We are, no doubt, entering a golden age of sustainability in the apparel and footwear industries.  Many initiatives will be launched, some with longevity and permanence and others serving as perhaps footnotes in the progression towards a low-carbon, circular economy.    One such trend afoot is the novel use of agricultural inputs in footwear and apparel, such as a corn-derived shoe sole.   An interesting product which will, no doubt, capture market interest.

Ethanol as Sustainability Case Study?

The use of corn as a substitute for a petroleum (derived) input will sound all too familiar to many.  The fuels industry has been at the forefront of agricultural inputs for a number of years.  In Canada, for example, provincial governments from Ontario westward, implemented renewable fuel standard (RFS) regulations between 2010 and 2014, many with minimum ethanol content requirements.   Targeting both gasoline and diesel, the stated goal for these standards has been the presumed greenhouse gas emission reductions that come with ethanol and renewable distillate content, with rural economies to supply the mandated renewable content often mentioned as an ancillary benefit.

RFS regulations currently also exist in a number of other countries and are often viewed as a welcome marriage between local agriculture and international business.   All of which might sound like a compelling sustainability model for the apparel and footwear industry.  But wait…

Disconnect Between RFS And Sustainability  

While the design and regulatory justification for RFS regulations usually cited the pressing need for GHG emissions reductions in the transportation sector, most RFS regulations don’t actually specify any GHG reduction requirements in determining which renewable fuels may be eligible under those standards.   This disconnect has undermined the legal foundations upon which the RFS was build, as nations grapple with GHG emissions reductions targets.

Similarly, an essential tenet of the “circular economy” is the need to recover and reuse existing resources, not to find new materials from different (however benign) sources, such as purpose-grown agricultural feedstock.

This disconnect with sustainability, as viewed by the incoming legal requirements, would surely also apply to the corn sole.

Life Cycle Analysis Doesn’t Favour Agricultural Inputs

To finish the story, the RFS and environmental regulators are moving away from any preference for feedstock inputs towards a low carbon fuels standard (LCFS), which assesses the sustainability of the life cycle of the product.  California and British Columbia, for example, have already adopted a LCFS.

In the coming growth of sustainable fashion, with a corresponding legal regime sure to follow, the hallowed ground will be a low carbon footprint product, with design-for-reuse features, signaling to producers such as the apparel and footwear industry that adopting such positioning will become a market advantage.

Whether agribusiness can partner with the sustainable fashion movement to take full advantage of these altered priorities remains to be seen.


Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm's Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations. Mr. Cocker was recently appointed the first Sustainability Officer of the International Bar Association Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on environmental issues and has authored numerous publications including recent publications in the Environment and Climate Change Law Review, Detritus – the Official Journal of the International Waste Working Group, Chemical Watch, Circular Economy: Global Perspectives published by Springer, and in the upcoming Yale University Journal of Industrial Ecology’s special issue on Material Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation. Mr. Cocker maintains a blog focused upon international resource recovery issues at environmentlawinsights.com.