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Leave a Lighter Footprint: Sustainability in Footwear

There is nothing we do on this Earth that does not have some kind of impact on the planet. From what we eat to what we wear, we leave a carbon footprint, and that includes items that leave a more literal footprint: shoes. 
We wear them during the day. We wear them at night. We wear them indoors, and outside as well. No matter what we’re doing or where we’re going, our shoes carry us there.  Footwear markets have even been developed around various activities, including those that place us outdoors such as running, cycling, and hiking, creating a demand for requisite footwear. And with basketball players and rap stars propelling sneaker culture in the last few decades, shoes have become a fashion trend and status symbol as well. 
 The very materials needed and the processes applied to making the shoes that allow us to take part in these activities and cultures come from the Earth. And if we continue taking without giving back – whether it’s for sports, fashion, or practical purposes – we’ll find ourselves with not much of a planet left.  

 

The Footwear Effect 

 

Fashion has a large impact on the environment and footwear accounts for one-fifth of that impact. However, like many other industries – such as aviation, tourism, and agriculture – fashion is taking strides to become more sustainable.

 

But footwear is behind the rest of 
fashion and needs to catch up – especially 
considering that it’s a booming market.
But footwear is behind the rest of fashion and needs to catch up – especially considering that it’s a booming market. In 2019, more than 24 billion pairs of shoes were produced. But what happens to all those shoes once they’ve been worn out – and sometimes even before? Sadly, many end up in landfills where they take decades to break down, leaching out chemicals as they do. 
 
That’s not even the most damaging stage of a shoe’s life cycle. That comes during the manufacture of the shoes, and even before when the raw materials needed to produce shoes are extracted. Many footwear parts are produced from petroleum-derived plastics. Other components like virgin rubber and cotton are not environmentally friendly or sustainable, while leather is often tanned using chromium, the fourth-worst pollutant in the world.

 

The actual production of footwear is also energy- and carbon-intensive, particularly in the powering of plants. In addition to extraction and manufacturing, transport and shipping also play a part, whether of raw materials or of the final product: the shoes you buy in-store or online. But before they even hit the store, they’ve used a massive amount of water and energy and produced emissions that contribute to human-induced climate change. 

 
It’s also a labour-intensive industry and working conditions are not always optimal, with workers subject to air and noise pollution; and ultimately receiving only 2% of the final price of the shoe. And with the growth of the footwear industry, mass production became prioritised over craft and care, leading to longer hours and more difficult conditions. 

 

It doesn’t end there. The consumer and what they do with
 their shoes play a part as well. It is therefore important 
that every aspect of a shoe’s life cycle – from raw material 
extraction to disposal of the shoe – needs to be considered. 

 

Sustainable Solutions


Shoe manufacturers are stepping up by seeking sustainable solutions and implementing ethical work practices. Smaller, eco-focused brands such as MIRET are also coming to the fore, placing their focus on quality over quantity in a bid to make the industry more transparent and sustainable. Regulators and certification procedures have also come into play, such as the Fair Rubber Association, B-Certified, and Fair Trade, creating and regulating standards for sustainability and ensuring ethical practices.

 

As a shoe fanatic, sneaker collector, or just a day-to-day wearer, there is also a lot you can do. With so many new brands and options to choose from, choose to support sustainable brands.

 

MIRET, for example, makes use of natural products in their footwear like hemp, linen, cork, and eucalyptus. This is also great news for vegans looking for vegan-friendly and cruelty-free footwear.

 

If you want to wear leather, search for footwear whose leather is sourced from responsible tanneries. 

 

Besides seeking natural alternatives to materials with a heavy footprint, the footwear industry is also turning to the use of repurposed materials including ocean plastic, recycled polyester, and plastic water bottles. And every last part of the shoe needs to be considered – even the laces. This speaks to modular construction – building shoes in such a way that if one part breaks, it need merely be replaced or repaired, instead of throwing the entire pair out and buying a new one. So if your favourite sneakers or hiking boots are wearing out, rather resole or repair them instead of buying a whole new pair. 

 

Longevity is key to sustainability, 
so purchase footwear that is 
durable and reliable, and wear shoes 
to the end of their life cycle. 

 

Take care of your shoes and don’t chuck them out just because they’re no longer trendy. The concepts of fast fashion and planned obsolescence are what need to be chucked out instead. However, shoes do get worn out, and of course, children grow out of them. Donate or pass on shoes you no longer wear or that no longer fit. Find out if the brand or store you purchased from will take back old footwear. There are brands that have such programmes in place, either donating returned shoes for you or breaking them down for reuse. 

 

Placing shoes back into the cycle closes the manufacturing loop, creating a sustainable system that keeps materials out of landfills and decreases the need for extra raw material extraction.

 

This circular system is also being put into play 
through the concept of leasing shoes, as opposed 
to owning them. As people become more 
cost- and eco-conscious it provides consumers with an 
alternative means of sustainably sourcing shoes.

 

Remember the packaging too, because it also plays a role. From shoeboxes to bags, packaging contributes to waste and emissions, whether it’s making the packaging or getting rid of it afterward. Manufacturers are turning towards compostable packaging or making items out of recycled materials. Shopping for shoes in-store? Carry them in their box instead of placing them in an unnecessary extra bag. If you don’t store your shoes in their box, find another use for it.

 

There are still many steps the footwear industry and the consumer can take to reduce its energy- and carbon-heavy impact. This is particularly true for the first stages of a shoe’s life cycle. Further solutions to be encouraged include incorporating the use of renewable energy, sourcing local materials, and implementing energy-efficient practices across the different stages of footwear production. As much as all of us, young or old, have a need for shoes, it’s also a time to speak to young generations. They may often follow in the footsteps of their favourite celebrities – quite literally when it comes to shoes – but they’re also driven by a heightened awareness of their environment, an awareness that makes them think twice about the food they eat, the way they travel, and the shoes they wear. 

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