Raw Materials Birkenstocks Paper
Raw Materials in the Production of Birkenstocks Shoes
Across the Pacific Northwest is a shoe craze that much of the rest of the United States cannot comprehend. The face of this craze is the German shoe company: Birkenstock. For those who are from the Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S., these shoes are the height of fashion. Opinions of the stylishness of the . The shoes also carry with them a reputation of being natural and environmentally conscious. Birkenstock stands firmly by this reputation and strives to make sure that their product is made in a conscientious manner. They are very open to sharing about their raw materials and production processes, and firmly believe that they operate in a eco-friendly manner. On their website, they state: “We strive to be authentic and naturally eco-friendly, not eco-chic. We didn't just jump on the green bandwagon; we actually have a history of being a company with a conscience.” They strive to create the simplest of designs that are durable, comfortable, fashionable, made of sustainable materials, and is reusable. They have been very successful in their goal in comparison with other companies. Overall, in all stages of the product lifecycle, Birkenstock is very considerate of toll their production takes on the environment. The raw materials that make the end product of a standard pair of Birkenstock shoes are mainly of organic origins, and the company strives to make their product design as minimalist as possible. Throughout all of the stages of the lifecycle, the raw materials and secondary raw materials used are jute stems, cork wood, natural leather, suede, Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA), Metal, powder coating for metal, latex, fossil fuels, and recycled paper.
Though the product contains relatively few raw materials and processing compared to other shoe brands, many of these materials are organic, recycled and renewable. The primary components of the footbed of Birkenstock shoes are cork, latex, jute fiber, and Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA). The cork, latex and jute fiber materials are very sustainably produced, and are very environmentally friendly. The famously comfortable molded footbed is made up of several layers. From the bottom of the shoe, to the top, the layers are EVA sole, jute fabric, a cork latex mixture, more juste fabric, and then the leather straps with buckles2. Cork is gathered from the bark of a corkwood tree, which does not harm the tree. It is taken off in strips, and used for the making of cork bottle stoppers. The bark of a cork tree can only be harvested from a tree every nine years, but it is very high yield and sustainable. These trees are usually located in a mediterranean climate. Another product that is naturally sourced is the latex adhesive agent that they use to build the footbed. Latex is a natural rubber that is harvested from the bark of rubber trees. It is harvested by scraping the bark of the trees, and allowing it to drip out in liquid form. It, like cork, is a very elastic natural material that allows for flexibility and durability in the footbed when mixed with the ground cork. This molded footbed is then covered with a material which is plant based. The plant fiber is made from jute stems, which are a plant grown solely for harvest, so it is extremely sustainable. Jute is a fibrous plant material that can be woven into fabrics for clothing, bags and shoes. The least sustainable part of the footbed is the secondary raw material: Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) sole. EVA is a synthetic polymer that is formed from the precipitate of Ethylene and Vinyl Acetate. In order to synthesize these raw materials, much water is needed to continue flushing the precipitate during the synthesizing process. The texture and density can be modified for different uses, such as the sole of the Birkenstock footbed. This material is the bottom of the shoe. No failures or assumptions needed to be made about the raw materials included in production of the Birkenstock basic shoe. The company is very forward and proud of the materials(which are mostly sustainable) that they have chosen use.
All of these initial materials must undergo some processing in order to create the secondary raw materials. The cork that Birkenstock uses is actually the byproduct and recycled materials from high quality, lightweight bottle cork manufacturers in Europe. When bottle corks are produced, they are punched out of a strip of bark that has been peeled off of the tree. After the corks have been punched, there is still a pattern of perfectly high quality cork bark that cannot be punched into corks. This is passed on to the Birkenstock production line, where it can be ground up into super fine granules. This ground up material, when mixed with a binding agent, can be molded to create the spongy, molded footbed of a shoe. The binding agent that holds the ground up cork together is latex. Latex, after being harvested from trees, can be modified in many ways. It is assumed that water may have been removed from the latex in order to increase the rubber content and increase elasticity. It is known, however, that natural latex is used by Birkenstock, and not synthetic latex, which would contain oils and fossil fuels. The layers of fabric that surround the cork footbed. The fabric is made out of a plant based textile that is made from the fibers of jute stems. The jute stems must be roasted, combed and peeled in order to gather the fibers. Those fibers can then be woven into a course fabric This layer of the footbed wicks away moisture and is also biodegradable.
The top of the shoe Is made of supple natural leather with a couple of buckles, which are also secondary materials. The natural leather is from the hide of a livestock animal such as a cow or a pig. The hair must be chemically removed with Lime (a calcium carbonate mixture) and treated with several oils like mineral, animal and vegetable oils. These oils make it water resistant. The buckles that hold the straps together are made of powder coated metal. The metal must first be mined out of the ground and molded into the proper shape through use of heat. Birkenstock fails to share what the metal is made of, so it is assumed to be a lightweight copper alloy. Then they are sprayed with a powder coating that helps strengthen the metal. The powder coating on the metal is a mixture of charged curatives, pigments, leveling agents and flow modifiers that are heated and then sprayed onto a surface to make it durable and more resistant to scratching.
Once all of these raw and secondary materials have been individually processed, they must be transported to the manufacturing location in Germany from all over the world. Then they must be packaged and distributed to customers. The raw material that is required for this step is assumed to be oil or coal. Birkenstock, which is very open about its production and manufacturing, does not have much information on the methods of distribution. Both of these fuels sources are harvested from underground and can be used to fuel engines for transport vehicles like trucks, planes and ships. For the packaging, Birkenstock must maintain a certain level of sustainable packaging. In Germany, there are stringent laws on packaging and waste, so, in order to comply and be environmentally conscious, Birkenstock makes their packaging out of 90% recycled paper, and uses eco friendly inks to label their boxes. The paper is sourced from recycling programs, but the original source is through the harvesting of trees.
Recycling is a very important part of the life cycle process of Birkenstock. The materials of the shoe are made to be durable and long lasting. With proper upkeep, a pair of Birkenstock shoes can last years. The limiting factor is usually the soles, which wear down with use. In order to properly maintain the shoes, they must be re-soled and the footbed must be sprayed with cork sealant. The footbed is easy to keep around, but when the sole of the shoe wears down to about a quarter inch, it is recommended to have them re-soled professionally. This requires a new EVA synthetic sole to be applied to the shoe. It is assumed that this is glued to the bottom of the shoe using the same latex adhesive that is used for the rest of the binding of the shoe. They can be resoled a few times before the rest of the shoe The latex, is naturally sourced, however the EVA must be artificially synthesized to create the polymer. The cork sealant is needed to maintain the waterproofness of the cork soles. This component is also assumed to be composed of latex, which is sustainably harvested from the bark of rubber trees. Birkenstock encourages consumers to recycle the shoes when they are done, by donating them to people who are in need. The only new raw material that enters in at this step is the fossil fuels that transport the shoes to those who they are being donated to. Since the shoes have such a long life, and are made of mostly sustainable materials, they often outlive peoples interest in them. So donating them proves to be another great way to extend their life.
Excess materials from the production line are minimal, but those that do come out of the process are easily recyclable. Because of the stringent waste and packaging rules in Germany, the company is ‘forced’ to adhere to certain standards. If there is excess EVA material, it is recycled to be ground up for children's playground equipment or tires. The cork produces no excess originally, but after it is mixed with the latex, it must be used immediately before it sets. The company makes the mixture in small batches so that not much or no waste is created. No new raw materials are used in the management of the waste, except for fossil fuels that may be used int the transportation of excess materials. A few of the raw materials themselves are recycled materials, like the cork and the paper used in packaging. Recycling is used in many steps of the life cycle.
Overall, Birkenstock is very eco and recycle-friendly. They are very open about their materials and processes, to the point of even boasting about them. The majority of raw materials used in the creation of their shoes are organically sourced and processed in an environmentally friendly manner. Very few assumptions need to be made about the raw materials included in the final product. In the long run, the eco-friendliness and durability of this shoe product make it a very sustainable and worthwhile investment. It is a relatively costly pair of shoes for the average consumer. Since this shoe is meant to last so long, it would take the place of several pairs of shoes that would have been used within its lifetime. Like most products, its biggest pitfall lies in the large consumption of fossil fuels that it takes to transport the different materials and ship the final product. Because Birkenstock seeks to use only the highest quality sustainable raw materials, these materials are from a wide variety of places and must be transported over long distances. This uses a large amount of energy and fossil fuels, but in large scale production that is common today, it is inevitable. In terms of waste, they are careful and not wasteful. Birkenstock created a quality shoe that keeps both the consumer and the environment in mind.
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9 December 2014
The Life Cycle of Birkenstock: Embodied Energy
The history of Birkenstock goes all the way back to the 1700s in Germany, the company makes a large effort to stick to their traditions as best they can. (Birkenstock Footprint) When you think Birkenstocks most people think hippie, tree hugger. The shoes might actually reflect this, with their sustainable materials and minimal machine use. There are many components in making Birkenstock shoes. The materials must be gathered and processed to a usable state then shipped to the factory where they are made. They are a German based company that are shipped and sold worldwide in thirteen different countries. (Birkenstock Footprint) Although all of the hand done manufacturing of the products is done in Germany.
The Birkenstocks are made from a couple of different raw materials which include suede, EVA, cork, and jute. First suede begins in the farms where the cattle is raised. Raising and slaughtering cattle is inherently very energy intensive and uses a lot of chemical energy in the form of fossil fuels. The process to create EVA is by amalgamation of ethylene and vinyl acetate which is done chemically, using chemical energy. Cork goes through a long and labours process to get to its raw form, using human labor (mechanical energy). The jute fiber has very specific cropping conditions, once it is hand harvested using human labor (mechanical energy), it then goes through many machines (chemical energy) to get to the form used in production.
Suede goes through a long process and energy intensive process. This process is depicted in Figure 1 (Environmental). It is made from leather which comes from cows. Since it comes from cows it must go through the process of raising the animal, which requires them to get feed from food that took a lot of energy to be produce (Albers). After the animal is at a substantial growth it is then taken to the slaughterhouse where they use high energy consuming machinery to kill the cows. Then the skin is taken to the tanning factory. It goes through many different processes to get to the ‘raw material’ of suede. Since it is natural it will decompose, so the suede is treated with many chemicals including hexavalent chromium salts, aniline, azo dyes, lead, cyanide, formaldehyde, tannis, solvents, formaldehyde, and chlorophenols (Olsen). The suede is then ready to be used in the making of the shoes.
The EVA is a type of plastic made with ethylene and vinyl acetate, both are chemicals. The process to create EVA leaves fugitive emissions to air, water and intense energy consumption. The EVA production is very energy intensive, it uses 91 megajoules of energy, approximately, per kilogram of EVA pellets (EVA Brief). It is produced in large amounts in a factory using many different machines. In the Youtube video it shows the many machines the product goes through to get to it’s final stage. The product went through many large machines that let out lots of steam and gases. The process involves a lot of heat in order to mold and flatten the EVA into a usable form.
The process of making cork is labor intensive. Cork is harvested from a cork oak tree, this takes human power to cut down the trees and gather the outer layer. First the cork trees must be grown then the bark is stripped from the tree using hand tools (Albers). Once the bark is stripped the suberin material has to be removed. After it has been separated it is then left out in the sun to dry, this is using natural chemical process. This process also flattens the coak. Once it has gotten to this form it is then cleaned by being treated with heat and water. After this it is left to dry and then can be shipped out and used in the shoes (How Cork).
Jute is a vegetable fiber used to make burlap. The jute plant has very specific growing conditions, it requires 5-8 cm of rainfall weekly and temperatures of 20-40 degrees Celsius (Jute). The process starts with the plant stocks that must be defoliated, then soaked in chemicals to have the fibres removed from the stem and stripped from the stalk and made into raw jute bales. The raw jute bales must then go through a softening machine. After that it goes through a carding machine, this requires it to be hand feed into the machine (Jute Yarn). It then goes through three rounds of drawing, which reduces the amount of slivers the jute will produce. The efficiency of each drawing can be seen in figure 2. Then the fiber is blended with softer counterparts and machine woven to be made into the footbed of the Birkenstock (Albers).
The Birkenstocks are manufactured in Germany, the company does not disclose the machines used to produce their product. The company claims to use energy efficient machines. (Lizzie) What type of machines and how efficient are they? They won’t say. Although there is very minimal use of machines used in the production process. It is clear they use computerized-machines. It is assumed that they make all their own molds for the shoes. They also have to cut out each of the raw materials to be glued together. Then it goes through an assembly line to glue the product together. Although the company tries to stick to it’s original methods of being a custom, handmade shoe, meaning the assembly is human mechanical energy based (Stylebubble). Much of the work is hand done making it a fair amount of human labor. Thus making the manufacturing process much more time consuming.
The raw materials must be shipped to Germany for the assembly and manufacturing process. Once the final product is ready the shoes are imported from Germany to many other countries it must be distributed via plane and ship. This uses a substantial amount of chemical energy in the form of fuel, using a great deal of petroleum gas (Transportation). This requires much fossil fuel use and chemical energy to power the planes and ships, regardless of where they are being distributed a great deal of energy is used to import the shoes from Germany to their various retailers (Freight).
Once the product gets to the customers the use of Birkenstocks is primary intended to be worn as footwear. The main source of energy used in this step is human, being mechanical, making it very energy efficient. The footbed takes a long time to be broken in, once it is you are meant to have perfectly molded to your foot shoe. Since the footwear is meant to be long lasting, the customer may take them in to be repaired (Birkenstock Shoe). Any maintenance done to the shoe is low energy, for it is hand done. If you are getting the sole repaired they may use a heating machine to remove and reapply the glue. This would be a small and electrical machine, using small amounts of energy for each shoe repair.
Although the Birkenstocks can be recycled, the energy used is getting the shoes to local organizations who then distribute the shoes to people in need. This energy use would include both mechanical (human) and chemical energy consumption. The shoes would then have to go through another distribution process to get to the people in need.
Birkenstocks are built to be long lasting, reusable products. The footbeds may be recycled to make a new pair of shoes. When they are finally used up, all the materials used are biodegradable. Although they are biodegradable the process of decomposing takes a long time and releases harmful chemicals into the landfills (Lizzie).
It is found that there is energy used at each part of the life cycle of Birkenstock shoes. Although it might not be much energy at the end of the day when the shoe can last you up to 30 years, depending on how well you take care of it and if you take it to get repaired. The most energy used is in collecting the raw materials. During the manufacturing process minimal machine use is required since there is such an efficient assembly line of human labor. There are many ways to prolong the life cycle of the shoe before it gets thrown away to be broken down in the compost. You have the option of replacing various parts of the shoe or donating it to be recycled. So all in all, the Birkenstock shoes live up to their name of being environmentally friendly.
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DES 40A – Section 1
December 9, 2014
Birkenstock Waste and Emissions
Birkenstock is a German based company that is known for it’s unique appearance, surprising comfort, and environmentally conscious roots. There’s undeniably a stereotype when it comes to people who wear Birkenstocks. Perhaps a vegetarian hipster or a backpacking hippie comes to mind? In addition to being quite popular recently, this innate association with Birkenstock and environmentalists prompted a curiosity in the actual environmental qualities of the company. Our group’s main focus was to challenge this alleged belief that Birkenstock is a “green” company, and if they are, are there ways they can still improve. After researching the topic, it’s clear that Birkenstock makes a deliberate effort to produce shoes in an environmentally conscious way, as seen through investigating the waste life cycle. Specifically in this essay, I’m going to be focusing on the waste component, yet the findings of the raw materials and energy portions don’t fall short of progressive either.
From their origins, most of the raw materials used for the shoes come from fairly natural processes. The main component of the shoe, the sole, is made of raw materials like cork, latex, and jute (The Raw Material in the Birkenstock Footbed). Cork is acquired from the cork tree by peeling a layer of bark at least five centimeters thick. This procedure is only repeated every nine years by law in order to help the tree grow (Why Cork Is So Incredibly Green). From the start, cork is very environmentally friendly, as it requires zero inputs: no pesticides, no irrigation, and no pruning required. There are no toxic byproducts that affect the workers extracting the cork, as well as no byproducts being released into the environment. In fact, most factories use the cork dust, a byproduct of production, in up to 90% of the energy used in processing cork (Why Cork Is So Incredibly Green). Big machinery is also not required, as a skilled worker with a small hatchet performs the extraction process. The cork used by Birkenstock is actually a byproduct of Portugal’s wine industry, so not only is the initial cork acquisition ecofriendly, the specific cork they use is recycled (How Green Are Birkenstocks?). The natural rubber latex and jute used for the shoes are also free of toxic byproducts and acquired in a way that preserves the ecological cycle (Sheppard). However, the leather that comprises the strap is an exception. Leather production produces waterborne, airborne, and solid wastes throughout its processing (Joseph). In almost every step of the process, resulting wastewater has shown to have toxic components like salt, blood, dirt, hair, alkaline solutions, and non-exhausted chromium (Environmental Hazards of Leather). Birkenstock does not openly communicate about a policy for environmentally friendly leather tanning, but the typical tannery process exposes workers to arsenic, fumes, dusts, and malodors, making for an extremely contaminated working environment (Environmental Hazards of Leather). Since leather is usually chrome-tanned, there is a significant amount of chromium related waste in the form of shavings or leftover trimmings from the animal used for the leather (Cabeza).
During the manufacturing process, the majority of waste comes from the burning of fossil fuels to provide electricity to power the high-tech machinery used to mass-produce the shoes. Birkenstock has adopted several policy measures to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption, such as “improving their large leather punches, implementing environmentally friendly energy generation plants, and using combined heat and power plants” (Nature as a Model). As the increase in demand for Birkenstocks has increased, Birkenstock no longer relies on solely handmade practices. However, Birkenstock manufacturing and production must comply with stringent recycling and waste laws in Germany that hold the manufacturer responsible for waste avoidance, waste recovery, and environmentally compatible disposal (Look). Thus, Birkenstocks, for example, only makes small batches of the cork latex mixture to minimize waste (Birkenstock). Unused materials are also utilized in the production of other materials. For instance, scrap leather is used to make an alternative foot bed liner called LEFA (Birkenstock). Similarly, leftover EVA from the sole production process is broken down and further processed for use in children’s playgrounds, sport fields, and sound barriers along freeways (Birkenstock). Birkenstock uses almost exclusively water soluble and solvent free adhesives in its manufacturing (Nature as a Model). The small metal buckles on each shoe are powder coated to protect against corrosion (Birkenstock Material Info). Because no carrier fluid evaporates away, the coating process emits few volatile organic compounds (Powder Coating). Unfortunately, the brand does not report the volatile organic compounds emissions per pair of shoe produced.
The distribution and transportation phase contributes a great deal to the overall waste equation. Birkenstock factories are located in Germany, therefore, in order to allocate the shoes to different retailers worldwide, carbon dioxide is inevitably released. It is unclear exactly what method of transportation is utilized to distribute the shoes, but whether it include planes, ships, trains, or trucks, they all contribute their fair share of pollution.
As for outputs during the utilization of Birkenstocks, when worn properly, there should be no waste emissions. Nevertheless, for maintenance, soap and water can be used to wipe away any spots, as well as mild leather cleaner and water repellant for upkeep. In large quantities, these additional products need to be taken into consideration when discussing the potential wastes released during the consumption stage. Water repellents can be used that are more environmentally friendly and that don’t use fluorocarbons to eliminate hazardous wastes going into the air (More Eco-Friendly Water Repellent Solutions). The same goes for leather cleaner, as there are some cleaners that are biodegradable and based on environmentally benign chemical technology, which are clearly safer for the planet. The waste of these supplementary products, however, should not undermine the longevity of Birkenstocks. Made to provide continued comfort for years, Birkenstocks appeals to the “reduce, reuse, recycle” concept instead of producing shoes that are planned for obsolescence (Chasing Birkenstocks). For the most part, wearing Birkenstocks does not prove to be a major threat in terms of releasing dangerous outputs due to off-gassing or other environmental affects.
During the recycling stage, used Birkenstocks can be recycled at many local shoe retailers, which are then donated to a local organization or an organization like Soles4Souls (Birkenstock). Throughout this process of distributing and donating the shoes, modes of transportation are required, thus emitting pollutants, like CO2, into the air. Even though greenhouse gases are being released into the air, this shouldn’t discredit the recycling process. It is much more productive to prolong the life of old Birkenstocks than to avoid emitting gases into the environment from transportation.
Though Birkenstock advocates consumers to recycle their shoes, many shoes will inevitably end up in landfills. Some materials are benign when thrown out, like cork, which is biodegradable. Others can be harmful, like EVA, which produces acetic acid, and in concentrated forms, it can cause erosion and dermatological harm (Vinyl Acetate). Also, when sent to a landfill, leather is broken down to produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and is resistant to biodegradation for long periods of time (Biodegradability of Leather).
Birkenstock takes great pride in being labeled as an environmentally friendly shoe company. With a quick look at their company’s website, it’s evident that on the surface there is a noteworthy respect for the planet and its inhabitants. As a member of the Marin County Green Business, they are recognized for “demonstrating continuous compliance with applicable environmental regulations, conserving energy, water, and other materials, implementing sound environmental practices that prevent pollution and waste generation, and sharing environmentally responsible practices with other businesses in the community” (Birkenstock). Our group’s main goal in choosing this specific topic was to discover if the most popular and classic Birkenstock shoe truly deserves all the hype it receives as a “green” product. Through our research, we can conclude that Birkenstock does in fact live up to its environmental promises, though there’s always going to be loopholes even in the most environmentally mindful companies. What are easily overlooked by their customers, and conveniently omitted by the company, are the additional materials, energy, and wastes that are required elsewhere in the life-cycle process. So while there is a lot to be said about the standards and practices Birkenstock upholds, especially compared to other shoe companies, progress towards a more sustainable future is still feasible.
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