Most people don’t give footwear a second
thought when it comes to its environmental impact. However, in a world where
every contribution to climate sustainability counts, sneakers are an item worth
examining. While simply wearing athletic shoes doesn’t affect the environment,
sneaker production and disposal have negative environmental effects that we
should work to avoid.
This article discusses how to walk the
sustainability talk (literally!) by examining the environmental impacts of your
sneakers and other shoes.
How Are Sneakers Made?
Sneaker production is similar to the
construction of a building. First the foundation is built; in the case of
sneakers, the “foundation,” the sole of the shoe, is created from natural
rubber. Next, the upper part of the sneaker is attached to the sole through a
vulcanizing (rubber hardening) process. Finally, the remaining parts of the
shoe, including the tongue, eyestays, and logo are added.
Producing a sneaker requires materials such as
rubber, leather, textiles, foam, and other synthetics. The environmental impact
of sneakers comes both from procuring these materials as well as the sneaker
assembly and manufacturing process itself.
How Sneaker Manufacturing Affects the Climate
The fashion industry is responsible for 8.1% of global carbon
emissions, and sneakers account for a significant portion of that. In fact,
sneakers are responsible for 1.4% of global carbon
emissions, which comprises about one-fifth of the apparel industry’s emissions
as a whole.
Drilling down further, one can see that each
pair of sneakers results in 30 pounds of carbon dioxide
emissions. When looking at the source of these emissions, the breakdown
corresponds to two-thirds coming from the manufacturing process, with the
remaining third resulting from raw material extraction.
Many sneakers are made from plastic materials,
which are derived from petroleum,
a fossil fuel. While these materials help increase the durability of your
athletic shoes, extracting, manufacturing and recycling these materials is
difficult and contributes to climate change and other forms of pollution.
When examining the detrimental effects of
sneaker production on the climate, other environmental and public health concerns
come to light. In addition to contributing to the release of carbon dioxide
into the atmosphere, sneaker production involves toxic chemicals. While
benzene, xylene, and toluene don’t drive the global temperature up, they are
dangerous carcinogens that adversely affect people’s nervous and respiratory
Impact of Sneaker Disposal on the Climate
Because of the large amounts of plastics, glue,
and other materials used to produce sneakers, they are difficult to recycle.
Instead, sneakers are either incinerated or thrown into landfills. There is
much debate over which
option is the lesser of two evils.
Incineration produces air pollution and fossil
fuels. However, some argue that if incineration occurs for energy production, fewer
fossil fuels are emitted and less pollution occurs. Waste-to-energy plants have
advanced filters that don’t allow harmful chemicals to escape, and they emit much less methane,
a harmful greenhouse gas, than landfills do.
On the other hand, when sneakers end up in
landfills, the millions of pairs thrown out each year add to the endless amount
of waste. With methane and carbon dioxide comprising over 90% of landfill gas, it’s
clear that sneakers continue to contribute to climate change long after their
What Can Sneaker Manufacturers and Retailers Do?
Manufacturers and retailers should only put
sneakers on the market that meet the highest standards of compliance.
Conducting footwear testing is one
way of ensuring that products meet the strictest of environmental guidelines.
Taking the initiative to test sneakers helps manufacturers and retailers
provide a product that’s climate-friendly while projecting a positive brand
Shoe manufacturers must also increase the use
of natural, recyclable materials. For example, some companies are using natural cork materials
to create a midsole, rather than using fossil-fuel derived foams. Others are
creating foams that use natural, abundant materials like algae to reduce the use of petrochemicals in
What Can Consumers Do?
Sneakers are an essential part of most
people’s lives. Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast or just seeking a pair of
comfortable shoes for your everyday life, resisting the urge to become a
sneaker collector is the first step towards a sustainable shoe closet. By
reducing the amount of shoes you buy, you’re reducing the amount of material
that must be used to produce shoes, and helping keep shoes out of landfill.
Consumers can also hold manufacturers
accountable by only purchasing from brands that follow best practices concerning
carbon emissions and other climate-related issues.
Lastly, there are some places you can recycle
your sneakers. The Australian Sporting Goods Association’s initiative Tread
Lightly offers recycling services for shoes made of a variety of materials.
Simply use their search tool to find a
collection location near you.
Environmental Science Writer, Researcher