How sustainable is the future of footwear?

Which challenges do the premium and luxury footwear industries face when it comes to sustainability? What do Millennial and Gen Z consumers expect from their footwear brands as it relates to the values important to them? 41 students following the North Carolina State University Global Luxury and Management program have studied these topics during a semester long client project with Stahl, the world market leader in surface treatment and coating solutions for flexible materials. The students presented their findings during a four days on-site learning in Waalwijk, the Netherlands, where Stahl is headquartered.


Valuable partnership
The goal of the Sustainability in Luxury course is to identify and define the current mood of sustainability in the premium and luxury footwear markets. By visiting Stahl, the students learn how a successful market leader influences and serves luxury brands. They also get insight into the way the company operates within the global supply chain. These graduate students are preparing to launch their careers across a range of luxury sectors and will now be able to bring the knowledge gained at Stahl into these and future positions. Being aware of Stahl's innovative resources and products will be important as they excel in their careers. 

Michael Costello, Director of Sustainability at Stahl: “Michael Costello, Director of Sustainability at Stahl: “We are constantly challenged by our clients in the luxury segment and we welcome it as a great opportunity. This is why we have partnered up with NC State University, to help us think differently about the footwear industry and supply chain and to better understand the needs and values of Gen Z and Millennials when it comes to footwear. It is great to see that these generations are prioritizing sustainability in the production process and supply chain. We are inspired by their ideas and aspirations.”

The students have conducted consumer and competitor research for their own invented shoe company in three categories: synthetic athletic footwear, men’s leather footwear and women’s leather footwear. They also took a closer look into product development, the supply chain and marketing and sales channels. This resulted in some innovative ideas. 

Transparency and sustainability
Millennials and Gen Z expect more and more of footwear brands nowadays. Transparency and innovation are key. This new generation is looking for authenticity, uniqueness, durability and they value transparent communication about the entire production process. They also want to be on trend while wearing a shoe that has not harmed any environmental, human or animal rights. The young consumers are also expecting brands to give back to society, f.e. by donating a percentage of the profit to charity.

Circular product cycle
The students thought about the use of alternative materials in the footwear production process. Plant-based rubber, fruit and waste material from pineapples and grapes and bio-printed leather are some of the mentioned alternatives. Stahl recently announced their cooperation with Ananas Anam, a pioneer company in innovation and product development within the circular economy, to enhance the performance and sustainability of a natural textile made from pineapple leaf fibre: called Piñatex®. Stahl is specialized in finishing this unique material with bio-based solutions. These are some good examples of how more circular innovative materials can be introduced to the market.

Always connected
The Millennials and Gen Z generations want to be part of a community and are always connected to their social channels. The best way to reach them and get your message across is to communicate via influencers. These generations are happy to identify themselves with strong individuals that are outperforming in, for example, an active and healthy lifestyle. Online sales platforms, existing specialty and department stores and sales in pop up stores are the most popular sales channels to reach these consumers. 

Customer experience
The luxury industry is extremely service oriented and customer experience is an important component of business success. Stahl is innovating how B2B companies can educate, engage and serve their customers in meaningful ways. The students found some interesting ways to enhance to an optimal customer experience. For example by putting the design in the customers hands. The costumer works with a specialist to create her own custom shoe with almost limited design options, followed by 3D imaging and 3D printing of the shoe mold. 

Dr. Kristie McGowan, Director, NC State University Global Luxury and Management program: “The Sustainability in Luxury Course provides students with a fundamental understanding of a range of sustainability related topics and the juxtaposition between profitability and being socially and ethically responsible. Through our partnership with Stahl they could get access to unprecedented, hands-on luxury industry expertise. The students are now able to evolve their projects with this expertise and Stahl’s sharings. That is very valuable for them.”

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