Empowering big steps forward for sustainability in the sports footwear industry

Innovations boost safety and cut CO₂ emission

Digitalization Sustainability Sports and Fashion Jun 27, 2024

A person lacing up sports shoes bonded with solutions from Henkel Adhesive Technologies and wearing a smartwatch.

Soccer stars are battling for the men’s European Championship this summer. Top athletes will also be competing at the biggest sport event of the year in Paris in July and August. Every kick, sprint and leap can decide who gets heartbreak and who gets glory. That is why sportspeople want footwear that offers a powerful advantage over their rivals. But how can shoe manufacturers meet those high expectations while also improving efficiency, boosting safety and making progress for their sustainability goals? We asked to the three Henkel Adhesives Technologies experts, Isaac Kim, Senior Product Development Manager, Jileen He, Innovation Program Manager, and Lena Bremshey, Market Strategy Manager Footwear, to describe key trends and technologies that are now reshaping the sports footwear industry. 

Athletes are not the only people with rising demands for sports shoes. Consumers want fresh designs, extra functions, and a reduced environmental footprint. And regulators are introducing requirements for manufacturers to cut emissions and ensure safety for workers.

Those expectations bring challenges for producers. And making footwear is already highly complex. Each shoe consists of dozens of parts made from a variety of materials – including the rubber outsole, foam midsole, lining, insoles and more – while manufacturers also need to provide a range of different sizes. On top of this, consumers are increasingly aware that footwear has a big environmental footprint: 4 percent 2 of global CO2 emissions come from the fashion industry and a 2013 study found that a typical pair of running shoes produces 13.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, although progress has been achieved in recent years.

Any successful response to changing demands, rising regulation and complex processes will need innovative and sustainable technologies for making shoes. What are those solutions?

Isaac Kim

For sustainability, companies want to save energy and reduce CO2 emissions from production – by eliminating process steps.

Jileen He

We have developed a huge portfolio of water-based solutions that reduce VOCs by up to 100 percent.

Lena Bremshey

We keep our finger on the pulse by collaborating with partners at our growing global network of innovation and application centers.

Right now, what big trends are impacting the sports footwear market?

Isaac Kim: I have worked in the shoe industry for 23 years – and it is constantly evolving. There are always new designs and lighter, more comfortable or more breathable materials gaining popularity. Every business has unique priorities depending on its specific location and factory size. But all companies need to be adaptable if they want to succeed with sports footwear.

Right now, two closely interlinked trends always come up when customers visit our innovation centers. The first is related to safety and sustainability. The second is all about operational efficiency.

Conversations about safety focus on eliminating solvents from adhesives that bond parts of the shoe together. Solvents release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air, which can have harmful effects on the health of factory workers. For sustainability, companies want to save energy and reduce CO2 emissions from production – by eliminating process steps.

Those efforts to cut steps from production are also a big factor in discussions about operational efficiency. This ties in with the fact that the shoe industry uses a lot of manual labor. The cost of labor is rising, while automation technology is enabling manufacturers to shorten processes, improve productivity and save energy. But it is not easy to set up robots or other equipment that can adapt to different shapes and sizes of shoes.

Sports shoes that are bonded with Henkel Adhesive Technologies’ CoolX range of water-based products

Big trends create big challenges: How are innovative, sustainable solutions supporting the response?

Jileen He: In lots of ways! My experience in the shoe industry stretches across more than a decade and I have seen the real-world impact of innovations in this market. Our team works closely with partners from across the value chain – including universities, suppliers, equipment providers, contract manufacturers, local brands and major global sportswear players. We are also in constant dialog with our Henkel colleagues from across industries worldwide to discuss technologies we can leverage to benefit customers in the shoe market.

Henkel has always been at the forefront of efforts to phase out chemicals of concern, for example, and we have developed a huge portfolio of water-based solutions that reduce VOCs by up to 100 percent.

Furthermore, our teams collaborate with customers around the globe to support them with products that cut CO2 emissions during production. And that is particularly important because around 50 percent of a shoe’s carbon footprint is generated during manufacturing – so there is big potential to make a positive impact.

Simplifying processes is the key to cutting emissions from footwear. Our two-in-one solutions eliminate a step in the production process by removing the need for separate primer and adhesive stages. That increases efficiency, while cutting carbon emissions and chemical consumption. Our CoolX range of water-based products also saves energy and reduces CO2 emissions by lowering the temperature in the drying oven from 50°C to 35°C. This enables customers to use softer, more temperature-sensitive materials – which can cut emissions and costs. The CoolX range also boosts quality, especially in complex shoe designs.

Our Aquace range is another great example. These VOC-free, water-based polyurethane (PU) adhesives are easy to apply, with outstanding durability and quality for sports footwear. Our teams are constantly collaborating with suppliers and customers to keep expanding this portfolio with new features that support the switch to safer, water-based technologies for the shoe industry while also enabling process simplification and automation.

On top of these innovations, we also provide on-site training and support customers when installing new production lines or optimizing their current setup. Our experts help them overcome the challenges of setting up automated equipment – and we take their factories to the next level together.

YouTube Thumbnail Automated spray-application of adhesives (reactive hotmelt) for the assembly process (Thumbnail)

Automated spray-application of adhesives (reactive hotmelt) for the assembly process. 

Looking ahead, what do you expect for the future of the sports footwear industry?

Lena Bremshey: That is a tough question because the sports shoe market is incredibly difficult to predict! New materials, designs or priorities can reshape this industry very quickly. Our application engineers and technical experts work side-by-side with customers at their factories and our key account managers collaborate with brands. In that way, we are always up-to-date about their shifting requirements and can share our knowledge at any time.

We keep our finger on the pulse by collaborating with partners at our growing global network of innovation and application centers too. These state-of-the-art spaces are fantastic for discussing trends and shaping the future of this market with our partners. The facilities serve as collaboration hubs for customers and other partners to develop sustainable and highly customized solutions. For the footwear sector, we have facilities across China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam where partners can test new processes or talk about sustainable chemistries. And we are constantly expanding that network.

There are many bold ideas bouncing around the shoe market today – like the shift to bio-based and biodegradable materials, disassembly of shoes to enable recycling or experiments with smart shoes that collect data. Whichever concepts shape the future, sustainable innovations for footwear bonding will play a crucial role. That is why our teams are committed to close partnerships with both, brands and manufacturers, to get a deep understanding of their changing needs. Because just like shoes – there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach.

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