The rise in eco-consciousness is having an effect. An increasing number of people around the world simply don't want the products they buy to end up in landfills or incinerators, and they are voting for environmental changes with their wallets.

In the footwear industry, one company feeling the pressure is the Schuh retail chain. Its solution is a basic one: an initiative called “Sell Your Soles.” For every pair of used but viable shoes that they drop off at a Schuh store, customers will receive a voucher for £5 (€5.80-$6.40) to put toward the purchase of new items.

Owned by the Genesco group in the U.S. and based in Scotland, Schuh operates 130 stores in the U.K. and Ireland. Once a week, a U.K.-based group called Recyclatex collects the shoes for its charity programs and makes a fixed payment per ton of merchandise to the shoe retail chain. Schuh then donates these funds World Land Trust, a non-profit organization in the U.K. that focuses on conservation.

“Sell Your Soles” fits under one of four “Purpose Pillars” that Schuh set up earlier this year to “support the brand's culture of diversity, self-expression and inclusivity.” The pillars are mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, youth fostering and sustainability. Each has its own internal committee of representatives from the business.

Other brands have taken up the challenge from eco-conscious customers by opening a new avenue for their businesses. And they are doing this by capitalizing on something that dates back decades and has enjoyed continual expansion: the market for vintage clothing.

Not too long ago, a venerable French brand of men's shoes, JM Weston, smelled opportunity when it noticed that its shoes were hot items on the online resale market. Like other high-end brands, JM runs its own repair shop, located at its factory in Limoges, France. Putting two and two together, JM has announced a campaign to buy back its used shoes, restore them and resell them at a discount.

The workshop at the factory already repairs up to 15,000 pairs of shoes a year. It will now also start restoring worn shoes from six of JM's best-known models for resale at about half their original retail price. JM Weston's moccasin, for example, retails at €600 when new. For now, the restored shoes will be sold in the vintage sections of JM's stores in Paris. Later, they might be sold at the factory shop in Limoges and in Japan, which has a thriving vintage market.

Another French company has taken a somewhat different approach. In October 2018, Bocage, a subsidiary of the Eram group, began running a shoe subscription called “L'Atelier Bocage” (“The Bocage Workshop”). For a monthly fee of €34, customers can now rent new shoes with an option to exchange them every two months. The system was introduced at six stores and has since been expanded to 50. Over the past year or so, it has drawn about 800 subscribers.

In addition, Bocage is now testing a second-hand section, called “Comme Neuves” (“Like New”), at its store in the French city of Nantes. This retail corner stocks restored Bocage shoes at a discount of 50 percent. A second such retail corner, measuring 25 square meters, will be set up at the forthcoming, 150-square-meter store at 90 rue de Rivoli in Paris. The brand will be gradually expanding the system through its whole network of 120 stores in France. It will also be adding a digital dimension, launching an e-tail site – commeneuves.fr – early next year. Shoes purchased on the site will be available for in-store pick-up.

The hardest sell in this market is apparently the hygiene of second-hand shoes. The shoes on display under Bocage's “Comme Neuve” sign will have no more than three or four months' wear. A factory in Maine-et-Loire, France, will have put them through antibacterial cleaning, reshaping to restore their original volume and smartening them up with polish and wax.

Like JM Weston, another French shoe brand, Mephisto, has been offering free reconditioning of its shoes for years, and others are doing the same. Likewise, Vibram has been offering a resoline service for quite some time. The difference here is that Schuh, Bocage and JM Weston are embracing a different aspect of the circular economy by entering the second-hand footwear market, which has been thriving mostly in relatively poor countries where sustainability less sought after than monetary savings.

Meanwhile, Kavat has launched the concept “As new,” which is based on the Swedish shoe manufacturer sorting out the worn shoes and then fixing broken seams, replacing worn laces, Velcro straps and removable insoles and polishing up and preparing the shoes to sell them on. The sale of shoes called “ As New” is done through a special Instagram account where the finished shoes are posted. Second-hand shoes are purchased through messages and payment with swish. The concept is currently being offered only in the company's home market of Sweden. Customers can also hand in old Kavat shoes in the shoe manufacturer's stores.

Product rentals are another aspect of this economy, which is booming in the ski and bicycle sectors. The circular fashion economy is gradually emerging in other sectors like outdoor apparel, with brands such as Patagonia and The North Face, and initiatives like the Lena fashion library in Amsterdam and Arkivet, a store in Stockholm that sells second-hand luxury handbags and clothing. As part of its initiatives in the area of sustainability (see the related story in this issue), Zalando has its own re-sale platform, Zalando Platform, through which customers have re-used over one million items so far this year.

It may be an interesting option for other footwear brands and retailers.