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A step in the right direction

26 January, 2024

Did you know the sneakers you’re wearing generated around 13kg of CO2 emissions? Sneaker manufacturing is an emissions intensive operation, responsible for around 1.4% of global CO2 emissions.

Decarbonizing sneaker production is no easy feat. Shoes are complicated and material intensive. This means developing a low-carbon solution involves looking at every element individually – leather, plastic, cotton, foam, glue – and finding sustainable alternatives. Right now, when people decide to spring for a new pair of shoes, their old ones are not being recycled but burned or put in a landfill – that’s around 90% of the 24.3 billion shoes currently in circulation becoming waste.

You may be thinking that you’ve heard a lot of talk about greener alternatives – perhaps Veja vegan leather sneakers have caught your eye or the Adidas fully recyclable shoe. Allbirds too announced a zero-carbon shoe made primarily with carbon-negative regenerative wool that does not rely on offsets. Better yet, Allbirds has released a toolkit for other businesses to follow suit and create their own zero-carbon footwear. According to Allbirds Vice President Jad Finck, ‘to be a true sustainability leader, we think you need to have a track record of changing the way people make things’ and we couldn’t agree more.

However, there are two issues that make shoe manufacturing unsustainable: emissions and waste. Many ‘sustainable’ alternatives that use vegan or fruit leather rely heavily on polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to provide durability which can limit the materials ability to biodegrade. Sceptics note that these vegan leathers, while having a lower carbon footprint, can also shed microplastics as they wear. Real leather, on the other hand, is biodegradable and a by-product of the meat industry, so using it lowers waste, yet the emissions associated with this industry are significant. A complex solution is needed to manage both of these impacts simultaneously.

While the shoe industry is making strides towards sustainability, the complexity of creating a sustainable shoe underscores just how much innovation and collaboration is necessary to decarbonize some of our favourite products. But rather than running out to buy a new pair of shoes, however sustainable they may be, the most sustainable shoe is the one you already own. Consider giving the shoes in your closet a little extra love, give them a polish, get them resoled, and recycle or donate them when they are at the end of their life with you.

By Meg Seckel

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