Why the biggest environmental impact of a product starts with what it’s made out of. Photos by Sean Collier. Styling by Corey Stafford.
Like any great adventure, the path to sustainability starts with a single step. Balancing multiple components from colorful strap patterns to the comfort and durability of soles, Teva’s product team considers the environmental impact of every tiny detail.
Behind each of these decisions is a team of passionate individuals focused on implementing earth-friendly changes that make a big impact, like Julia Feldman. Julia manages the process of creating a new product along with the design and development teams. From choosing materials to designing for end-of-life (what happens when a product is no longer usable), she’s our real-life search bar for all sustainability questions. We caught up with her to get back to basics: what matters when it comes to creating more earth-friendly footwear and why?
Tell us about yourself! What did you study and why?
JULIA FELDMAN: I received my degree from UC Santa Barbara in Environmental Studies with a Certificate in Technology Management where I studied circular economies, industrial ecology, and the impacts of fashion and footwear on the environment.
I’ve always felt that both our government and corporations have to be held accountable for climate change and the environmental crisis—and that I could make the most impact by going into sustainable design and manufacturing for consumer goods. Corporations have the responsibility to consider the goods they are producing and putting out into the world, so my work at Teva aligns with my personal mission of making the world a more equitable and sustainable place. In order to further my impact, I’m also pursuing my MBA in Sustainable Solutions part-time while also working for Teva.
We’ve heard that the materials used to make a product are responsible for the majority of a product’s environmental impact. Can you explain to us why?
JULIA: In footwear, many of the materials come from a petroleum base, such as polyester and EVA foams. The environmental impacts associated with extracting and refining petroleum are massively destructive, so by choosing alternatives such as recycled polyester and recycled EVA foams, we can reduce that impact significantly. As an industry, I believe it’s necessary to move completely beyond petroleum-based materials, but at the moment we face some technical barriers. In addition to up-front environmental impacts, material selection can also indicate whether or not a product can be recycled at the end of its useful life. That is why material selection is one of the most important aspects when considering product sustainability.
How are Teva materials chosen?
JULIA: Materials are chosen first and foremost based on the type of product we are creating. We want to make sure that your shoes will hold up while you’re on the trail or in the water, so choosing materials better suited to perform in those environments is key. Once we understand what the end use of that product will be, we can determine whether it makes more sense to pursue recycled options or natural options. Often with more performance-based shoes, recycled options are better suited. For more casual wear, we can consider natural options (organic cotton) which typically have a lower environmental impact than synthetic counterparts. We do our best to choose sustainable materials at every step—including reinforcements and linings internally, as well as the materials you see on the shoe externally.
Tell us about the sustainable materials used in Teva’s product line.
JULIA: In 2019, we transitioned all of the straps in our flip flops to be traceable, verifiable REPREVE® recycled polyester webbings. In 2020, we transitioned all of our iconic webbing straps to contain traceable, verifiable REPREVE® recycled polyester. Since then, we’ve diverted the equivalent of over 40 million plastic bottles from landfills.
REPREVE® recycled polyester turns old plastic waste into usable yarn, which we use to create our straps. This way we are able to keep plastic waste from polluting our planet and filling up our landfills. By using recycled polyester, we are also reducing demand for using new petroleum, emitting fewer greenhouse gases and conserving water and energy in the process.
This season, we were also able to introduce recycled EVA and recycled rubber into some of our products. Recycled EVA turns post-industrial waste that is destined for landfills, and extends its life by incorporating it into our midsoles. The same goes for recycled rubber, except we incorporate that material into our outsoles.
Lastly, we introduced Up Leather, which is a reconstituted leather created from tannery scraps, blended with a recycled polyester backer. This ensures that no piece of leather goes to waste. The more resources we can keep out of the landfill, the better! We aim to improve every season, and have some exciting new materials to introduce into our line for Spring 2022 as well.
What’s one of the most fulfilling sustainability projects that you worked on and why?
JULIA: One of the most fulfilling sustainability projects I’ve worked on for Teva has been the redesigning of our famous Ember. The ReEmber is the same iconic sneaker/slipper we all know and love, but redesigned with recycled materials in just about every component of the shoe. It was really important for me to focus on something that would have a meaningful effect in terms of reducing our environmental footprint, so tackling our popular Ember styles will create a huge impact for us. The ReEmber has a 100% recycled polyester ripstop upper, 100% recycled polyester rib knit collar, 50% recycled polyester collapsible heel, 50% recycled EVA, and 50% recycled rubber.
Another fulfilling project I had the honor of working on was our TevaForever recycling program. This is the first footwear recycling program of its kind in the outdoor industry. Now you can send us your sandals for free and we will recycle them into something new! What started out as a brainstorming conversation last year quickly turned into a reality, thanks to our Senior Product Line Manager, Jess Bensley. I was involved in much of the research, vetting, and business case-building for this program on the front end, and Jess brought this program to life with all of our cross functional partners. Other than material consideration on the front end of the design process, the other most impactful thing we can do as a footwear company is to take responsibility for our products at the end of their useful life.
How can I recycle my Teva sandals?
JULIA: Recycling your Teva’s is super easy! First, print out a shipping label from our website. Then box up your sandals and ship them off! We will receive your sandals, they will be sorted by material and then recycled into things like playgrounds and lawn chairs. At the moment, we are also working on developments to see how we can recycle your old sandals into new sandals, which is our ultimate goal. True circularity! For us at Teva, progress is better than perfection with sustainability and we are so excited to continue working towards our goals of circularity and sustainability.