In this Dec. 17, 2018, photo, Nicole Sanborn stitches the upper section of a pair of athletic shoes designed for the military at a New Balance factory in Norridgewock. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The fashion industry is responsible for about 10 percent of global emissions, leading some brands to take stock of their outsized carbon footprints, according to the World Bank.

New Balance Athletics operates three factories in Maine and has pledged to be net zero by 2050. The company’s factories churn out thousands of sneakers every day.

An MIT lifecycle assessment estimates that producing just one pair of running shoes generates 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s because it’s an energy intensive process that uses cotton, leather and oil-dependent polyester. It also generates a lot of waste.

John Stokes, the company’s director of sustainability, said New Balance aims to change that.

“The general pathways of reduction are really around energy efficiency and renewable energy in both our own operations but more importantly in the supply chain,” Stokes said. “That’s where a lot of our emissions are, in that scope 3 supply chain piece.”

Stokes said New Balance will use 100 percent renewable electricity across its domestic and global operations by 2025 and slash its greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030. In Maine, four large community solar contracts coming online later this year will help the company meet its goals.

“The state feels we need to hit net zero as a state,” said Steve Hudson, an attorney with Preti Flaherty and on the state’s Industrial Innovation Task Force. “Where we can we reduce emissions while maintaining the kind of jobs that are important across the state, especially in our rural, more economically disadvantaged areas. It’s important to do that.”

That task force is charged with helping businesses in Maine reduce their carbon footprint so the state can be carbon neutral by 2045.

Across its global operations, Stokes said each country’s unique infrastructure and regulations dictate how renewable goals will be met.

“The industry as a whole has this opportunity to map the entire supply chain to understand where there’s hotspots of impact reductions and strategically address those challenges with programs that deliver energy and water savings on a scalable basis,” said Kurt Kipka of the Apparel Impact Institute, an organization that assesses manufacturing processes and identifies energy and water savings.

New Balance said five of its suppliers in China and Taiwan worked with the Apparel Impact Institute to implement energy and water programs that saw greenhouse gas reductions of nearly 5,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide and freshwater savings of more than 1.3 million cubic meters.

Stokes said the company will also change some of its materials, switching to 50 percent recycled polyester and 100 percent preferred leather from chrome-free tanneries by 2025. New Balance is sourcing leather products from Midwest cattle ranches that rely on regenerative agriculture to improve soil health as well.

“It’s a unique opportunity to be involved in something that’s creating a better condition in the end and our participation in that is leading to improvement,” Stokes said. “We’re leaving the environment in better condition than when it started and those opportunities are pretty rare.”

Assessments of New Balance’s sustainability claims vary. The nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project scores companies on their emissions targets and performance, and evaluates their commitment to environmental action and transparency. New Balance submitted its climate change plans to CDP for the first time last year. A spokesperson for the nonprofit, Simon Fishweicker, said the company’s score is private because of its first-time filing status but he added, in general, to get a top score, emissions are key.

“Digging into those emission reductions, where we really provide the most credit in terms of emissions reductions is when you can demonstrate that those reductions are coming from emission reduction activities or increase in renewable energy,” Fishweicker said.

New Balance said it has implemented 35 climate change initiatives as of 2020 and reduced its annual carbon dioxide emissions by about 8,300 metric tons.

But in February, Good on You, a group of scientists, writers and developers that calls itself “the leading source for fashion brand ratings,” gave New Balance a “not good enough” environmental score. The group said New Balance uses some renewable energy and eco-friendly materials but doesn’t use water reduction initiatives in its supply chain.

In response, Stokes said the company needs to do a better job talking publicly about the work its doing to address climate change, including water usage.

“I think New Balance is among a leading group of brands that take these issues seriously and are investing significantly, time and resources, to understand and make changes not only for our brand but to improve the industry as a whole,” Stokes said.

New Balance recently announced that beginning this spring, 19 percent of its footwear will meet the company’s Green Leaf Standard, meaning the shoe uppers are made with at least 50 percent preferred materials, such as recycled polyester and chrome-free leather. Stokes said New Balance wants to satisfy young consumers who are seeking sustainably made products and are willing to pay a bit more for them.

But whether companies like New Balance are held accountable for meeting their net zero target emissions is another question, said David Carlin with the United Nation’s Environmental Program.

“The U.N. just launched an expert group that will evaluate and examine net zero commitments,” Carlin said. “But again, the enforcement mechanism is still one that remains a bit open-ended.”

Carlin said as more countries mandate net zero compliance, he thinks sanctions will follow for those that fall short of targets.

Stokes said he understands the pace can feel slow in the race against climate change, but New Balance is committed to meaningful improvements and knows the world is watching.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.