Online shoe (sales) - who cares about sustainability?

Posted by:
Claudia Ebbers
November 5, 2020

You might think that the topic of sustainability is now like a fad everywhere - but does it also affect online shoe buyers? Not really, right? After all, it's others, such as manufacturers and suppliers, who have to rack their brains over this. Maybe. But can or should customers today have the "not my problem attitude" and avoid the issue or turn a blind eye altogether? Now that online shopping has been given a boost by COVID19, 2020 offers an opportunity to take a closer look. We leave it up to each of you to answer this question, but we would like to delve a little deeper into the topic here:

UN Sustainable Development Goals

With the 2030 Agenda adopted in 2015, the global community under the umbrella of the United Nations committed to 17 global goals for a better future. The guiding principle of the 2030 Agenda is to enable people around the world to live in dignity and at the same time to preserve the natural foundations of life in the long term.

For the e-commerce sector in the shoe segment, there are 2 main areas of interest

In order to stabilize the international carrying capacity of ecosystems, a shift towards sustainable consumption and natural resource conservation is essential for the survival of the world's population. In this context, recycling and waste reduction as well as the conscious use of both consumption and sustainable production patterns play a significant role in the sub-goals.

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 be taken to limit the temperature increase significantly - to below 2 degrees Celsius, and if possible even to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But where are the concrete starting points for the e-commerce sector "shoes"?

Outsourced production

In today's industry, one thing above all is important: produce cheaply and thereby sell as cheaply as possible. Consumers are used to low prices and are rarely willing to pay more. Due to current labor laws and related minimum wages, production is therefore 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.

At the same time, protection would be more than necessary when tanning with heavy metals. . Because "normal" leather from conventional animal breeding not only has a worse CO2 balance, but also a lot of poison in the baggage. If tanned improperly, the chromium III used can oxidize to chromium VI, which is not only highly toxic but also carcinogenic. The tanneries poison the rivers of the Asian textile centers with this often untreated wastewater. Furthermore, the outsourcing is also more than questionable in terms of animal welfare. Traditionally, leather is a "waste product" of the slaughter industry and can therefore be considered more or less a sustainable recycling. However, the situation has changed due to 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 deplorable conditions.

Therefore, it would be good to attach importance to sustainably produced shoes, but these are not quite easy to find. Especially with shoes, there are many sins in the production, which is rarely fair and environmentally friendly.

Production that avoids 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 eco-balance, the land consumption and CO2 emissions are enormous.

But the vegan shoe layer, as is often the case, is not clear. For a natural tanning process, vegetable tanning agents are used. These include, for example, oak bark, rhubarb roots, mimosa bark, quebracho wood or tara pods. As a result, no toxic substances are used or released. Nor are there any toxins in the end product afterwards.

Furthermore, 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 not have any harmful effects on the environment even after production. However, the shortcoming remains that even the eco-leather shoe is not vegan, i.e. "animal suffering-free". This is another reason why the vegan shoe pioneers are constantly developing new plant-based fabrics, such as those made from piñatex fabric - a leather-like material made from the long fibers of pineapple leaves, cork, hemp, organic cotton or rubber soles.

In summary, sustainable shoe manufacturers attach great importance to ecological production, fair working conditions and the shortest possible transport routes.

They thus have their products manufactured under fair conditions and, at best, additionally support social projects.

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

  • Waste prevention
    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 that, as a result of the reuse of packaging or raw materials, no new ones need to be put on the market - the so-called circular economy.
  • Reuse and recycling
    Member states are to take measures that increase the proportion of recyclable packaging. These can include deposit systems, for example, or economic incentives. In addition, the member states are given targets. They must ensure that certain proportions of waste are recycled.
  • Manufacturer Responsibility
    The manufacturer of a product has the power to decide in which type and amount of packaging to embed the goods, just as online retailers practically have the upper hand when it comes to choosing shipping packaging.

This sounds good at first, but if you take a closer look, there are very different regulations per country, i.e. that the individual member states must 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 meet 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 little influence on the amount of packaging waste that you, as the recipient of the shipment, have to dispose of in the end, but you can contribute to an increased awareness by evaluating the ecological aspect.

The shoe pinches - increasing returns

There is a returns research group at the University of Bamberg that estimated 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 percent: that is, every second sweatshirt or pair of shoes is returned directly to the online store.

Footwear is the second most important fashion segment in the retail sector directly after apparel. The market for footwear here includes all shoes intended for private end consumers. Overall, the footwear market generated a global revenue of US$439 billion in 2019. At US$342 per capita in 2019, people in Hong Kong spent the largest share on footwear, followed by Luxembourgers and Austrians.

But who does not know the problem? Shoes were ordered online, but in reality some things (eg, material, color, heel, size) is different than it appeared online. Back goes the order. This is frustrating and annoying.

Why can't it be done better?

75% of shoe returns are based solely on incorrect sizes. This is a "well-known" problem in the industry, because there are no uniform shoe sizes worldwide and there are e.g. 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, and try to improve product descriptions (e.g. this model runs small, we recommend ordering one size larger) in addition to conversion tables. Even this is not a real solution and remains quite inaccurate. Some online stores use the returns argument to promote sales (free returns from X% sales) or try to pass on part of the return costs to the consumer from the outset (chargeable returns), but this can result in 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 you only risk 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 with them the financial damage, which primarily affects the online store.

Environmental damage caused by transport

Not only the financial damage is an issue, transport is second among CO2 emission drivers, which is known to have a strong negative impact on our climate.Due to an increase in online orders, returns increase, thus transport increases and so do return-related CO2 emissions. A chain of unfavorable factors for the environment.

The urgent goal worldwide should be to reduce returns or avoid them altogether. This would be a major step toward climate protection.

Destruction of goods - does it have to be?

According to companies such as Zalando, Amazon and Otto, a large proportion of shipped goods are returned undamaged and resold. Some of the goods have to be slightly refurbished, for example, and slightly damaged goods would be given away cheaper, some donated. Only a small part would have to be destroyed. Instead, he said, programs are in place to reduce the number of products disposed of. These include the discounted sale of returned goods, product donations to charitable organizations, recycling, or sale to buyers.

Apparently, returns are actually only the smaller part of the problem. Out-of-stock 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 purchasing decisions made in each case have a very large influence, which may sometimes seem small from an individual perspective. In fact, however, 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.

Anyone who values themselves and others (not only in terms of fashion) looks a little more closely than is obvious when selecting their shoes. Materials, manufacturing and health aspects are just a few points that should be taken into account.

Because it's clear that what doesn't sell, or sells poorly, is off the (virtual) store counter. For online shoe sellers, sustainability aspects offer completely new opportunities for positioning, because not only environmentally friendly production and materials, but also modern, digital customer solutions hold a special competitive opportunity and can be understood and lived as a holistic statement of the company.

Digitization could help to design the online shopping process in such a way that it comes as close as possible to a real / offline shopping process and thus supports the "green fingerprint". Approaches to this already exist, whether through virtual fitting rooms, augmented reality (AR) shopping processes, digital body or foot measurements, or the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

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