In Focus: Are toxic trainers the real reason our planet is in crisis?

You could argue that the stars are the ones who are responsible for our planet’s problems. They will have to deal with the consequences of their bad behavior. However, if the stars are not responsible for the damage Earth is currently experiencing, the people who cause the pollution are. Exposing the story of the environment crisis is not only important because of the dire consequences that are likely to occur if the situation continues to deteriorate, but also because it goes to show that the world is not only facing an “issue,” but also an increasing trend.

Fitness is a big business. An industry that makes in excess of $100 billion globally, and costs us billions of dollars in healthcare and lost productivity. As a result, the fitness industry is growing at a rapid rate. There are more people working in the fitness industry than ever before, and there will be more in the future.

As she stares down at her feet, climate scientist Angela Terry says, “It’s hard to think your shoes might be killing the world as quickly as you can lace them up.” ‘However, they are.’

When you think of the primary perpetrators behind the catastrophic environmental catastrophe that has seen ice caps melt into oblivion and over 4 million lives lost each year due to air pollution, pictures of automobiles and industries spewing poisonous pollutants at an alarming pace come to mind. 

Angela, on the other hand, believes that there is a much more serious, daily menace. 

‘Every year, 25 billion pairs of running shoes are produced — enough to travel around the world 300 times – with the majority of them being made of plastic. She adds, ‘Nearly none of them are recyclable.’

‘Only a small percentage of individuals are aware that the mass manufacturing of attractively designed shoes is second only to aviation and shipping in terms of global emissions.

‘For years, nearly tribal brand and style choices have spoken something about who you are,’ Angela says. ‘However, if you care about the environment, you should consider what you put on your feet.’

The sports shoe market is huge. In the first quarter of 2021, Nike’s worldwide earnings increased by 196 percent, outperforming pre-pandemic sales by 42 percent. Sneaker sales account for two-thirds of the earnings. 

The American behemoth earned £16.8 billion selling sneakers in 2020. After the United States and China, the United Kingdom is the third largest worldwide consumer of sports shoes.

However, Angela Terry, the creator of the green consumer website One Home, believes there is a big disconnect between the promotion of trainers as fashionable, innovative footwear and their environmental cost.

Angela Terry, kneeling next to an electric car, holding a power charge cable

‘Every year, 25 billion pairs of running shoes are produced – enough to travel around the world 300 times – with the majority of them being made of plastic,’ explains Angela Terry (Picture: supplied)

‘Big companies want to brag about their social responsibility. But every trainer has 63 distinct component components, ranging from the soles to the laces to the side paneling, and they go through 360 processing stages before being assembled,’ she says. ‘The majority are manufactured from fossil-fuel-based polyurethane, nylon, or latex. Each of the individual components is mass manufactured in 63 distinct facilities throughout Asia, each with its own supply chain.

“These are delivered to a single location to be assembled, resulting in increased emissions. They’ve been molded, sewn, and glued together. Everything is made up of chemicals, and the chemicals utilized are pollutants.

“Trains are responsible for 1.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” Angela says. ‘To put it in perspective, aviation contributes 2.5 percent to global warming.’

While we have yet to see a David Attenborough TV special on sports shoes, the fashion industry is starting to realize the enormous carbon footprint that the world’s favorite footwear leaves.

Sneakers Unboxed, an exhibition at London’s Design Museum, has drawn sneakerheads and schoolchildren alike to view limited edition sneakers costing millions, as well as the tales of companies like Nike, Adidas, and Converse, as well as Kanye West’s Yeezy.

A visitor looking at the Sneakers Unboxed exhibtion. On display are sneakers and clothes in glass boxes

Trainer manufacturing is carbon heavy, according to the show. (Photo courtesy of Felix Speller)

Visitors are greeted with an astounding statistic as they approach the exhibition devoted to the important role that sports shoes have played in the development of street style: worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide from trainer production are equal to those of 66 million automobiles per year.

Ligaya Salazar, the show organizer, adds, “It’s the most significant design issue for the fashion business.” ‘So I wanted people to understand how large the industry is and what it implies for the environment,” says the author.

Trainer manufacturing is carbon heavy, according to the show. The majority of shoes are manufactured from environmentally hazardous materials such as synthetic rubber and plastic, and are produced utilizing energy-intensive procedures and glues that are detrimental to the environment.

Hundreds of millions of pairs wind up in landfills, where they take decades to decompose.

Ligaya believes that the businesses whose experiences she recounts in the exhibition have the ability to alter this.

Sneakers Unboxed curator Ligaya Salazar

‘I wanted people to understand how large the business is and what it implies for the environment,’ explains Ligaya Salazar, curator of Sneakers Unboxed. (Photo courtesy of Tolga Akmen/LNP)

‘It is as, if not more, the duty of the major companies to integrate sustainability into their operations so that customers may buy what they want,’ she adds.

Smaller start-up companies are taking on the big guys as environmental awareness grows. Former Premier League player Michael Doughty, who co-founded green training firm Hylo Athletics last year, is one of the newest kids on the block.

These athletic sneakers are constructed from compostable, renewable materials. When customers are done with them, they may return them to the business for recycling.

‘Throughout my career, I’ve worn all the major labels, but as I became more aware of the science of climate change, I started to believe didn’t fit with how I see things,’ says Michael, a former QPR and Swindon Town player.

‘I like playing football.’ I really like being outdoors. However, I was bothered by the game’s behaviors. There would be a container of plastic water bottles where we would train. You’d take one out of the box, open it, take a drink, and then return it to the box. You’d pick up a fresh one since no one would know which one was theirs. You’d have 50 bottles at the conclusion of the session, half-drunk and tossed aside. Every day for 300 days a year, such was the case.

Michael Doughty standing in the middle of Regents Street,

‘I don’t want to be in a position as a father in 30 years when the world around us has changed, and my daughter asks me, “What did you do about it?”‘ Michael Doughty says. (Photo courtesy of the author)

‘I was putting on clothes and boots, and we’re really marketing something to an audience that we have no idea about.’ Inadvertently, we are proponents of it.’

When the penny dropped, Michael’s buddy Jacob Green was jogging on Hampstead Heath. He adds, ‘He was out in the fresh air running on grass, but his feet were wrapped in plastic.’ ‘He had that lightbulb moment and called me to say, ‘There’s a potential here,” she said. We were enthralled with the prospect of creating a brand that people could relate to.’

Michael left football in 2020, when he was only 27 years old and expecting his first kid, to concentrate full time on the concept alongside Jacob.

Michael’s daughter Luna was born on the same day Hylo Athletics was founded in August.

‘I don’t want to be a parent in 30 years when science is fairly grave and the world around us has changed dramatically, and my daughter asks me, “What did you do about it?”‘ he adds.

‘I want to make a difference, and I believe we can, but there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ve let your children down.’

Colorful seamless pattern of shoe prints

Hundreds of millions of pairs of sneakers end up in landfills, where they take decades to disintegrate (photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto).

Michael defends the choice to manufacture Hylo trainers in China, saying, “Everything went there in the 1990s.” As a result, it’s where all the innovation happens, similar to Silicon Valley in the IT world. We’d want to claim “Made in England,” but there aren’t any factories in the country.

“However, we have ensured that our supply chains are near together,” he says. ‘Everything is within 1,000 kilometers of our center, and six of the nine elements we utilize are sourced within 100 kilometers.’ To guarantee that our shoes are produced responsibly, we conduct independent factory audits.’

Another British business that debuted when the country was under lockdown pulls manufacturing even closer together. Waes shoes are manufactured in Portugal and contain no plastic.

Ed Temperley, one of the co-founders, is an environmentalist and surfer.

He adds, “I had a business that forecasted waves for the surfing globe.” ‘No matter where we went, we saw ocean plastic.’ We’d be looking for new waves in the furthest regions of Indonesia, four days’ sail from anyplace, and you’d see ocean trash on every beach, nook, and crevice.

‘But that’s just half of the issue,’ Ed says. ‘The actual problem is invisible microplastics.’ All day long, we inhale them. Consider a colossal fog of plastic particles. They may be found in the air, in national parks, in the snowpacks of the highest mountains, and in massive sea columns.

‘With Waes, we started with the realization that shoes are made of plastic, and we understood that shoes wear out.’

Ed Temperley - lying on a floor his head surrounded by a neat semi circle of shoes

‘Every time you walk in a conventional trainer, microplastics are released,’ says Ed Temperley. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Ed cites data from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, which examined microplastic residue in seas and discovered that abrasion from shoe bottoms ranked seventh among the top ten causes, behind vehicle tyres, paint, and road asphalt.

He says, ‘Every time you step in a conventional trainer, you release micro-plastics.’ ‘We needed to be plastic-free to establish an environmentally responsible shoe business. Every component we utilize is entirely natural and compostable.

Ed reminds out that in the training world, “greenwashing” – creating ecological claims that are complex or deceptive – is widespread.

‘Let’s suppose you make a vegan shoe; it could be 50% organic, but 50% plastic,’ he adds. ‘This implies it will be single-use plastic that sheds plastic over time.’

“If you have a shoe composed of four or five different materials, it may have an environmental component, such as recycled bottles, but it’s folly to assume that someone would disassemble it to recycle it.

“Shoe manufacturing also has a lot of built-in redundancy. Companies can afford to squander some by mass producing shoes that cost $8 to manufacture and $50 to purchase.

“We create somewhat more costly, attractive, comfy shoes that people want to purchase and that last a long time.

Blurred silhouettes of cars surrounded by steam from the exhaust pipes

Trainer manufacture emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as 66 million vehicles per year. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images) )

‘The major companies’ business methods are so ingrained,’ Ed continues. Nike, for example, was founded with the goal of bringing about change.

‘They have a disruptor culture.’ If you work at Nike, you are among the finest, a thought leader, and an innovator. However, the profit cycle is built in the company concept.

‘Without government policy, I don’t see how it can change.’ Fundamentally, I believe in free markets, but when it comes to the environment, regulation is required, otherwise brands will be able to say anything they want and get away with it.’

Market leader Nike, on the other hand, has promised to quadruple its revenue while reducing its carbon impact. Flyknit, a material created from recycled bottles, has been developed. Adidas has also said that they want to be a long-term company. 

The Soleful: Sneaker Stories podcast is hosted by Kish Kash, a sneaker aficionado. He has almost 2,000 pairs of sneakers, three of which are on display at the Sneakers Unboxed exhibition.

He thinks that businesses are concerned about the environment.

‘It’s fantastic that young people are aware of climate change,’ adds Kish. ‘As a result, the big brands are putting out an effort.

‘They can’t simply change things at the drop of a hat.’ Nike, on the other hand, has the Move To Zero program, while Adidas has Own The Game. Both companies have committed to cutting carbon emissions by 30% throughout their supplier chains by 2030.

In the United States, Nike is recycling outdated sneakers. From mushroom leather, Adidas has developed vegan Stan Smiths.

Kish Kash standing in front of hundreds of shoe boxes that house his shoe collection

Kish Kash, a sneaker enthusiast, has over 2,000 pairs of sneakers in his collection. (Photo courtesy of the author)

‘Because of their designs, the tiny green labels have a bit of a stigma associated to them. Where are you going to work if you’ve just graduated from design school? You’re going to go with Nike instead of an ethical brand.’

Men spend more on shoes (£891) than women (£789), according to a recent study by fashion e-tailer Spartoo. This is mainly due to their trainer purchases.

Kish thinks that the regular release of new designs, known as ‘drops,’ contributes to this overconsumption.

‘Trainers help men be more expressive in their style but there are too many shoes and too many drops,’ he says. ‘My archive is full of prized pairs like the Air Jordan 6 Cactus Jack, that’s a beautifully designed shoe. There’s no way they’re ending up in landfill.’

Kitty Cowell, a fashion stylist and self-confessed sneakerhead, has almost 300 pairs.

‘They are a history directory for me,’ she says. ‘I like learning about the history and culture of different genres, particularly when they are linked to music and sports. 

‘I have a lot more than I need because of my work. I am always giving and discarding pairs.

‘A lot of my collection came from sites like ebay, and it’s somewhat used and not brand new.’

Kitty Cowell, sitting in the floor surrounded by her sneaker collection

‘If we, as customers, support the improvements that companies are making by purchasing their more sustainable goods, it will encourage them to do more,’ says the author. Kitty Cowell agrees. (Photo courtesy of the author)

‘I’m not one of those people that tries to keep up with the decreases.’ I do purchase new, but I don’t want to promote a desire for the most recent release. If you already own a pair of Jordan 1s in the BRED [black and red] colorway, you may want to buy another pair to replace them when they wear out, but you don’t need five.

‘However, there are so many different types of shoes that it’s tempting to desire more, and there are a lot of individuals who are either unaware of or unconcerned about the environmental effect,’ Kitty says.

‘If we, as customers, support the improvements that companies are making by purchasing their more sustainable goods, we will encourage them to do more.’ It helps when someone like Sean Wotherspoon, an American designer, collaborates with Adidas on sustainable projects.’

Michael Doughty is hopeful that sports companies can turn things around, but believes that the atmosphere needs a Marcus Rashford moment to get things moving.

He says, ‘I think that would be really fascinating.’ ‘We used to idolize the man or lady who gave all to win, even if it meant sacrificing everything else. We may now honor those who put everything on the line to win, but not their fundamental beliefs and convictions, and not at the expense of the world.’

Jemma Finch, the CEO of the website Stories Behind Things, is a green influencer who no longer buys trainers from major brands and instead wears eco-friendly labels like Allbirds from America and Veja from France, which is a favorite of Kate Middleton.

Jemma Finch, wearing a beige shirt, sitting down with plants on each side of her

‘It’s no longer enough to feel like something is cool because it looks desirable or is worn by a celebrity. It has to be paired to the greater good,’ says Jemma (Picture: Wolf & Badger)

‘As sustainability becomes more fashionable, so does the growth of ‘green washing,’ which she finds perplexing. Brands must be more open, and clear information about their supply networks must be made public.

‘It’s not fair for a conscientious customer to believe they’re having a good effect by purchasing a sustainable product only to discover the manufacturer has been exposed for using 90% plastic.’

‘Small collections are marketed as ‘sustainable’ by high street labels, although the term is unregulated. It may be as little as 10% non-plastic, but since it can’t be recycled, it might as well be 100%.’

Jemma thinks that the next generation of customers will bring about change.

‘What’s fascinating is what’s going on with the younger generation,’ she adds. ‘Gen Z is more than willing to put environmental credentials ahead of what is considered fashionable or classic. It’s no longer enough to think something is great because it looks appealing or because a celebrity wears it. It must be balanced against the larger good.

See also: Fashion

‘Having a company like Yeezy come out and say we’re only going to use 100 percent sustainable materials would be fantastic.’ That would be a significant step forward.’

‘Hopefully, in the next couple of years, people will demand greater openness,’ Jemma says. 

This new measure of success will emerge when start-ups begin to fill the market with sustainability at the heart of what they do.

‘It should no longer be fashionable to ignore the environment.’

Do you have a personal story to tell? [email protected] is the best way to get in contact. 

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