The uphill struggle to make trainers more sustainable

Here's what you can do about it.

by Alec Leach
16 December 2020, 10:58am

When you think of sustainable fashion, you tend to imagine clothing — like, actual clothes — and all of the troublesome ways it leaves its mark on the planet. After years of tireless work from activists and responsible brands, the buying public is more aware than ever that their shopping habits have a big impact on the planet. That is, of course, a huge step forward, but there’s one category that’s all too often overlooked when we talk about the way our fashion choices affect the planet: sneakers.

“Trainers are an environmental disaster,” explains Tansy Hoskins, author of Foot Work – What Your Shoes Are Doing To The World, a book released in early 2020 which examines footwear production’s enormous impact on the planet.

Compared to a T-shirt or dress, which tend to be relatively simple in construction, modern shoes can be made from as many as 40 different parts, many of them synthetic, which are kept together using chemical adhesives and high-tech bonding techniques (how do you think they make all those wacky silhouettes and details?). That means they’re almost impossible to recycle, and unlike more traditional shoes — the sort your dad wore to work — trainers are not designed to be repaired, and nobody makes spare parts for them. So when your old trainers are worn out, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll end up in a landfill or incinerator.

There’s a lot of grim reading in Tansy’s book: toxic chemicals used to tan leather, animal exploitation on a massive scale, factories where the life expectancy of workers is unlikely to reach higher than 50. But perhaps the most eye-watering fact from Foot Work is the sheer scale of footwear production. In 2018 alone, 66.3million pairs of shoes were made every single day. That’s 24.2 billion pairs a year.

Despite the fact that they’ll inevitably wear out, trainers are a status symbol. Weekly drops and collabs are the norm now, and the sportswear industry has cultivated an ecosystem where buying limited-edition shoes is viewed as a lifestyle in and of itself. Luxury houses, meanwhile, have shaped trainers into a high-volume blockbuster category just like the handbags, scarves and leather goods that drive so much of their profits. This cultural phenomenon has translated into vast growth for the industry. Since 2005, spending on footwear in the UK more than doubled from £4.9bn to £10.9bn, according to Statista.

And while shoppers are bombarded with new shoes every day, their actual material composition is left out of the conversation. Beyond simple descriptors like “leather” and “rubber” there’s very little information on what’s actually in trainers, let alone what their impact on the planet is.

What’s more, trainers come with a built-in expiry date — footwear is subject to much more daily wear and tear than a tee or hoodie, not to mention their limited cultural longevity. When new shoes are dropping every week, it’s not long before they become old news.

“The large majority of the narrative in the sneaker industry is just drops, without any consideration for impact, excess materials, toxins, waste — or if any of it is capable of returning to the earth in a way that’s healthy,” explains Daniel Navetta, a sneakerhead who runs @theairvegan, an Instagram account looking at the ethical problems that come with collecting trainers.

A quick run-down of those impacts mentioned: toxic chemicals for tanning, glues and adhesives needed to keep everything in place, pieces of plastic that give shoes their shape, metal shanks that hold them all together. And that’s not to mention the impact of the leather itself, which is linked to deforestation and huge carbon emissions.

So, we have a massively growing industry on the one hand, and an enormous environmental impact on the other. What can we do about it?

Look to the creators finding solutions

We’re not saying that footwear is without its share of innovation — quite the opposite. Adidas’s ongoing partnership with Parley For The Oceans has produced millions of shoes using recycled ocean plastic. Nike’s “Space Hippie” shoe, meanwhile, is knitted from a yarn that’s engineered from recycled textile waste. While the thinking goes that flagship products like these are a sign of things to come, their share of production is a drop in the ocean compared to the Air Force 1s and Stan Smiths of this world.

Then there’s upstart brands like Veja, who use natural rubber from protected sources in the Amazon, or VIRÓN, who use recycled rubber and synthetic leather. These brands have been built from the ground up to cater to growing consumer demand for more sustainable footwear.

However, all the vegan leather and recycled plastic bottles in the world won’t address the fundamental issue that makes footwear such a menace for the environment: the fact that a product with a built-in shelf life (physically, but also culturally) has virtually no ability to be recycled. The millions of shoes that are made daily create enormous amounts of carbon emissions and chemical pollution, and once they’re worn out, they end up straight in a landfill or incinerator (where, guess what, they cause more problems for the planet).

Close the loop and go circular

Anyone who’s done a bit of reading on sustainability may have come across the phrase “circularity”, or the “circular” economy. It’s the idea that instead of using up all of those resources just to make something that ends up in a landfill, products should be designed from day one to be recycled. In a circular system, you could then just keep recycling materials again and again, creating new products from what we’ve already used — like the systems that are already in place for paper, glass and aluminium, but on a much bigger scale.

It’s only a theory at the moment, but many brands are chasing it, in the hope that they can one day find the holy grail solution that’ll allow them to continue to sell millions of pairs of shoes without all the waste and pollution they’re currently creating.

“You produce a product, you use it, and it’s discarded afterwards — that’s the problem we’re trying to solve here,” explains Viviane Gut, Head of Sustainability at ON Running. The brand’s attempt at a circular trainer, the Cyclon, is a recyclable running shoe made from a polyamide derived from caster beans. And if that sounds far out, then get this — it won’t even be available to buy. When the Cyclon launches in late 2021, runners will pay a monthly fee to use the shoe — returning them when they’re worn out, and getting a replacement pair in return.

Moving trainers to a subscription model makes perfect sense — rather than spending £100 for something that’s going to be thrown away when it’s worn out, you could instead pay a monthly fee to wear shoes, knowing that they’ll be recycled as soon as you’re done with them. And for the industry, it allows brands to keep hold of all those valuable materials that normally get lost when a product is thrown away. “We have to take ownership over what happens to a product after it’s been used,” Viviane says.

Another such circular initiative is Thousand Fell, a New York startup founded by footwear industry veterans Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum. As well as designing their shoes using recycled polyester, natural rubber and processed food waste, Thousand Fell also built a reverse supply chain to recover their shoes, separate them into their respective components and feed them into the USA’s pre-existing recycling system. To make sure their shoes are sent back, Thousand Fell gives customers a $20 voucher to return its worn shoes. “Shoes are a high-impact product category and so that, to us, is the perfect category to put on a loop,” explained the brand’s co-founder, Chloe.

Adidas has launched its own take on the concept, the Futurecraft LOOP, a shoe made entirely from TPU plastic. The brand produced its first batch of shoes in 2019, which were given to a select group of runners who wore the shoe before returning them to adidas, who ground them back down into into raw TPU to be recycled again. The shoe is due to launch in 2021, although an adidas spokesperson admitted in an interview with Quartz that when the shoes were returned, the wear and tear meant that only 10% of their materials were actually suitable for recycling.

Clearly, a circular system for trainers is a work in progress.

Change the system

A circular footwear industry sounds great in theory, but it won’t happen overnight. Despite all the innovative ideas and blue-sky thinking, there’s very little happening to make our footwear consumption less damaging in the here and now.

Tansy Hoskins, who’s been critiquing the fashion industry since 2014’s Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, is convinced that the problem with trainers is systemic. “The key problem is that the multinational corporations who produce them have absolutely no responsibility for what happens to them at the end of their life,” she explains. “The minute you walk out of the shop, the corporation is washing their hands of them.”

That lack of responsibility over a product’s entire lifetime is a huge problem everywhere you look. Right now, there’s no financial rewards for good behaviour (beyond a bit of kudos with conscious shoppers) and no punishment for all the waste and pollution. The industry insists that it’s able to reform on its own, making public pledges to reduce their impact by such-and-such a date, but there’s no consequences for those who don’t stick to their commitments, if they even make them in the first place. When you look at it like that, it’s hardly surprising that fashion’s such a wasteful and polluting industry. “Self-regulation has not worked,” Tansy adds. “We need binding global legislation that’ll make companies responsible for their entire supply chain — that’s the only way.”

As well as keeping irresponsible brands in check, political change could also help push the footwear industry forward. “If you could change it so you’re incentivised to recycle and incentivised to recapture materials, I think that’d be great,” explains Thousand Fell co-founder Stuart. “That’s where governments could play a meaningful role in pushing the industry in the right direction.”

As well as looking at the bigger picture, there’s things we can do in our personal lives to make a change. We can start by looking a bit harder at our shopping habits. “We have to move away from drop culture,” explains Maxine Bedat, whose foundation, New Standard Institute, sets data-driven goals for fashion. “So much of footwear’s impact is just how many shoes are being pushed on people. These drops create artificial demand which drives the disposability of fashion.”

As consumers, we need to think a bit harder about what we’re buying, why we’re buying it, and how long we’ll really be enjoying it for. We also need to walk away from the idea that shopping is the solution to our problems, and accept that every single thing we buy has an impact on the planet. It’s clear, when you think about the system we’re in — where shoes get made and then head straight to landfill — that we can’t shop our way out of this mess. The problem is much bigger than that.

At the end of the day, changing the bigger picture requires much more than different shopping habits. “We need a shift in economic system, away from shareholder profit driving everything,” Tansy sums up. “I don’t see that as something that we can change by shopping differently. Political change is needed.”

Alec Leach is a writer and consultant, and the founder of @future_dust, an Instagram platform for responsible fashion.