More than 20 billion pairs of shoes have been produced worldwide. On average, one shoe produces 30 pounds of carbon dioxide. Plus, it takes on average 30 to 40 years to decompose. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Americans alone throw away at least 300 million pairs of shoes per year. That’s a lot of waste.
If you reflect on how many shoes you’ve purchased in your lifetime–we’re talking from the time you could even crawl or walk ‘til now–how many shoes do you think you’ve gone through? Where did those old shoes go?
On the bright side, sustainability has become a priority with many companies, big and small, and there’s a huge demand for more sustainable footwear and sustainable practices.
It’s no secret that the textile industry is a primary contributor to pollution on a global scale. The processing that it takes to produce new textiles requires an abundance of resources and results in a large carbon footprint. Likewise with footwear, producing these new textiles is extremely wasteful, but companies are starting to change this by finding carbon-neutral solutions such as using wool or natural fibers instead of synthetic.
Another main component of shoes is rubber to form rubber outsoles. The majority of shoes produced use synthetic rubber. This results in the release of more waste than the volume of rubber output. The danger of this is that the process of making synthetic rubbers forms volatile organic compounds that include suspected carcinogens. We don’t have to tell you the adverse effects of these, now do we? Cariuma, a footwear brand from Rio, Brazil, uses natural rubber found in the hevea brasiliensis tree. By ethically tapping hevea brasiliensis trees to harvest the milky sap, the unharmed trees can continue to live and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen for us. This is a model example of how to reduce the environmental impact of footwear, but it’s a rare case in the shoe industry.
Other companies in the shoe industry are making moves to reduce their footprint by recycling post-consumer plastics. We can’t inform people enough that 1 million single-use plastic bottles are being used and tossed away per minute. After decades of this kind of gross use of single-use plastic bottles, we’re up to our eyeballs in it. Rothy’s, a women and children’s shoe company, makes shoes from recycled plastic bottles. Post-consumer plastic bottles are taken through a process that spins them into a thread that they work into a textile for shoes. Allbirds, another sustainable shoe company, makes sleek shoelaces from plastic bottles too.
Moreover, Allbirds also uses better-for-the-planet materials to make the rest of their shoes. Materials like insoles made of merino wool produced using castor oil instead of petroleum-based foam. Or, their carbon negative green EVA called SweetFoam™, made from Brazilian sugarcane instead of synthetic rubber.
Closing the loop
Another piece is closing the loop on footwear altogether. Nike is a star example of this. They have been recycling shoes for a while now. In fact, 71% of Nike’s footwear and apparel products are made with Nike Grind, their trademarked recycled textiles. Yes, your beloved Flyknit Vapormax’s are made from recycled materials! They also offer a recycling program, Reuse-a-shoe, where anyone can drop off their old shoes for Nike to recycle and produce new ones. What better way to recycle your old shoes than with the sportswear giant that can turn them into premium performance gear? In addition to Nike’s commitment to go zero waste, Nike also launched a new footwear collection aptly named “Space Hippie”, an exploratory collection inspired by life on Mars. The collection marries sustainable practices and radical design. Space Hippie is made from scraps they call “Space Junk” that includes at least 85% rPoly made from recycled plastic water bottles, t-shirts, and yarn scraps.
Luckily, more and more brands are adopting sustainable practices and going zero waste. We’re hoping to see this trend skyrocket in the coming years.