The World Bank says the fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of global emissions, leading some brands to take stock of their outsized carbon footprint.
New Balance Athletics operates three factories in Maine and is committed to being net zero by 2050. The company’s factories produce thousands of sneakers every day.
An MIT life cycle assessment estimates that producing a single pair of running shoes generates 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s because it’s an energy-intensive process that uses petroleum-dependent cotton, leather, and polyester. It also generates a lot of waste.
This story is part of our “Climate Driven: A Deep Dive into Maine’s Response, One County at a Time” series.
John Stokes, the company’s chief sustainability officer, says New Balance aims to change that.
“Broad reduction pathways are really about energy efficiency and renewables in our own operations, but more importantly in the supply chain,” Stokes says. “That’s where a lot of our shows are, in that element of the scope 3 supply chain.”
Stokes says New Balance will use 100% renewable electricity in its domestic and global operations by 2025 and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. In Maine, four large community solar contracts put online later this year will help the company achieve its goals.
Steve Hudson is an attorney at Preti Flaherty and a member of the state’s Industrial Innovation Task Force, charged with helping Maine businesses reduce their carbon footprint so the state can be carbon neutral by 2045 .
“The state believes we need to get to net zero as a state,” Hudson says. “When we can, we’re reducing emissions while maintaining the kind of jobs that are important across the state, especially in our most economically disadvantaged rural areas. It’s important to do that.”
Across its global operations, Stokes says each country’s unique infrastructure and regulations dictate how renewable energy goals will be met. Kurt Kipka is part of the Apparel Impact Institute, an organization that evaluates manufacturing processes and identifies energy and water savings.
“The industry as a whole has this opportunity to map the entire supply chain to understand where the impact reduction hotspots are and strategically address these challenges with programs that enable energy savings and of water on a scalable basis,” says Kipka.
New Balance says five of its suppliers in China and Taiwan have worked with the Apparel Impact Institute to implement energy and water programs that have resulted in greenhouse gas reductions of nearly 5,500 tonnes metrics of carbon dioxide and freshwater savings of over 1.3 million cubic meters. Stokes says the company will also change some of its materials, moving to 50% recycled polyester and 100% preferred leather from chrome-free tanneries by 2025. New Balance sources leather products from ranches of livestock in the Midwest that rely on regenerative agriculture to improve soil health. as well.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in something that creates a better condition at the end and our participation in that leads to improvement,” Stokes said. “We are leaving the environment in a better state than when it started and those opportunities are quite rare.”
Ratings of New Balance’s sustainability claims vary. The nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project rates companies on their emissions targets and performance, and assesses their commitment to environmental action and transparency. New Balance submitted its climate change plans to the CDP for the first time last year. CDP spokesman Simon Fishweicker said the company’s score was private due to its first-filing status, but he said that in general, to get a better score, shows are key.
“Digging into those emission reductions, where we really give the most credit in terms of emission reductions is when you can demonstrate that those reductions come from emission reduction activities or increased energy renewables,” Fishweicker said.
New Balance says it has implemented 35 climate change initiatives as of 2020 and reduced its annual carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 8,300 metric tons. But in February, Good on You, a group of scientists, writers and developers who call themselves “the leading source for rating fashion brands,” gave New Balance a “not good enough” environmental score. The group said New Balance uses renewable energy and environmentally friendly materials, but does not use water reduction initiatives in its supply chain. In response, Stokes says the company needs to do a better job of speaking publicly about the work it is doing to tackle climate change, including water use.
“I believe New Balance is part of a group of leading brands that take these issues seriously and invest significant time and resources to understand and make changes not only for our brand, but to improve the industry. as a whole,” Stokes says.
New Balance recently announced that starting this spring, 19% of its shoes will meet the company’s Green Leaf Standard, which means shoe uppers are made with at least 50% of preferred materials, such as recycled polyester and chrome-free leather. Stokes says New Balance wants to appeal to younger consumers who are looking for sustainably produced products and are willing to pay a little more for them. But whether companies like New Balance are held accountable for meeting their net-zero emissions goal is another question, says David Carlin of the United Nations Environment Programme.
“The UN has just launched an expert group that will assess and review net zero commitments,” Carlin said. “But again, the enforcement mechanism remains a mechanism that remains somewhat open.”
Carlin says that as more countries impose net zero compliance, he thinks penalties will follow for those who don’t meet the targets. Stokes says he understands the pace may seem slow in the race against climate change, but he says New Balance is committed to making meaningful improvements and knows the world is watching.