Key Takeaways:

  • The footwear industry is facing increasing pressure to become more sustainable and transparent in their operations.
  • Brands must now demonstrate their sustainability claims with objective data in order to comply with regulations and consumer expectations.
  • The industry needs to shift to a synchronous, streamlined workflow to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact.
  • Digitalization can play a key role in achieving sustainability goals while maintaining fit, performance, and innovation in footwear products.

The spotlight is on the entire fashion sector’s environmental credentials. Footwear faces its own challenges, as well as having a unique opportunity to engineer a new edge into its products and processes – one that can move the needle on sustainability at the same time as revolutionising the route to market, all without compromising on fit, performance, or innovation. 

All this can be achieved by shifting to a synchronous, streamlined workflow – from design, through engineering and production, and all the way downstream. But to get there, the industry must look critically at established tools and solutions, and embrace a different way of thinking and working, fuelled by real end-to-end data, disruptive technologies, and digital twins – taking advantage of what makes footwear unique.

In footwear, what it means to be successful is changing fast. And what it means to be sustainable is changing even faster. 

Brands used to be able to set their own targets. They could promote, without having to prove,  their use of more environmentally-friendly methods and materials. And based on opaque metrics and selective disclosure, they could call a shoe “sustainable”. 

It’s no longer acceptable for brands to make these promises without backing them up. Today, they need to demonstrate them, with objective data, in individual product passports and across their entire operations, in order to be considered compliant with broad regulations like the EU-level “Green Deal” and the French “AGEC” legislation, and in order to get ahead of future, industry-specific regulations.

There is a great deal of risk in non-compliance. If a footwear brand promises more than it can deliver, in terms of recycling, GHG emissions, waste, or other hot-button issues, consumers have already shown themselves ready to pursue them through legal channels. And the precedent is also established for government action: two of America’s biggest retailers were fined a combined $5.5 million after the FTC found they were advertising fashion and textile products using words like “sustainable,” but without the data they needed to back those claims up.

But as well as significant risk, there is also real opportunity here for brands that are able to meet and exceed buyers’ and policymakers’ expectations and to differentiate themselves by taking even bigger steps towards verifiable, data-backed sustainability actions. Especially if those same steps can transform other strategic KPIs like waste, profit, speed to market, and more.

Before we discover how that can be possible, let’s look at the scale of the problem to understand the size of the opportunity.

Worldwide footwear production expanded close to 9% in 2021, but that industry-wide increase in volume is not being driven by efficiency. Despite a shift to digital working on a solution-by-solution basis, the average lifecycle of a shoe has not changed that dramatically. Even with widespread adoption of 3D CAD, and even with integrations between those solutions and platforms like PLM and ERP, research by Romans CAD suggests that the time it takes to bring a new shoe to market (where new tooling is required, rather than just the substitution of new materials) still averages out at around 200 days.

Because of these R&D, design, and engineering timelines, only the world’s biggest footwear brands are able to bring more than a couple of completely new styles to market each year as a function of their sheer size. So footwear is not bringing more products to market by working smarter, but by working harder and fuelling growth through additional resources.

The footwear industry is also feeling new commercial pressure: retail prices have continued to fall across consumer categories and, as of June 2023, that same trend is playing out specifically in footwear

So the industry, today, is making more product, selling it (on average) at a pricepoint that erodes margin, without having been able to meaningfully accelerate its calendars, improve its agility, or markedly increase the velocity of innovation.

And now that consumer and regulator pressure is adding more weight, requiring that those same long calendars and routes to market must also become more transparent and open, with new insights being mandated into the lifecycle impact of every product. 

This is data that most footwear brands are unprepared to disclose, so sustainability scrutiny is driving a different kind of rapid action: a sudden tilt towards identifying (or creating) new recycled and reclaimed materials, the exploration of new construction and bonding techniques with a smaller environmental footprint, and design, development, and engineering processes that target a reduced environmental impact.

But these changes have done little to affect footwear’s high return rates, with figures from the UK suggesting that one in five shoes are still returned, and with fit continuing to be the primary contributor to returns across footwear and apparel. (We should note that apparel’s return rates are higher than those we see in footwear.)

So an uncomfortable balance is now being struck between new sustainability initiatives and the rush towards regulatory compliance, and the persistent footwear industry problems of long development calendars, and the high levels of waste generated from returns. 

Footwear brands clearly want, and now urgently need to make changes to this recipe – supercharging the cycle of creativity, engineering, and testing to make better-fitting and better-performing shoes at a faster pace, at the same time as taking measurable action on sustainability.

So how can the industry make those changes without introducing compromises to performance, fit, speed, innovation, or sustainability? How can footwear mitigate its environmental footprint and become more efficient at the same time?

The answer could lie in an approach to digitalisation that takes account of two things.

First, the recognition that footwear is a uniquely detail-driven and engineering-oriented industry. This unique combination of creativity and practical ingenuity has helped the industry outpace other sectors in restoring revenues to pre-pandemic levels, and the proximity of footwear design to footwear  development and engineering should give brands a headstart in sustainability when compared to apparel, where art and science are not so closely connected.

Second, the realisation that, despite investing heavily in technology, the footwear industry, on average, has stood still in some critical areas – and that sustainability is just one part of an overall picture where digitalisation has happened in small pockets, instead of at an end-to-end level. And this has created not just gaps in transparency and traceability, but disconnected links in a value chain that still lacks synchronisation, centralisation, and consistency of information.

The end-to-end data dilemma.

There is a universal truth that transcends categories: product outcomes are determined by decisions taken at the earliest stages of the product lifecycle, as well as by how effectively a consistent dataset is able to travel with that product from initial idea, through development, engineering, and production.

Whether the finished product is being judged based on its price, its aesthetics, its performance, or its environmental profile, those measurements will be heavily influenced by choices made well before a final bill of materials is produced, and significantly ahead of engineering, development, prototyping, purchasing, tooling, and production. And, as a consequence, those outcomes are also strongly coloured by the accuracy and completeness of information that is available to the stakeholders making those choices.

More simply: sales figures, return rates, carbon emissions, margins, costs, fit, performance, and many more final-product-level impacts can be shaped positively or negatively by data that’s generated at the start of a product’s journey, then communicated, consolidated, and used thereafter.

This is true in apparel to some extent, but it’s especially true in footwear and leather goods – industries where design and development (and the data they create) live so much closer to disciplines like engineering, testing, and production. Footwear has a unique blend of art and science, and, far more than in other sectors, product outcomes are heavily weighted in favour of the science.

In theory, this should translate into an edge for footwear when it comes to substantiating sustainability claims, reducing the footprint of individual shoes, and optimising products’ performance, fit, and chances of market success. 

In footwear, the data created during design – especially 2D designs that are then simulated and refined in 3D, before being unwrapped again to become 2D patterns – should be an engine for reducing the need for excessive physical prototyping, a tool for directly driving tooling and manufacturing, and a consistent thread of actionable, end-to-end insight that runs from last to tech pack, design inspiration to import duties.

In practice, things often look decidedly different.

While the footwear industry has made a lot of progress towards digitalisation in individual, isolated areas, individual brands and their testing and production partners still tend to work asynchronously, with the different disciplines that exist under the creative, engineering, and manufacturing banners operating according to their own priorities and their own timelines, and having to be reconciled afterwards.

And while discrete solutions and platforms such as 2D CAD, 3D CAD, PLM, and ERP have all delivered value in their own isolated areas, integrations between these environments are often not standardised or feature-complete. It’s important, also, to remind ourselves just how many different solutions contribute to the lifecycle of a given footwear product beyond those core enterprise platforms: digital materials platforms, costing, testing, and engineering environments, systems to directly drive CAM, and a growing point cloud of solutions that pick up the tasks of buyer-facing offline and real-time rendering of 3D assets.

Data can, and does, flow between all those different solutions, but in many cases those integrations are either bespoke, limited in scope, or heavily manual in their execution. And because the different processes that contribute to footwear lifecycles operate asynchronously, changes made during one workstream – last development, creative design, technical development, engineering – are not reflected in the others without an ongoing process of manual reconciliation that continues from the point of initial design to the time at which the last late modifications are made.

From a technology perspective, then, the promise of seamless integration between solutions has instead led to silos of data created by asynchronous processes and difficulty in aligning teams behind a cohesive vision. This sits at the root of not just organisational and orchestration challenges, but many other instances where product outcomes are negatively impacted, from sustainability and material yield to prototyping and speed to market..

As a result, the real transformation the footwear industry needs to undergo in order to progress towards the digitalisation of both sustainability and efficiency goal is one of changing the way it operates – finding a way to move from asynchronous working tied to disconnected or semi-integrated solutions, to a fully synchronous, end-to-end lifecycle, enabled by a different kind of platform that supports a fully digital model of development.

Seamless data; synchronous solutions

This kind of solution is precisely what Romans CAD – already known for their specialised 3D footwear design, simulation, and engineering system, a central component of 2D>3D>2D workflows – set out to build with its RCS platform: a digital environment that provides a full 360-degree, digital-native view of the complete design, development, engineering, production, and downstream marketing cycle of footwear.

For a brand that already works with the company’s CAD programs – which are a footwear industry standard, covering 3D model creation, patternmaking, material simulation, impact measurement and cutting – the RCS platform adds on a native document vault, universal access to critical engineering data, along with colour and costing tools and more, quickly solving for the challenge of disconnected solutions and siloed information.

Crucially, all of these different components can be brought together in a synchronous way, ensuring that alterations made in any single area are reflected in the others that precede or follow it. So while many footwear brands will be familiar with the idea of having 3D simulations that are tightly linked to 2D patterns, RCS goes a step further by having both be seamlessly integrated to essential product data. This means that changes made in either 2D or 3D will instantly update views, reports, and data fields in PLM and ERP – as well as making sure that the latest changes can directly drive production.

This bridge between critical product data – and the practice of consolidating and centralising it using product data management, or PDM – is designed to provide consistency of information from creative studio to concept validation and the creation of technical specifications. No matter where a user sits in the product lifecycle, RCS aims to provide them with the tools to synchronise their work with their colleagues’, and it offers a platform where graphical tasks can directly influence data, metadata, bills of materials, supply chain risk, impact assessment and much more – and vice versa.

By acknowledging that the footwear industry has an edge in its combination of industrial knowledge, creative energy, and engineering expertise, the RCS platform is targeted at unlocking key sustainability and success possibilities such as: 

  • Easy experimentation with new materials and colourways is supported by close connectivity between virtual materials and samples, and their physical counterparts.
  • The ability for designers to work in 2D, technical developers and engineers to simulate those designs in 3D, and production teams to unwrap them again to calculator material consumption and yields with a high degree of accuracy.
  • Putting the structures in place to allow designers to work to sustainability and cost targets, and for those designs to also be shared with buyers, marketing teams and other departments prior to costing – enabling quick and accurate interaction across the value chain in real-time.
  • Consumer and wholesale buyer-facing market testing and virtual experiences, unlocked by showcasing virtual styles that are inextricably linked to real product data and technical specifications – well before production has begun.
  • In-house sharing of assets to support marketing and eCommerce virtual photography, as well as a full suite of production capabilities – from flattening and patternmaking, to cutting.
  • The ability to automate not just design and development, but digital production – taking a design from initial inspiration right through to nearshore or onshore sampling with a single thread of key product data.
  • Opening up the possibility space of consumer-facing virtual try-on based upon exacting, scientific measurements and  precisely digital models – both of which remain consistent to the original design intent.

As we can see, just as different negative product outcomes stem from the same root cause – a lack of a single, end-to-end digital workflow – positive outcomes can bloom from the reverse, with complete visibility, data integrity and synchronisation.

Engineering your edge.

As pressure continues to pile onto the footwear industry across sustainability, price, quality, fit, and performance, almost every brand has uncovered similar needs at the same time. Every footwear organisation needs to react faster, be more transparent, reduce its time to market, cut prototyping costs, and do all of this without compromising on fit, performance, or their impact on the planet.

In this context, there is no logic in a footwear brand attempting to segment sustainability and success into separate parts. Not just because the two are interdependent at the consumer level, but because the tools required to make real, measurable improvements to a brand’s ability to deliver on them are the same. Both positive and negative outcomes have their foundations at the earliest stages of the product lifecycle, and as products begin to reach the market it becomes clearer that no organisation is able to disclose supply chain data, or create digital product passports without a consistent flow of information from end to end.

In this market, digitalisation is everything. And the deeper the level to which any organisation embraces digital-native working, the more successful and more sustainable that organisation has the tools to become. It’s little coincidence that the stratospheric success of the luxury industry has coincided with a new phase in that sector’s digitalisation, with leading houses and groups increasing speed, achieving higher margins, and beating the competition to the market at the same time as reducing their costs.

To get there, these lighthouse companies did two things: recognised what makes their industry unique, and took a new approach to digitalisation that hinged on having consistent, accurate data that transcended traditional technology structures and equipped different stakeholders with the right tools to take action.

This is the model that the footwear industry should look to adopt, re-evaluating its approach to technology to prioritise a seamless, synchronous thread of data that can change the industry’s route to market without compromising on fit, performance, or profitability.

If footwear can find the right partners, the right platforms, and the right mindset, the combination of challenge and opportunity that the industry faces today represents the ideal opportunity to build a technology and digital process ecosystem that’s engineered to take advantage of footwear’s inbuilt edge, to create sustainability and success.

STRATEGIES (a company based in Greater Paris, France) develops and markets CAD/PDM software solutions dedicated to the footwear, leather goods and furniture industries. Find out more about the Romans CAD RCS platform and other solutions.

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