With the world population approaching 8 billion and with most of those people owning at least one pair of shoes, the need for sustainability in footwear is growing. Thankfully, efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses and curb shoe waste are gaining steam, with the first promising innovations starting to appear.
With a little more focus and a lot more effort, we can make shoes sustainable and contribute to the de-escalation of environmental pollution that has resulted from decades-old consumer habits. We are at the beginning of a transition in footwear that has the potential to change the world.
How Shoes Impact the Environment
The 30 pounds of carbon dioxide each pair of running shoes generates on average is potentially the least of our worries. In the United States alone, over 300 million pairs of shoes end up in landfills every year. With the average pair of shoes weighing around 2 pounds, simple multiplication gives you an idea of the amount of material slowly decomposing in landfills around the world. Because only a small portion of those shoes are eco-friendly, most of the rubber, leather, metal, and plastic sits in landfills, taking as long as 1,000 years to decompose.
As the shoes rot away, toxic substances such as zinc can make their way into stormwater runoff. If landfills don’t process this runoff properly, the dangerous chemicals can enter the ecosystem and affect plants, animals, and humans.
Making Footwear Sustainable
There’s no doubt about it: everybody loves a stylish pair of shoes. If footwear manufacturers can offer appealing designs, affordable prices, and long-lasting, comfortable shoes made from sustainable materials, adoption by mainstream audiences will be an easier task. Shoes that use raw materials such as cork leather, hemp, wool, natural rubber, and pineapple leather are natural alternatives to the synthetic counterparts used by big shoe manufacturers.
Besides sourcing raw materials differently, a change in consumers’ mindset is vital for bringing about sustainable change. For example, social media influencers can help bring mainstream audiences aboard the effort to eliminate waste and adopt environmentally responsible choices. In this way, we can begin not only to reduce waste, but also to adapt to climate change through our footwear choices.
Apart from rethinking your consumer habits, there are actionable choices you can make to speed up the transformation of the footwear industry. These choices span from things you can do in your own life to collective action that groups of people can take, such as pressuring industry stakeholders to follow sustainable practices.
Consumers can choose to boycott items coming from egregious polluters and unregulated markets, such as factories in Pakistan and China. Another method to exert pressure on corporations is to only buy footwear from manufacturers that follow strict quality control guidelines and conduct strict footwear testing to ensure sustainability and durability. Take the time to look into the manufacturers of the shoes you intend to buy. You may find that the big-name brand is adopting ethical and eco-friendly practices or is shamelessly polluting the environment.
Furthermore, make it a point to recycle your old shoes, helping reduce the volume of waste that burdens landfills. If your community doesn’t offer a recycling program for shoes, contact local authorities and liaise with programs like Runners Roost to set up a drop-off point for people’s old shoes. Many shoe stores also run shoe recycling programs. For example, UK-based store Runners Need’s program Recycle My Run accepts old clothing and shoes, even from non-customers.
Between running a check on footwear manufacturers, selecting shoes made from biodegradable material, and donating and recycling your old shoes, you can be a catalyst for change. Bring the broken circle one step closer to closing and creating a sustainable cycle where raw materials become comfortable stylish shoes, which then return to the Earth anew.