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How sustainable is a sneaker? As the calls for industry climate action and consumer behavior revolutions get louder and louder, this is a question I know many sneakerheads are struggling with — particularly as their sneaker collections continue to grow. But for that reason, it’s a question that is important to ask, on both a global-economic scale and on a more personal, private scale.
It’s also a question that has a somewhat definitive answer.
The short answer is that sneakers are not sustainable at all. However, the reasons why are intricate and complex. Below, we try to do justice to the long version of the answer, with help from industry experts who shed light on factors including material composition, hype culture, and industry infrastructure — but, as is so often the case in fashion, it’s near impossible to quantify how (un)sustainable a sneaker really is.
What materials are sneakers made from?
Christopher Snyder, a material design expert who has worked as creative director for leading sportswear brands like Converse, Nike, and adidas, explains that it’s impossible to touch on every topic in our hour-long call, and that sneakers are particularly problematic because of their material composition.
Snyder decides to start by focusing on midsoles as they are typically made out of variations of one material: plastic. “So basically what [makes up a midsole] is EVA, PU, TPU and rubber,” he explains. “Whether it's Boost, Lunar, or React, all of these are just different chemical variations of that. At the end of the day, what you have is a plastic sole unit.”
Obviously, plastic is not great — so from the ground up, literally, you’ve already run into environmental issues. “I don't think the consumer necessarily understands that it's plastic,” adds Snyder. “It's the same as synthetic leather. Synthetic leather is plastic.” In other words, when something is being marketed as vegan, synthetic leather, you’re essentially wrapping your foot in plastic. You might be being kinder to animals but it’s almost like you’re having to choose between two evils.
The production of these different types of midsoles is also problematic as it creates waste. That waste — usually leftover, excess, or unused materials — usually ends up in a warehouse somewhere or gets sent straight to the recycling bin.
An overview of industry infrastructure and supply chains
But it’s not just that the different types of materials are varying degrees of unsustainable, it’s also that these different materials come from different parts of the world. “If you think about the number of components that create a sneaker, each of those components potentially comes from a different manufacturer that is all then sent to one centralized manufacturer, that is then sent out to distribution centers and then sent out again and again,” says Synder, outlining just how complex and murky these sneaker supply chains are.
Currently, the entire sneaker industry has built an infrastructure that makes it most efficient — financially and time-wise — to use materials we know are less sustainable than alternatives. “Cotton is a great material, but you have [high levels of] water consumption and [questionable] labor practices within that industry,” reveals Snyder. “Right now I think a better alternative is hemp. It consumes less water and has strengthened durability.”
Currently, using hemp for more than one-off releases is not feasible, as switching out the infrastructure would be way too costly. “We have an infrastructure around cotton, not around hemp, so there has to be this systemic shift. You can make a one-off, but when you start talking about millions of pairs, none of [the big] companies are able to do that.”
However, the effort is somewhat mute if a product is behind schedule. “If something's late, it is then air shipped. As soon as you put something on an airplane, everything goes out the window,” adds Snyder.
(Most) sneakers cannot be recycled
Continuing to move at light speed to ensure we just begin to scratch the surface of this topic, let's move onto the issues regarding recycling sneakers. "Sneakers cannot be recycled currently. Once the material is on a sneaker, it is incredibly hard to recycle," says Snyder (who maintains he is not an expert but has decades of experience working with materials).
“Once the material is put on a shoe, it’s not going to be reused. You can grind it down and potentially reuse it again as a filler somewhere, but most of the time you can't even recycle a shoe,” Snyder says, cutting through the bullshit and bursting my bubble. “As far as I know, there’s only mechanical recycling right now. There's not a chemical process that would be able to strip all those into different components. Usually what would be reused is the waste. It wouldn't actually be what's coming from the shoe.”
To properly recycle a shoe, it would need to be made using one material only. This is a big challenge facing brands at the moment, due to the nature of shoe construction and so many different materials being used in order to maximize performance. Snyder notes, however, that there are limits to how many times a one-material shoe can even be recycled. “Every time you recycle the shoe, you would lose properties and strength. So I don't know how many times, but it's not many,” he says.
The industry is built to be unsustainable
But it’s not just materials that play a role in sneaker’s unsustainability. Hype culture, way-too-frequent releases, and the big, bad, brand marketing machines all play a role in pushing unnecessary products.
Alec Leach, former Highsnobiety style editor-turned responsible fashion advocate/creator of @future__dust, explains just how damaging hype culture is. “The idea behind all of the celebrity co-signs and limited-edition drops, is they're all there to manufacture demand. Shoes are essentially a functional thing, right? We all need them to walk, but when you turn them into a status symbol, it's really easy to sell more and more of them.”
Simply put, we don’t need 30 pairs of sneakers. But the likes of Travis Scott, Kanye West, and FOMO make us think we do. And it’s incredibly hard to resist marketing efforts, like Nike’s concerted (and perfectly executed) plan to make Dunks hyped again — pairs were seeded to Travis Scott one year before collaborations were even announced.
Marketing exists for a reason, it plays to our inner psyche and it’s hard to resist when you don’t even realize you’re being bombarded most of the time. That’s why Leach believes it will take more than brands changing their strategies or consumers taking things into their own hands and changing their buying habits to make a dent in the growing sustainability problem.
“I think it's really reductive to reduce the conversation down to just consumers and brands because, after years and years of individualism, we've sort of forgotten governments can actually do stuff as well,” he says. “Why are things like transparency and impact reduction and living wages and reducing waste and pollution all optional?”
Currently, Leach believes the power is in the hand of the brands, which is why a lot of the messaging and marketing campaigns center around new “sustainable” products. Although, if you think about it, how can any new product be a sustainable option?
“If you were an outsider, you would think that sustainability was literally just about capsule collections made of recycled polyester,” explains Leach. “The sustainability conversation is so focused on new products, when really it's about this incredibly destructive and incredibly opaque supply chain. But you don't see that because the brands lead the conversation.”
The sneaker industry has a clear problem without a clear solution. The materials used, as well as the transporting of them, and the murky supply chains that brands often themselves can’t even untangle all play a role. As does marketing and the consumer’s constant need for newness and the fear of being left behind.
Let me finish by admitting that I am no small part of the problem — I play a role through my coverage of sneakers at Highsnobiety and through my personal consumption. I’m aware it’s hypocritical to write this piece and then purchase a pair of sneakers next month, but I’d rather be hypocritical and try to change my consumption habits for the better than to not say anything at all.
This piece isn’t meant to point fingers or make anyone reading it feel bad. It’s meant to, at the very least, educate and scratch the surface of a hugely difficult issue to unpack. Here's to a future of slightly more ethical consumption.
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