or should todays customer have the "not my problem” attitude and evade the issue or close their eyes completely? Now that COVID-19 has given a boost to online shopping, 2020 offers the chance to take a closer look.

We leave it up to each of you to find the answer to this question, but we would like to dive a little deeper into this topic:

UN Sustainability Targets

With the Agenda 2030 adopted in 2015, the international community under the umbrella of the United Nations has committed itself to 17 global goals for a better future. The guiding principle of Agenda 2030 is to enable a dignified life worldwide and at the same time to preserve the natural foundations of life in the long term.

For the e-commerce area in the shoe segment there are 2 main topics:

In order to stabilize the international bearing capacity of ecosystems, a change towards sustainable consumption and natural resource conservation is vital for the survival of the world population. In this context, recycling and reduction of waste as well as the conscious handling of both consumption and sustainable production patterns in the sub-goals play an important role.

Without ambitious climate protection measures, global warming could rise to three degrees or more by 2100. Because of the potentially serious consequences, appropriate measures should therefore significantly limit the rise in temperature - to below 2 degrees Celsius, if possible even to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But what are concrete approaches for the e-commerce sector "shoes"? Outsourced production In today's industry, one thing is dominant: produce cheaply and sell as cheaply as possible. Consumers are used to low prices and are rarely willing to pay more. Due to the applicable labor laws and the associated minimum wages in most countries, production is often outsourced.

Asian countries are among the most popular low-wage countries in the textile industry. In 2015, 39% of shoe production took place in Vietnam, 27% in China and 23% in Indonesia. Only 3% of shoes came from Europe and 1% from America.

Especially, when tanning leather with heavy metals, protection for people would be more than necessary. Because "normal" leather from conventional animal breeding not only has a worse CO2 balance, but also a lot of poison in its luggage. The most commonly used chromium III can oxidize to chromium VI, which is not only highly toxic but also carcinogenic.

The tanneries poison the rivers of the Asian textile centers often with untreated waste water. Beyond that the outplacement is also more than precarious regarding the animal protection. Traditionally, leather is a "waste product" of the slaughtering industry and can therefore be considered more or less as sustainable utilization.

However, the situation has changed due to the high demand at cheap prices. Increasingly, leather is no longer just recycled as a by-product. In addition, the animals are very often kept in miserable conditions. It would therefore be good to put emphasis on sustainably produced shoes, but these are not easy to find. Especially with shoes there are many sins in the production process, which is rarely fair and environmentally friendly.

Production avoiding human and animal suffering The vegan lifestyle is currently in vogue - and so the trend is also spreading rapidly in the shoe world in the area of leather-free models. Because leather, just like meat, does not have a good ecological balance, the land consumption and CO2 emissions are enormous. But the vegan shoe situation is, as so often, not clear. For a natural tanning process, vegetable tanning agents are used. These include oak bark, rhubarb roots, mimosa bark, quebracho wood or tara pods. This means that no toxic substances are used or released. Neither are there any toxic substances in the end product.

In addition to ecological production, the aim is to ensure fair working conditions and short transport routes from the production site to the customer. In this way, the shoes should have no harmful effects on the environment even after production. However the deficiency remains, that the eco-leather shoe is not vegan, thus "animal suffering free". This is one reason why the vegan shoe pioneers are constantly developing new plant-based fabrics, such as piñatex fabric - a leather-like material made from the long fibers of pineapple leaves, cork, hemp, organic cotton or rubber soles.

In summary, it can be said that sustainable shoe manufacturers attach great importance to ecological production, fair working conditions and the shortest possible transport routes. As a result, they have their products manufactured under fair conditions and at best also support social projects.

The range of such sustainable shoe brands is now just as broad as that of conventional shoe labels: they offer everything from sandals and sneakers to winter boots, in men's, women's and children's styles. Packaging: What is the EU guideline The EU Packaging Directive applies to all packaging and packaging waste, regardless of where it is ultimately generated, including:

  • Waste Avoidance First and foremost, the goal is to avoid waste resulting from packaging wherever possible, but also to reduce the impact of this waste throughout the world. The aim is to ensure that, as a result of the reuse of packaging or raw materials, it is no longer necessary to put new ones on the market - the so-called closed loop recycling management.

  • Reuse and Recycling Member States should take measures to increase the proportion of recyclable packaging. These can include deposit systems, for example, or economic incentives. In addition, the member states are to be given targets. They must ensure that a certain proportion of waste is recycled.

  • Producer Responsibility The manufacturer of a product has it in hand, in which kind and quantity of packing he embeds the commodity, just like on-line dealers practically have the upper hand with the selection of the dispatch packing.

This sounds good at first, but if you take a closer look, there are very different regulations per country, i.e. the individual member states have to implement the content of these directives in their own laws. These in turn should then of course be taken into account.

A better recycling or avoidance of - especially ecologically questionable - packaging would also accommodate the (Friday's for) Future movement and every (online) company could make valuable use of this for its own marketing. As an online shopper you have rather little influence on the amount of packaging waste you have to dispose of in the end as a consignee, but you can contribute to an increased awareness by evaluating the ecological aspect.

Where the shoe pinches – increasing returns

At the University of Bamberg, there is a returns research group that assumed 280 million returns in 2018. The environmental impact of returns in 2018 is estimated at 238,000 tons of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). However, the return rates vary greatly and depend on the products ordered. In the case of textiles and accessories, retailers report rates of more than 50 %: in other words, every second sweatshirt or pair of shoes goes directly back to the online store.

Shoes are the second most important fashion segment in retail directly after clothing. The market for shoes here includes all shoes intended for private consumers. In 2019, the total global market for shoes achieved a turnover of 439 billion US dollars. At 342 US dollars per capita in 2019, people in Hong Kong spent the largest share on shoes, followed by Luxembourgers and Austrians.

But who does not know the problem? Shoes have been ordered online, but reality (e.g. material, color, heel, size) looks different than online. The order goes back. This is frustrating and annoying. Why doesn't it work better?

75% of shoe returns are based on wrong sizes alone. This is a known problem in the industry, because there are no globally standardized shoe sizes and there are even size deviations per manufacturer, shoe model and production site. With conversion tables (EU / UK / US) one tries to "master" the problem, but this is very inaccurate and does not solve the cause. On the contrary, the problem becomes even bigger and more confusing. Online retailers know this well enough and try to provide improved product descriptions (e.g. this model is small, we recommend ordering one size larger). This is also not a real solution and remains quite inaccurate. Some online stores use the return argument to promote sales (free returns from X% turnover) or try to pass on part of the return costs to the consumer from the outset (chargeable returns), which can, however, lead to competitive disadvantages. Because if shoe returns are offered completely free of charge, the customer has no risk to bear, no inhibition threshold to overcome and one risks only a negative user experience (UX). No matter how you look at it, returns are on the rise - not least due to increasing online activities - and so is the financial loss, which primarily affects the online store.

Transport related environmental damage Not only the financial damage is an issue, transport is in second place among the CO2 emission drivers, which is known to have a strong negative impact on our climate. Due to an increase in online orders, the number of returns is rising, thus increasing transport and CO2 emissions caused by the returns. A chain of unfavorable factors for the environment. The urgent goal should be to reduce or even completely avoid returns worldwide. This would be a major step towards climate protection.

Destruction of shoes – necessary or not?

According to companies such as Zalando, Amazon and Otto, a large proportion of the goods shipped come back undamaged and are resold. For example, some of the goods have to be easily reprocessed and slightly damaged goods would be given away more cheaply, some would be donated. Only a small part has to be destroyed. Instead, programs are used to reduce the number of products disposed of. These include cheaper sales of returns, product donations to nonprofit organizations, recycling or sale to wholesale buyers.

Obviously, returns are only a small part of the problem. Slow-moving items and overhangs, but also faulty packaging or labels are reasons why intact goods are destroyed. At the same time, efforts are being made to avoid returns and surplus goods from the outset, for example by standardizing textile sizes and using artificial intelligence.

Conclusion The purchase decisions made in each case have a very large influence, which may sometimes seem small from an individual perspective. In fact, consumers in industrialized and emerging countries essentially determine the value and supply chains and thus the economic, social and ecological conditions worldwide through their purchasing behavior. If you value yourself and others (not just fashionably), you look a little closer than is obvious when choosing your shoes. Materials, production and health aspects are only a few points that should be taken into account.

Because one thing is certain, what doesn't sell or sells badly, will be removed from the (virtual) counter. For online shoe sellers, sustainability aspects offer completely new opportunities for positioning, because not only environmentally friendly manufacturing processes and materials but also modern, digital customer solutions not only hold a special competitive chance, but can be understood and lived as a holistic statement of the company.

Digitization solutions for companies to design the online shopping process in such a way that it comes as close as possible to a real / offline shopping process supports the “green fingerprint” aspect with the avoidance of returns. Approaches to this already exist, e.g. through virtual try-ons, Augmented Reality (AR) shopping processes, through digital body or foot measurements or through the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).