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Can "eco-friendly" sneakers be trusted?

Can "eco-friendly" sneakers be trusted?

The sneaker market is full of "eco-friendly" initiatives. But can they be trusted?

Growing concerns about the environment have influenced consumer trends, including on the sneaker market. Sportswear manufacturers have launched a slew of eco-friendly lines and initiatives, while many new brands have been founded on promises of sustainability. All praiseworthy, but do they really go far enough? 

The environmentally conscious consumer


The fashion industry is known to be one of the most polluting industries on the planet, sneakers included. Photo credit: Joe Hastings

Environmental responsibility is no longer just a promise to be ethical; it has become a business imperative for many brands. Consumers, who are now well aware of environmental issues, are driving this shift. And according to a number of studies, they place great importance on sustainability when choosing to make a purchase. Sneakers are no exception, especially since they are part of the fashion industry, which is known to be one of the most polluting on the planet. In recent years, large manufacturers have begun grappling with the issue and now offer an increasing number of “eco-friendly” sneakers. 

Recycled & plant-based materials


Nike has embarked on a zero-waste, carbon-neutral strategy. But is it enough? Photo credit: Suzanne Daniels from Sneaker Obsession by Kikikickz (Flammarion, 2023)

Nike, which launched the “Reuse-a-shoe” initiative in 1993 to tackle the challenge of recycling sneakers, has embarked on a zero-waste, carbon-neutral strategy called “Move to Zero.” Its pinwheel logo encompasses several products made with a percentage of recycled materials: Space Hippie, Flyleather, Crater, and Next Nature. A vegan line called Better is said to be in the works. Adidas has gone even further: in 2015, the company signed a partnership with the NGO Parley for the Oceans, which led to the development of models in a polyester material called Primeblue made from recycled plastic waste that was salvaged from beaches and coastal areas to avoid polluting the ocean. The three-stripe brand, which has committed to using only recycled plastic in its products by 2024, has also developed the Clean Classic line, which makes use of Primegreen, another eco-friendly fabric. The brand most recently made waves when it released a Stan Smith Mylo made of a mushroom-based leather substitute. 

"It’s no longer unusual to see uppers made from grape, corn, or cactus leather, seaweed soles, or cork insoles"

In addition to recycled materials, plant-based matter is widely used to make sneakers, especially by companies with environmentally responsible aims. The French brand Veja is a pioneer in the field, and this promising sector has given rise to many footwear brands in recent years. They’re the ones driving new consumer habits, and it’s no longer unusual to see uppers made from grape, corn, or cactus leather, seaweed soles, or cork insoles. The range of materials is impressive. But while green sneakers may be all the rage, doubts remain. What about recycling at the end of the product’s life cycle? There’s no clear feedback on the subject and for good reason: sneakers are hard to recycle. They contain an average of fifteen different materials, each with a specific recycling stream, which makes the process tricky—when the presence of glue doesn’t make it altogether impossible. 

Recycling your sneakers


Adidas has launched a 100-percent recyclable sneaker but continues to manufacture in Asia

In 2019, Adidas unveiled the FutureCraft Loop, a 100-percent recyclable sneaker. According to the brand, consumers can return the shoe at the end of its life cycle, and the constituent materials will be used over and over again to make new shoes. The brand expanded the project with an entire line known as Made To Be Remade, and cultivates a marketing strategy based on the argument that financial objectives and the protection of the planet are not mutually exclusive.

"There is more to creating eco-friendly sneakers than the use of recycled and recyclable materials"

But these efforts are often confronted with another obstacle in the endeavor to reduce the environmental impact of sneakers: production. Adidas, like all major manufacturers, outsources production to Asia. There is more to creating eco-friendly sneakers than the use of recycled and recyclable materials; they should be locally made with local materials to support local business, and depend on environmentally respectful processes. In other words, genuine eco-friendly sneakers are not all that common, and the term often smacks of greenwashing. 

Are there really any eco-friendly sneakers?


Highly polluting coal is still used in the manufacturing of sneakers

GUESS WHAT? In 2019, 24.3 billion shoes, sneakers included, were produced, releasing more than seven hundred million tons of CO2—an output equivalent to that of a country like Germany.

"A sneaker may travel over ten thousand miles by boat before landing on the shelves"

Production is largely carried out in Asia where highly polluting coal is essential to the industry, as is the case in China, the world’s largest manufacturing economy. Geographical distance also means planet-harming transport: a sneaker may travel over ten thousand miles (16,000 km) by boat before landing on the shelves. Nike and Adidas are working on these issues, and insist that they intend to reduce their carbon footprints by 30 percent by 2030. We’ll check in for an update. 

Extracted from Sneaker Obsession by Kikikickz. Text by Alexandre Pauwels, Flammarion 2023


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Banner & thumbnail photo credit: Kikikickz

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