In the UK we love our shoes, with the average Brit owning 19 pairs. (In the US it's a whopping 27 pairs!)
Unfortunately the environmental impact of shoes, particularly the manufacturing process, is often much worse than that of clothing. Research by American University MIT shows the manufacture of a pair of running shoes generates the equivalent of 12 kilograms of Carbon Dioxide - that’s enough to power a 100-watt lightbulb for a week.
Times that by the 19 pairs of shoes you own and that's a whole lot of C02 emissions.
But what is it about making shoes that has such a negative impact? Let’s break it down.
Manufacturing is the biggest source of carbon footprint for a running shoe, with two thirds of the emissions coming from the manufacturing process.
This is due to the multiple materials and the complex processes that are involved within the creation of a shoe. For the average running shoe, the manufacturing process of a single shoe comprises of 65 separate parts which require more than 360 separate processing steps to assemble. Assembly Includes sewing, cutting, injection moulding, foaming and heating, which take lots of energy and heavy manufacturing machinery to complete.
Much of this manufacturing is done in countries like China which rely heavily on coal as a source of energy, increasing the carbon impact of the production of the trainers.
The emissions for shoes with components made of leather can also be high due to the treating and dying processes.
Although shipping by sea is a much cheaper and more environmentally friendly way of freighting goods, the demand for branded trainers means lead times are tight, and many companies use air freight. Shoes are often air freighted from the country of manufacture to distribution centres in the US, and then back by air to the country of origin to be sold in shops, thus unnecessarily doubling the carbon emissions.
It's not only manufacturing and shipping that are responsible for the emissions from your shoes. On average a shoe that is worn frequently will be disposed of after only 8-12 months.
To improve the longevity of your shoes, clean them regularly using a brush or a damp cloth. If they smell try using bicarbonate of soda to neutralise odours. Putting your trainers in the washing machine is not a great idea. Not only is it bad for the shoes but it also uses huge amounts of water and energy.
Brands Doing Shoes Better
Not all shoes cause the same emissions as the average running trainer. Some brands are working hard to reduce their carbon emissions.
French brand Veja is definitely having a moment, and they're working hard to reduce their environmental impact. The brand's entire production and manufacturing is based in Brazil, and they use sustainable rubber plantations to source the soles of their shoes. All the leather they use is biproduct from the meat industry from local farms. Their cotton is from certified sources and any plastic used within the shoes comes from recycled PET bottles (clear plastic water bottles to you and me). They also distribute their shoes from their Brazilian factories and ship them by sea, significantly reducing their impact.
Kitty Clogs use natural, sustainably sourced materials and organic vegetable dyes to make their clogs. The wooden bases are made from Alder wood, which grows naturally in FSC certified forests. Any wood that can’t be used goes back into the heating and running of the Swedish workshop. The leather uppers are sourced by a small Italian tannery and dyed using environmentally friendly methods and organic vegetable dyes.
TOMS is a certified B Corp, they use sustainable cotton and are working on an end-of-life programme for their shoes. They source their leather from Leather Working Group certified manufacturing facilities, whose performance is rated for water and energy use, air emissions and waste.