Sneakers have been my favourite thing to purchase as long as I can remember. I was hardly aware of how they were produced, how much they travelled to get to me, and under what conditions people made them. Considering that between 2015 and 2020, 23 billion pairs were produced each year on average, I want to ask you a question. Have you ever thought about the environmental impact of a pair of sneakers before buying it? If your answer is yes or no, I am intrigued, you may find this article helpful. We will take an overall look at the footwear industry and the carbon footprint of shoes (pun intended). Later, follow it with a glimpse into what designers, manufacturers, and consumers (we) should do to make our favourite shoes more sustainable.
Snapshot of the sneaker industry
The footwear industry, combined with the apparel industry, and their value chain players form the fashion industry. We know that the unsustainable practices of the fashion industry are contributing to serious environmental problems, such as ozone layer depletion and photochemical smog. Shoe manufacturing accounts for approximately 20 percent of the emissions generated by the fashion industry, emitting around 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (“CO₂”) each year. Within this, 313 million metric tons of CO₂ is attributable to sneakers. The author of the book ‘Foot Work: What Your Shoes are Doing to the World’ explains this by noting, “the footwear industry is at least 10 years behind the rest of fashion in terms of human rights and environmental standards.”
It is not only the CO₂ emissions that we should worry about. Volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) that are produced in the shoe manufacturing process, such as benzene, toluene, and methyl are harmful to the environment and human health. Some of these VOCs are cancerous and some react with other gases and form air pollutants. They are especially dangerous for the people creating our shoes in factories, who are exposed to chemicals such as toxic glue fumes. Global production is heavily dominated by the Asian region, producing 87.6 percent of all footwear in 2020. Biggest producers are China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, countries with loose labour laws and health and safety requirements. The circumstances we find the sneaker industry in begs the question, what can we do to keep wearing our good looking and comfortable sneakers if we are to strive for a carbon free world?
To consider the way forward for the sneaker industry, we must first look at the building blocks of a sneaker. These are: heels, insoles, midsoles, outer soles, and upper layers. Rubber is the material of choice for creating flexible yet sturdy outer soles. Unfortunately, the rubber used for most outer soles is made with a synthetic blend of natural rubber and byproducts from coal and oil. Similarly, the rest of the sneaker parts are made from synthetic textiles like polyester, nylon, latex, and polyurethane which are produced from fossil fuels. Using leather for the upper layers brings a different set of complications as the process of tanning leather requires chromium, which can harm freshwater ecosystems.
Sourcing the raw materials and processing them to create the synthetic textiles produces around 20 percent of the sneaker industry’s carbon footprint. As bad as our reliance on plastic sounds, synthetic materials made our sneakers more durable, lighter, more comfortable, and accessible. After producing these materials, the components of the sneakers need to be manufactured. This is the most carbon intensive step, generating about 60 percent of the whole industry’s emissions.
It is carbon intensive for two reasons. Firstly, there are about 65 discrete parts on each sneaker, each of which needs to be produced by specialised machinery. Therefore, it is economically more feasible to produce each piece in a separate factory. Such factories are scattered between different cities and countries. Secondly, all these components need to be transported to assembly factories where sneakers are built. The number of distinct components that are manufactured, and the distances travelled on ships and trucks to move the raw materials, manufactured components, and then the final products require significant energy. The above mentioned countries, where most sneakers are built, are famous for their reliance on coal for their manufacturing industries. It goes without saying that the transportation is fuelled by fossil sources as well.
Last but not least, most sneakers are almost impossible to recycle due to the variety of different plastics that go into them. Because it is difficult to break down the sneakers into recyclable parts, 20 percent of them are incinerated and the rest are thrown to landfills where they can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.
Now that we have a basic idea as to where the emissions are coming from in the sneaker industry, we shall consider the steps we can take to decrease the impact of the sneaker industry on the planet. The war needs to be fought on three fronts and each battle requires a different strategy. The first front involves designers. Sneaker designers and shoe designers should streamline their designs and concentrate on eco-friendly materials, such as organic cotton, wool, hemp, and natural rubber. Sneakers that have less components and nuances will inevitably have less carbon footprint. As in other areas, minimalism can be good for both the environment and our wallets.
To win the second battle, manufacturers need to improve energy efficiency of their manufacturing processes in the factories and switch to clean energy sources. Further, decrease the transportation by simplifying their transportation routes. Although the latter could be difficult due to the collective action required, the former will be inevitable with the decreasing renewable energy costs. However, waiting for the renewable energy costs to match the fossil fuels would be ill-advised, as energy transition is an urgency if we are to meet the 1.5°C goal.
Mending is trending
We, as consumers, will have to fight the third battle. Consumers are looking for sustainable brands and products more than ever. In April 2021, Google saw a 4,550% increase in searches for sustainable lifestyles. We have the power of voting with our money for the practices we support. Our preference to purchase from sustainable brands, such as Allbirds and Veja will inform other sneaker brands of our new purchasing patterns and encourage them to switch their production methods. However, it is important to remember that there is no sneaker that does not harm the planet. Every single pair of sneakers has a carbon footprint. Some more than others.
A standard sneaker’s carbon footprint is 12.5 kg CO2e (CO2e is short for carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, accounting for other greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide, ozone). Even Allbirds’ flagship sneaker Wool Runners, according to their calculations, has a carbon footprint of 9.9 kg CO2e before they balance the emissions. Thus, if we want to save the planet, we should try to buy less pairs rather than buying more eco-sneakers. We should use our shoes as long as they last, mend them to last longer, and if they are still in good shape when we no longer want them, consider donating or selling to increase the circularity.
There is growing demand for sustainable sneakers. To make the sneaker industry more sustainable, we will need the help of different actors in varying ways. As attractive as it is to continue our lives the same way and simply switch the pairs we purchase with eco-friendly ones, it is unfortunately not going to be enough. Eco-sneakers harm the planet as well, at a slower rate. Ultimately, the best we can do is to become minimalist consumers. Something to think about before your next purchase. Have a good day rocking those seasoned sneakers of yours!