What to do about shoes?

From October 2 – 4, 2019, Last-Report.com conducted our Shoe Cities™  tour in the city of Los Angeles visiting some of the remaining custom, bespoke, and OEM footwear factories. The LA Textile International show held at the California Market Center ran congruent to our schedule and played a major compliment to the tour acting as an interactive sourcing solution. We also hit up some local leather suppliers and component suppliers as well. All within the fashion hub of Los Angeles.

Day 3 with the LA Sanitation & Environment Department.

The Shoe Cities tour gives anyone who aspires to know about footwear design and manufacturing a 360 view on when, why and where to get shoes made in Los Angeles. Shoe Cities™ purpose is to highlight local manufacturing bringing awareness to an almost extinct practice of the US industrial age. Surprising to me, I was contacted by the Los Angeles Sanitation Environment Department requesting some of their staff to come onboard for the tour. Of course this was alluring. What interest does the LA Sanitation & Environment Department have with shoes?


A sustainable New Balance “newsky” sneakers were made from plastic bottles circa 2011.

Worldwide, more than 24 billion pairs of shoes were made in 2018, with over two billion pairs sold in the U.S. alone. That’s more than seven pairs per person each year filling up American’s closets, piling up near doorways, and eventually making their way to the trash

Borunda/National Geographic

Shoe Waste. It is something that has been around for centuries. The elephant in the room. Sustainability, recycling, and green chemicals are on top of the priority list for the future of fashion disposal and preservation. During the 3-day event  some of the topics we discussed were finding the right manufacturing that can help represent sustainable production.

Having access to domestic manufacturing and material sourcing, reduces your brand’s “carbon footprint”. Shipping costs are reduced and sampling of product is reduced as well with face-to-face product reviews. Your company’s productivity increases and streamlines the back and forth that so many designers face with overseas or even across the border development. 

Clever Cobbler

Shoes for your sole wall at Clover & Cobbler.

Producing footwear domestically, however does have its fixed price tag. Average retail costs for a pair of well made, high quality heels are $350. In a time when consumers are getting used to buying leather shoes on sale for $29.99 –  is tough to market such a valuable piece of wardrobe.

Domestic manufacturing does promote a healthy thought on being a sustainable brand in that respect. But let’s be clear about what sustainability means.

Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. In the 21st century, it refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilization to coexist. 

In order for an element to exist constantly, it must be natural. Natural elements can exist constantly. Natural elements can decompose properly and then live on to coexist with the ecosystem. Think of it as the circle of life. So can we finally dispel the myth that synthetic materials are sustainable? Kim Thomson of Clover & Cobbler talked to us about sustainability practices that the factory has put in place. From suggesting natural materials like non-chrome finished leather, real vegan materials like natural fibers and use of water-based solvent glues that are less harmful for disposal. Use of heels made of reclaimed wood whenever possible. 

“Let’s face it, some vegan shoes not sustainable.” Thomson went on to say that their practice avoids the use synthetics as much as possible, but when a client insists – “we do it but we suggest other options. Usually testing  will not pass with synthetic material.” Thomson adds.  Clover & Cobbler is an A-Z facility with a state-of-the-art air filtration system. When walking through their massive location fit for growth, you don’t realize that you are inside of a fully functional footwear factory.

A-Z factory means that they not only make the uppers, but that they develop and produce heels, insole molds, as well as lasts. Lasts (which they catalog over 1000 shapes) are the most important component of footwear development and to be able to create your own round of lasts and fittings in the same environment is priceless to a quality sustainable collection.

Being able to breath or not having to use a mask the entire workday is also a plus!

So how does Clover & Cobbler combat shoe waste? Scraps are used for development samples and the surplus can be picked up from their facility for anyone who is creative enough to upcycle. Prototype components are reused. Wood heels are made from reclaimed wood that used to be doors. “We are basically reusing what would be scrapped wood” says Thomson. And they keep their development trails to a minimum. Getting it wrong equates to more samples, which creates more waste.

Goodyear Hunting – We found the Goodyear Welt machine

Sustainable fashion and sustainable shoes are synonymous with quality, craftsmanship and generational experiences. Such is so when one sees a boot made with Goodyear Welt construction. So while we were getting the 411 on air filtration systems at Clover & Cobbler, a guest asked about Goodyear welt and if the factory had this capability. “There’s only one place out here that has the Goodyear welt…” Thomas said, information withholding of course. 

On Day 3, we pulled up to a location on the other side of town. Kind of sketchy, and very low-key. I rapped on the security gated door and a familiar animated voice was approaching from the background. The voice belonged to Andy of Southwest Boot Company

Andy was great. He and his team educated us on old school boot making.

One of the last – if not the only fully equipt factories in Los Angeles County that has an authentic Goodyear Welting machine. It is a legend to behold.  Great quality boots are made of legends. Andy was kind, warm and open to letting us explore, touch and feel and watch how the team demonstrated the honored capabilities this tiny factory has. From fire-retardant, to steel toes, to fashion forward combat boots. This facility represents the quintessential American Made Boot. 

Boots like this come to a challenge when thinking of eco-friendly ways of disposing materials. This is extremely important to factories like this that rely on old methods that today wreak havoc on our ethical thoughts. But Andy and his team are willing to find ways to keep traditon alive while stepping into the future of preservation. Steel inserts and rubber polymer mixed outsoles, tar, are not always easy to discard. There must be a way to reimagine this process without doing away with it down the road.

Outsole bonding.

In the land of LaLa

Lalaland Design & Production was an amazing experience. I am partially biased as this was my go-to factory when producing the MaxMartin American Luxury collection. Now focusing on flats and athletic shapes and a growing handbag division, Alexander Zar has been a pillar in the shoe community when it comes to luxury footwear development and production. His crew once pumped out fantastic high heel shoes, but the trend to lower heels is hard to resist making this location one of the few factories that can develop a full athletic line.

Laser cutting sports uppers.

His downtown Los Angeles location also boasts a clean air environment where you forget that you are in the middle of footwear production. His team makes exotic leather handling look easy and effortless. They are the only manufacturers in Los Angeles proud to produce components for Louis Vuitton handbag collections. 

Zar is also the only domestic distributor of the largest leather tannery in the world, Mastratto leather. Sustainability for Zar is top priority as well as fair wages and product disposal. He offers a large selection of leather with no chromatic finishing to combat impurities in the wastewater.  Scraps are reused and his technicians are more than qualified to keep sample making at an incredible minimum. His staff is more than well trained, they are masters in their own rights. 

Want to know what it takes to make Lucchese’s $12,000 travel bag? 

Exotic skin cutting at Lalaland.

If developing handbags to accommodate your footwear collection is your radar, you’re in luck. Lalaland will be holding handbag making courses in 2020. Make a serious appointment to see the facility and the handmade process in action. 

Birds of a feather flock 

When evaluating a concept like Shoe Waste or sustainability from a domestic manufacturing, perspective, it is important to also analyze the type of product that is being imported. From the looks of it – most of the products imported from countries like China, for example, are made of synthetic materials.

Not to say that there are no leather products coming in from China or any other country for that matter. But the most popular import shoes into the US are sports shoes – sneakers – that are made in China.  These materials are neither 100% sustainable or eco-friendly in the manufacturing process.

Plus it becomes difficult to participate in closed loop or circular manufacturing. 

Key principles

When planning the destinations for the tour, I wanted to make sure we maximize our time during the LA Textile show seeking our local and international resources, but also to dive deeper into the theme of the trip. As one of the honored sponsors, the Shoe Cities guests were invited by Max Anderson of Fashiondex, to attend their Sustainable Fashion Forum.

In the spirit of the tour, I thought it would be a great way for the guests to hear what the industry has to say about taking steps towards a more eco-friendly future. So when I heard that a rep from Allbirds would be part of the panel discussion, I made sure we were present.

Hana Kajimura of Allbirds approached the stage of the Sustainable Fashion Forum. Kajimura is the Manager of Sustainability who oversees to some degree the methods in which the brand is able to stick to commitment of being being Carbon Neutral.

According to Kajimura, Allbirds has positioned itself to be a sustainable product, using materials such as wool, tree and sugar cane. However, they are still desperately looking for options to maintain their spot as a formidable leader in sustainable footwear. The company also has open-source information about their partners. And their customers value that. At 3 years young Allbirds is worth over $1.4 billion and on the cusp of opening  flagship in store in China where the demand for their product is growing. 

Allbirds vs Amazon = commercialization of sustainability.

However, just recently Allbirds and Amazon had to justify its “sustainable” operations with Amazon’s new white label brand 206 Collective mimicking the design and material base of Allbirds’ classic kicks. It kind of misinterprets the concept of Allbirds, the rationality behind the simple design and its relation to sustainable fashion.

It also creates mixed-messages to the consumer but price value. Why pay $90 when I can pay $45 and get it in two days with free shipping? While Amazon stated earlier last month that the similarities are nothing new in fashion trends, CEO of Allbirds wrote to Amazon on medium.com to “Please steal our approach to sustainability.” 

The coffee was free

Coffee Talks was sponsored by the LA Sanitation & Environment Department and held on Friday October 4 on the 13th floor of the CMC.  It was a bit of ride getting started but in the end was an eye-opening experience for everyone. Michael Simpson of the LA Sanitation & Environment Department was a huge supporter of the Shoe Cities™ tour and this initiative I have in mind and it was amazing to have the chance to talk to someone on city-level. He insisted that members of his team take the tour and get in at ground level. Members from citation, engineering and marketing were part of the mix. Further driving home the importance of understanding the dynamics of footwear manufacturing and disposal.

We brought together some of the exhibitors of the LA Textile show (like Felt Loom), sustainable designers, educators as well as curious minds. The focus was on what initiatives the department has on green disposal around the city of Los Angeles. Factories, designer and brands play a huge role in the outcome of what goes into landfills as well as into the water.

The Shoe Dog

The discussion lasted well over an hour as we all learned from each other’s industries. For example, you would think that the footwear brands could just resell their samples – but that is not the case. If the shoes have holes in them for custom reasons or they are 1 size or they are 1 unit, there is no viable notable way to re-purpose the product.

Side view of the conversation.

For a small company that houses at least 2-3 brands can and will accumulate over 120,000 pounds of footwear sample pairs and development inventory per year. Our conversation was about creating awareness. What evolved was the understanding of the challenges brands face that do want to create a sustainable product.

The challenges are:

  •       Consumer wants and their ideology on what a sustainable product should look like
  •       How to make your sustainable, upcycled product “marketable”
  •       Costs are higher with sustainable product
  •       And finally, the cost of certification as well as certifications that are demanded by government regulations, which turn into a marketing scheme that consumers are forced to think is the “correct” and “honest” way.

For example – a new footwear brand that wants to operate in a sustainable fashion will have to pay to have a carbon neutral certification or Bluesign certification. These certifications can run up to $50,000 annually. No new start up can afford this. Costs are what echoes and reverberate with the consumer level as well. Sustainable shoes are more expensive than mass produced versions of themselves.

The road is tough. Tough to walk good. But I am an advocate of educating people about possibilities. 

Water, Water, Everywhere

Rodriguez and the Shoe Cities guests.

Miguel Rodriguez, owner/operator of Shoemakers of LA was gracious enough to hold a Shoe 101 course for our guests. Here we spent time exploring how shoes are made. From understanding the machinery, to a sketch workshop – the group was able to walk away with the knowledge of what it takes to construct footwear.

The tour sat down with him around the cutting table discussing the components and subject of shoemaking and were able to imagine their design in flat 1D drawings with templates provided by Rodriguez. I have been trying to arrange a class with Rodriguez for months and this was a perfect introduction that could compliment our online platform.

Every item and component fully explained, Rodriguez left nothing out  and was very clear of what can or cannot be ethically or sustainable done. With factory relations in Mexico, he can guide participants to other North American footwear production options as well as knowing what machines you can purchase to help start your own small factory. 

Helen Kirkum circa 2016.

Shoemakers of LA offers products like oat outsoles, Piñatex and other fruit-fiber materials that would round out your sustainable collection resources. There is also a 3D printer for heel and outsole designs as well as a printer that can produce artwork onto leather. Rodriguez created an ecosystem from sketch to shoebox. His scraps are also used for developing uppers and prototypes. However, there are restrictions made by the city, Rodriguez told me, that make it hard to fully comply with sustainability.

Water is a source that is highly coveted in shoe making. For his small studio he uses a tiny steamer to settle the leather (or any fabric) after crimping.

His steamer can hold around 50oz of water and that can finish about 4-10 pairs of shoes depending on the complexity of the crimp. Let’s say Rodriguez wants to produce 100 pairs of shoes every month. He could use 49 gallons of water per year (that is a modest amount) in addition to the daily operational use of water, or activities like washing and cleaning equipment and the facilities.

Southern California is constantly in drought year after year and the regulations on water use does not always work out in favor of the manufacturer. Large facilities use machines like sanitizing stations

And full run steamers like these:

Factory owners like Rodriguez need to know how to best conduct business and hold onto their passions while being challenged with sustainable options. So when the decision came to integrate our tour with the LA Sanitation & Environment Department, it was important to me to hear what these options are. 

Cassie-ann Rego, Utility Services Specialist for the Water Conservation Group at the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power spoke out about the concern her department has on water use in the factories. With water being a paid commodity, you can imagine the push back from manufacturers who rely on water for major cleaning of materials and supplies. These materials often have synthetic chemicals that are disposed of or cannot be reused. The amount of water use is especially concerning. Rego says her department set aside incentives for facilities…

to combat some of the costs towards an efficient green approach to manufacturing.

In conversation with the FDRA and their Shoe Waste program, Andy Polk expresses that their program is to assist factories change to a green solution by guiding them on how to recycle and reuse waste water.


Polk wrote to me that the FDRA is “trying to find ways the industry can collaborate to increase sustainability without brands having to make large investments on their own. The largest opportunity to start was with waste water at factories. We believe we can recycle wasted water in a way that would actually save factories money. More than a gallon of water is used to make just a pair of midsoles, so this could have an outsized impact right off the bat.” 

Polk and the FDRA team are fully aware of how important this is. They have been working on this program for many years.  “FDRA is working with dozens of factories to install systems and see if we can set up a robust program for all factories.” 

New Balance

Water is constantly becoming a challenge for factories to maintain that gold star standard. I asked a rep from India to join our Coffee Talks conversation and I was given “the look” – like girl, you know we already have this reverse osmosis, reuse grey water thing down! I have seen this in action in other countries and it is kind of shameful that we don’t have this down-packed in the US yet. 

If you want to create your own shoe design crafted by your own hands and truly understand what it takes to make shoes, contact Miguel at Shoemakers of LA.

Making waste into new materials

So how about we develop a facility that deconstructs the shoes and segment those pieces to be properly discarded or reused? 

When we look at the over 25 different components that make up 1 pair of shoes it is very difficult to compare to apparel which may only have 2 or 5 different components at most. In regards to apparel’s fight against global change, I met Lynette Feitag of Felt Loom at the LA Textile Show. She created a needle felting machine that turns pieces of waste apparel into new reusable textiles with her patented invention. Feitag was kind enough to let me take her loom examples to our Coffee Talks to further explain how textiles can be reused and as an example of what can be possible for footwear deconstruction. The innovative needle felting machine was developed in Sharpsburg, KY and is changing the future of fiber in 17 countries. 


Used by designer, Eeline Fisher and the wastenomore collection, the
felt loom machine has the technology to fuse together multiple pieces of fabric to make new fabric. New fabric that can be reused to develop anything from clothing to bags to upholstery. Albeit hodgepodge or Boho in the finish look – there is a market that can appreciate the results of producing a seemingly sustainable product. 

For footwear, it cannot be so simply done. For every sales person, 300 pairs of shoes are being carried around each quarter on the road to sell to the retailer nearest you, the hottest trends of the season. After the selling season is over there is 90% of shoe waste that gets discarded. Meaning only 10% of those samples, for some brands, are deemed sellable at a sample sale or fit for donation. Footwear industry support organization Twoten will not take development sample pairs. As it is a liability. And who would blame them? Most development samples are built on faulty material in some cases. For example, heels that may not be secure, upper bonding that may not be at its best and rushed samples to make it in time for market week. And lets not forget the attractive holes at the bottom to gain passage through customs. 

On a small scale filling two Waste Management dumpster that holds 15000 pounds, equal 30,000 pounds of shoes per quarter. Multiply this by four times per year and you get 120,000 pounds of shoe waste per company. Between factories and brands in the Los Angeles or South of Los Angeles, that is over 6,000,000 pounds – or 3000 tons per year that fill the landfills. Take this number across the country and you have an epidemic.

So what do we do with these shoes now? Does such a facility exist to breakdown, deconstruct and re-purpose shoes?  In the state of California, it does not. Interestingly enough, the infrastructure is not offered in the US to dispose of the very products we purchase to keep the economy going. And even more alarming is that within the city of Los Angeles there is a crisis on what to do about the recycling issue. But I encourage you to think outside of the box. Or better yet, become the box. This crisis does not just sit with Los Angeles, it is World-Wide.


My goal now is to be part of the solution. Because I am well aware that I have been part of the problem.

If you want to join me in learning more about the steps we can take to give some relief to the shoes being dumped into landfills and clean up the mess we made, or how to develop a fully closed-circle sustainable brand, contact me tanita@last-report.com.


Join us March 4-6, 2020 for our next Shoe Cities™ tour Los Angeles where we will be presenting a pilot program on how you can up-cycle footwear.

For Shoe Cities™ Itineraries to certified sustainable factories in India, China, Vietnam, Brazil, Portugal, Italy, and Spain, contact me to get a custom guide on where to get shoes made and how to develop sustainable footwear in these amazing cities.

Tanita Gray

Editor-In-Chief, Publisher and Founder of Last-Report.com, and CEO of Shoes Waste. Gray is a footwear, accessory and apparel designer/developer by day - writer and content architect by night. With over 17 years of experience in the fashion industry, you can find her teaching sustainability classes, drawing thumbnails, writing in her journal, giving her husband & children enormous hugs, or eating french fries.

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