Portuguese footwear industry to invest €140 million in sustainability
The ‘Made in Portugal’ label is going green. The Portuguese footwear industry has put environmental responsibility at the forefront to strengthen its exports through technological innovation. The project led by Apiccaps (the Portuguese footwear, components, and leather goods manufacturers’ association) and the CTCP (Portuguese Footwear Technological Center), has already brought together more than 100 companies, institutions, universities and research centers and seeks to establish the Portuguese industry as an “international point of reference in developing sustainable solutions.”
“Sustainability is a great opportunity for us. The Portuguese industry has credibility and consumers should have access to all the information about the products. When you buy a pair of shoes made here, you know exactly what you are getting: quality, service and fair prices,” said Paulo Gonçalves, head of marketing and communication at Apiccaps, an association that represents the 500 companies responsible for 80% of Portuguese production.
To develop this line of business over the next three years, the Portuguese footwear industry will have a budget of €140 million, of which more than 50% will be provided by the 100 or so companies and institutions driving the project. The remaining half will be financed by the government and the European Commission.
Some €80 million will go to the ‘BioShoes4All’ project, aimed at building a competitive Portuguese industry based on a “radical change” in materials, technologies and products. A series of sustainable initiatives ranging from production and educating workers to the development of biomaterials.
“We want to streamline all our procedures, develop new materials, improve energy efficiency, save water and expand our flexibility and product traceability,” detailed Gonçalves about the project’s ambitions.
The remaining €60 million will be invested in the ‘FAIST’ initiative, which aims to develop process automation and technology, increase the industry’s level of expertise in new product categories and improve companies’ supply and production capacity.
“At a time when brands have to meet a high online demand together with a sustainable positioning, they have to partner with industries that share their values and offer a quick service at a reasonable price”, argued the association’s representative, underlining that “Portugal is a very interesting alternative”.
Gonçalves insisted on the importance of manufacturing in Europe under certain quality and labor standards.
“It’s possible to manufacture products with very sustainable materials in appalling conditions for employees in some Bangladeshi sweatshops. But you can’t be sustainable only by looking at the end product.”
Ensuring a fair working environment for the 40,000 workers in the Portuguese footwear industry, which accounts for 6.3% of global manufacturing employment, is another objective of the investment in sustainable projects and strategies.
Although the sector has been diversifying its product range over the last years in segments such as textile footwear (with a weight of €75 million), waterproof footwear (€56 million) or protective footwear (€29 million), and has developed new materials from cork, apple or pineapple in national technological centers; leather continues to be the main raw material used in the Portuguese industry, largely concentrated in the country’s northern region. Some 90% of the 500 companies represented by the association, led by Luís Onofre, are located near Porto, in areas such as Felgueiras, Guimarães, Oliveira de Azeméis, Santa Maria da Feira and São João da Madeira.
“We continue to believe that leather is the best material on the market. It allows us to create durable shoes at a higher price, since there is no need to replace them as often,” said the association’s spokesperson.
“There is too much fuss over the issue of leather in fashion. Global consumption of meat has been growing steadily in recent years, so there is more available leather in the market. We don’t use exotic skins, but rather the cowhide that the food industry discards. It’s a form of recycling and creating a circular economy.”
Apiccaps is already collaborating with about 20 specialists on vegan footwear alternatives.
“I see it as the right option for people who don’t eat meat, but vegan materials should not be mistaken for sustainability,” he emphasized.
While exports, which represent 95% of Portuguese production, have grown by 29% due to a sizeable investment by the industry in markets “with great potential” such as the U.S., Japan, Canada or China in the last decade, Portuguese production has recently shifted to the European Union given the blockade caused by the pandemic that led exports to fall by 60% in 2020. As of today, Germany is the leading importer of Portuguese footwear, followed by France, Holland and Spain, while its main rivals are the Italian and Spanish footwear industries.
“We are gradually returning to normality, but much slower than we expected and need,” said Gonçalves on the sector’s recovery after footwear consumption fell by 20% during the first year of the pandemic and the representation of its member companies at trade fairs has dropped from 70 meetings a year to just twenty. However, the footwear industry began its road to recovery in 2021, exporting 69.3 million pairs, valued at €1.7 million. These figures contrast with those recorded in 1975, the year Apiccaps was founded, when the industry employed 15,000 workers, produced 15 million pairs and exported €3.1 million.
While cautious about the impact of the Ukrainian invasion and inflation on the industry, Gonçalves is optimistic about the industry’s growth in 2022. Exports have already grown by more than 20% during the first months of the year.