Close-up of two hands threading a lace into a Wildling Shoes minimal shoe.

Cradle to cradle: Are Wildling shoes recyclable?

Can you actually take a Wildling minimal shoe and turn it into a new shoe? What happens when the ravages of time have gradually taken their toll on a beloved well-worn companion? Are there ways to bring it back into action or even reintroduce it into the product cycle? Wildling Shoe's team is constantly engaged with the question of how minimal shoes can become even more sustainable over their entire life cycle. One possibility would be to produce recyclable shoes, whose components can be reused for the production of new products after they wear out. But how easily could this actually be accomplished? Humor us for a bit while we toy with this notion...

Recyclability at Wildling Shoes – it could all be so wonderful

Let’s imagine that we find a Wildling shoe model in the online shop and fall head over heels in love with it (okay, we don’t need much imagination for that ...) and that after the shoes arrived in our home, we wear them for a long time on practically every occasion. We nurture and care for them, sharing adventures big and small, vacations, shopping trips, walks and outings. Yet the day finally and inevitably comes when our faithful companions can no longer be worn and it is time to say goodbye. Wouldn’t it be great to know that our Wildling minimal shoes will return to the place where they were made and that new shoes can be created from their materials – shoes which in turn will bring joy to others?

What sounds like a fairy-tale happy ending is in fact the description of the cradle-to-cradle principle, which is already a reality for a number of products on the market. At the end of their useful life, their materials can be used to create new products, which in turn require fewer resources. Awesome! We do that, too. Right?

Close-up of two hands threading fabric for a Wildling Shoes minimal shoe through a sewing machine.

To be recyclable, products must consist of so-called mono-materials. This means that the product itself or its separable components may each only consist of one raw material. In the textile sector, for example, this can be achieved by producing a T-shirt exclusively from pure Tencel or pure cotton. Once the shirt is worn out, the fibers can be reprocessed and reused. 

However, a Wildling shoe is made of much more than just one material – for example, there is the sole made of rubber and cork, the patch, the threads of the seam, the eyelets, the lining, and the upper, which in itself can also be made of different fibers depending on the model. So there’s a lot going on here. But we wouldn’t be Wildling Shoes if we just stuck our heads in the sand over this. Instead, we sat down with Stephan Schaller from the Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP) for a strategy meeting and worked out some possible solutions. 

Idea number 1: A recyclable Wildling shoe

Okay, we’ve already covered that ground. But let’s keep thinking here. If a Wildling is meant to be durable and shouldn’t be made from material composites, then why not take a Wildling shoe’s most resistant material, the rubber of the sole, and make a shoe out of it! After all, the sole is certainly robust. Conversely, however, this would mean that we’d end up with a minimal shoe made of synthetic material that is neither breathable nor particularly light on the foot. In other words, we would be sacrificing the entire wearing experience that defines a Wildling minimal shoe. Back to the drawing board. 

Idea number 2: A compostable Wildling shoe

If we don’t want a synthetic shoe, we can just head in the opposite direction and make one out of purely natural materials that can eventually be broken down on the compost pile. That’s more Wildling’s style anyway, isn’t it?

Yet even this solution isn’t ideal, because a Wildling minimal shoe that is made entirely of natural materials from the upper to the sole would unfortunately not meet our current demands on the durability of a minimal shoe. If it is indeed compostable but then falls apart after just a few months, that is a compromise we are not prepared to make.

Of course, you could always just leave the sole and upper material as they are and separate the individual components from each other during the recycling process. However, that would require an energy expenditure that is extremely high and completely out of proportion to the final result – namely a yield of just 10 to 15% of all the resources that could actually be returned to the product cycle. The remaining materials can also be recycled, but they would have to be diverted to other industries, since they wouldn’t be suitable for footwear production. 

Sheesh, it’s more complicated than you’d think. Are there any other ideas?

An elderly person in a blue work coat holds a Wildling Shoes sandal on a last. 

Our solution: A Wildling shoe that can be worn for as long as possible

Robustness and durability are hardly novel concepts when it comes to Wildling minimal shoes. When we select the materials, the only question that rivals the importance of their flexibility is how long a minimal shoe made from them will last. The fact that these two requirements usually conflict with each other may sound discouraging on the surface. In fact, however, it actually spurs us on to continue our quest for new solutions. If we are not (or no longer) satisfied with something, we look for alternatives, like the Wildling Shoes patch, which in itself proved to be a minor evolution. 

Not only the materials themselves, but also the various ways in which they are processed have a bearing on the service life of our minimal shoes. For example, the weaving mills we work with can weave natural fibers in a special, traditional way so that the resulting fabric is much more durable – without losing any of its typical lightweight character.

So now we have a shoe that is as robust as reasonably possible while still being comfortable to wear. But what happens if it does break at some point?

At Wildling Shoes, durability does not end after production. That’s why, since April of 2019, we have been cooperating with the Berlin start-up Sneaker Rescue, a company that specializes in repairing shoes and thus significantly extending their service life. So, if the seam on a beloved Wildling becomes unraveled or the notch in the sole gets worn out, it can be restored to its former glory during a brief visit to the capital. The customer service team organizes the repair as part of the warranty, and owners of older Wildlings can contact Sneaker Rescue directly. 

This not only conserves resources, but also helps us to appreciate our belongings even more. After all, it takes mindfulness and attention to keep making a product workable again and again. And let’s be honest here: It’s always the oldest, most worn, and much loved items that have the most beautiful stories to tell. 

Or, in the words of Stephan Schaller, “Many people assume that everything has to be renewable in order for a product to be sustainable. First and foremost, however, it is really a matter of resolving conflicting objectives, and often enough, even actively using a product for a lengthy period of time is a major contribution to sustainability. That was one of the big aha-moments during our meeting.”

Close-up of seven toddler-sized Wildling Shoes minimal shoes lined up in a row. 

To be continued ...

If you’re familiar with Wildling Shoes, then you know that the team is constantly working on new solutions and ideas. No one can predict with certainty exactly what the future will bring, but there are a few promising approaches that are currently being given special attention. 

Right now, for instance, we are tinkering with the question of whether we can expand the repairability of a Wildling minimal shoe to include each of its parts. Even though this isn’t something we can figure out and put into practice overnight since we first have to work out a strategy with our production partners in Portugal, until now there has always been at least one solution for every challenge – even if it has taken some time to come up with it. 

So we will remain inquisitive, adventurous, and open to experimentation on our path to more movement and more freedom.

Images: Sarah Pabst | Wildling Shoes