Shoes and the Environment

Marina Starck Shoes and the Environment.jpg

We are excited to bring you a series by Marina Starck featuring various sustainable fashion topics she’s interested in! In this second post, Marina discusses a popular fashion item that can be deemed as a necessity in our everyday lives — shoes. She touches on the environmental impact and how we can do our part to reduce our contribution.

Post by Contributing Writer Marina Starck.


When we study a clothing ensemble, everyone notices different things. The eyes go straight to a pattern, a texture, an accent, or even the holistic composition. There has been many a designer, many a fashion icon, however, for whom the magnetic appeal of an outfit pulls entirely from the bottom up. It was Christian Louboutin that proclaimed that “a woman can carry a bag, but it is the shoe that carries the woman.” Wherever this quote sits with you personally, the vast importance of the shoe on fashion, and on our everyday lives, cannot be denied. Shoes are a capstone of fashion, and they are also our closest physical connection to the earth. It is therefore of great importance to understand exactly what we are putting on our feet, and exactly what we are putting into the environment.

Shoes are typically made from textiles, synthetics, rubber, leather, plastic, or any combination of these materials. The production and processing of all of these materials is (unsurprisingly) massively harmful to the environment, but in different ways. For example, man-made textiles use less water than natural materials such as cotton, but require much more energy to produce, and release great amounts of petrochemicals. Man-made shoe materials are often a combination of polyester foams and fabrics, glued together indefinitely, making sneakers and runners near impossible to recycle.

On the higher end of fashion is leather. The leather required to produce one pair of shoes uses 1,000 litres. Vegan leather-despite its eco-sleek name- is produced using chemically intensive materials and production processes.The case is similar with rubber, as well. The production of natural rubber contributes greatly to deforestation in Southeast Asia, diminishing the area of land available for agriculture. Arguably even more harmful is the production of man-made rubber, which is made from Styrene and Butadiene-chemicals refined from crude oil.

Environmentally-harmful materials are hopefully news to no one. They aren’t the kicker to this story though. The kicker is what we do to the materials before they find wind up on our feet.

The shoe production process varies greatly from that of clothing, due to the larger combination of materials that are required to fabricate one item. A typical pair of running shoes, according to a study done by MIT’s Materials Systems Laboratory principal research scientist Randolph Kirchain, contains 65 individual parts and requires 360 processes to combine them. The creation of a pair of running shoes will produce around 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, mainly due to the fact that shoes are largely produced in Chinese manufacturing plants, which run almost exclusively on coal.

And the incredibly non-uplifting story doesn’t end there! Shoes are also very limited in their potential for upcycling and downcycling, particularly for the individual consumer. Impossible to hem or patch-up, damaged or worn-out shoes forcibly end their lives in the landfill, without hope for renewal; the nature of shoe production stops the circular economy dead in its tracks.

In the face of such an environmentally-harsh production process, what is to be done by the consumer? What can each one of us do to reduce our contribution to the forcibly linear shoe economy? Firstly, we need to take responsibility for our consumption, and understand that these processes exist because there is a demand for them-excessive supply is made available because of our excessive demand. So before diving in to questions of materials, and the carbon footprint of a shoe you may purchase, think deeply about whether the purchase in and of itself is necessary.

Secondly, once your next shoe purchase has been deemed entirely essential, consider what materials these shoes are made of, and what it took to get them to your feet. For most materials, there are more sustainable alternatives-they are just less obvious than the mass-produced, fast fashion items that we’re more familiar with. For example, when purchasing leather, look for chrome-free leather or natural alternatives such as Piñatex, made from pineapple leaves. When purchasing a textile-based shoe, look for hemp for a more durable, less harmful alternative to cotton or polyester.

Many companies have done the investigative work for you however, and use sustainable (and often recycled) materials to manufacture shoes. One such company is The People’s Movement based in California. Using a combination of eco-conscious materials as well as upcycled plastic bags from Bali, The People’s Movement produces hip, responsible sneakers that last. Another such company is SAOLA Shoes, a company utilizing recycled PET, plastic bottles, and plant-based foam to make their stylish sneaks.

Lastly, once you have purchased your shoes, hold on to them as long as possible. Purchase shoes that can be combined with many outfits, and shoes that will not lose their appeal after one season. Once it is truly the end of your shoe’s life, ensure to dispose of them in the most responsible way possible. One such innovative disposal method is the donation of one’s shoes to organizations such as Nike Grind, that will take the rubber from shoes (of any brand) and repurpose it into something new.

Shoes are a principal apogee of fashion, but shoes are also accountable for massive amounts of pollution and waste. Imagine the waste emitted from the construction of one pair of shoes-be it water waste, petrochemicals, or otherwise-multiplied by the 23.5 billion pairs of shoes produced in 2017 alone. Economic forecasters of the shoe industry such as World Footwear and Statista predict that this number will continue to grow for many years. But let’s prove them wrong. Now let’s lighten the weight of our carbon footprint by buying fewer, smarter shoes.


Selina HoComment