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Regenerative materials in shoemaking

The use of so-called ‘regenerative materials’ may allow a company to demonstrate increased sustainability in its working practices.

by Nicola Pichel-Juan

Image © Petman |

The term ‘sustainability’ is now an everyday term within the workplace, and over the last few years there has been a proliferation of materials marketed to and used within the footwear industry that claim to be more sustainable.

These materials are typically intended to have a lower environmental impact. This is often through the use of bio-based content from plants replacing fossil-based materials such as plastics, some of which are more credible than others. However, as our collective understanding of what needs to be done to protect the environment develops, there is now a notable shift towards so-called ‘regenerative materials’.


Deforestation contributes to global warming and climate change

A definition

Regenerative materials create positive outcomes for nature and ecosystems. This can be demonstrated by, for instance, improved soil health, increased biodiversity, the sequestration of carbon, and improved air and water quality. The materials do not simply lower environmental impacts, but actually have a net-positive impact on the ecosystem from which they originate. Examples of material types that have the potential to be regenerative include leather, wool, cotton and sugar cane (sometimes used as in input to the production of foam footbeds) – essentially, any materials originating from plants or animals.

Leather has the potential to be a regenerative material for use in footwear

What is ‘carbon sequestration’?

Regenerative agriculture practices (including the raising of cattle) can lead to an increased level of carbon sequestration which, in turn, mitigates against the effects of climate change. Carbon sequestration is the process by which carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed from the atmosphere and is seen as crucial to slowing global warming.

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Regenerative materials can help in the sequestration of carbon, as well as develop soil health, increase biodiversity and improve air and water quality

Organisations interested in regenerative materials will typically need to have visibility back through their entire supply chain. This will be to the point where either the crop is being grown or the animal is being raised that will ultimately be used to produce the material. To verify the regenerative credentials of a material, some businesses may partner directly with the agricultural organisation. Others may choose to purchase finished materials which have traceability all the way back to the farm and that are potentially certified to a recognised scheme.

‘Biologic’ or ‘geologic’?

‘Biologic’ carbon sequestration happens when carbon is stored in the natural environment in so-called ‘carbon sinks’ – for example, through plants and trees absorbing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. Deforestation therefore contributes to global warming and climate change, as it results in fewer trees to store the carbon, causing it to be released into the earth’s atmosphere. Soil and oceans also act as carbon sinks. Regenerative agriculture practices can lead to an increased level of carbon sequestration and can in some cases more than off-set associated methane emissions from the raising of cattle.

‘Geologic’ carbon sequestration typically involves capturing CO2 from industrial processes, converting it into liquid under pressure and then injecting the liquid carbon into porous rocks where it can be stored. Other technologies are being developed to capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere, so that it can be stored or used as a raw material in the production of items such as graphene. While some of this technology shows promise, it is not yet clear if it can be scaled up quickly enough to really have an impact in the ongoing fight against climate change.

Changing tack


Growing regenerative cotton is a more environmentally-friendly option

The agricultural practices utilised in the growing or raising of the plants and animals used to produce the regenerative materials involve a significant shift away from intensive farming practices that have become commonplace since industrialisation. As an example, growing conventional cotton may involve ‘deep tilling’ (preparation of the soil), high water consumption and the use of chemicals and pesticides. In comparison, growing regenerative cotton does not involve tilling, practices the concept of ‘crop cover’ (in which crops are planted not to be harvested but in order to protect the soil) and has reduced levels of pesticide and water consumption.

A further consideration regarding natural materials is if use of the crop for manufacturing footwear or other products will be diverting it away from the food supply chain, and whether or not its cultivation is using farmland that could otherwise have been dedicated to growing food. These are complex topics that also come into play when considering the use of biofuels and highlight how important it is to fully understand the lifecycle and supply chain of such materials. The use of waste from agriculture or food production as an input to material production is potentially a ‘win-win’ solution, as it reduces both the waste being created and the need to to consume virgin materials.

How can we help?

Please email SATRA at for further information on understanding sustainable and regenerative materials, and for support in understanding the impacts of products and materials.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 14 of the March 2024 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »