Toxic trainers: Is this the real reason our planet is in crisis?

‘It’s hard to believe your sneakers could be destroying the planet as fast as you can lace them up,’ says climate scientist Angela Terry, as she looks down at her feet. ‘But they are.’

Think of the main culprits behind the devastating environmental crisis that has caused ice caps to melt into oblivion and seen over 4 million lives worldwide lost each year to air pollution, and you conjure up images of cars and factories spewing out toxic emissions at a terrifying rate. 

However, according to Angela, there is a far more dangerous, everyday threat. 

‘There are 25 billion pairs of running shoes made every year – enough to go round the earth 300 times – and most made from plastic. Hardly any of them are recyclable,’ she explains.

‘Very few people realise that the mass production of beautifully designed sneakers puts them just behind aviation and shipping in terms of global emissions.

‘For years almost tribal choices of brand and style has said something about who you are,’ adds Angela. ‘But if you care about the environment you need to really think about what you put on your feet.’

The sports shoe industry is vast. Nike’s global profits soared by 196% in the first quarter of 2021 and beat pre-pandemic sales by 42%. Two thirds of those profits come from sneaker sales. 

In 2020 the American giant made £16.8billion selling trainers. Brits are the third biggest global consumers of sports shoes after the US and China.

But Angela Terry, founder of green consumer website One Home, argues the gap between the marketing of trainers as cool, disruptive footwear and their cost to the planet is huge.

‘The big brands like to talk about their social purpose. But every trainer has 63 different component parts from soles, to laces, to the panelling on the sides, then they take 360 processing steps for assembly,’ she explains. ‘Most are made from polyurethane, nylon or latex, made using fossil fuels. Each of the separate elements is mass produced in 63 different factories in far flung parts of Asia, and each has a supply chain of its own.

“These are transported to one point to be assembled which means more emissions. They are moulded, stitched and glued. All of this is chemicals heavy and the chemicals used are pollutants.

“Trainers cause 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions,’ adds Angela. ’To put that into context, aviation causes 2.5%’

However, while we’ve yet to see a David Attenborough TV special on sports shoes, the fashion world is beginning to take notice of the massive carbon footprint left by the world’s favourite footwear.

Head to London’s Design Museum and you’ll find Sneakers Unboxed, an exhibition which has seen sneakerheads and school kids flocking to gaze at rare edition trainers worth millions, alongside the stories of brands like Nike, Adidas and Converse through to Kanye West’s Yeezy.

On entering the show dedicated to the crucial role sports shoes have played in the evolution of street style, visitors are also met with an astonishing fact – global emissions of carbon dioxide from trainer manufacturing are the equivalent to those of 66 million cars every year.

“It’s the most important design concern for the fashion industry,’ says exhibition curator Ligaya Salazar. ‘So I wanted people to see how big the industry is and ultimately what that means for the environment.”

The exhibition spells out that trainer production is carbon intensive. Most sneakers are made from problematic materials like synthetic rubber and plastic, created using energy-intensive processes and bound together using glues that are harmful to the environment.

Millions of pairs end up in landfill and take decades to degrade.

Ligaya feels the power to change this lies with the companies whose stories she tells in the exhibition.

‘It’s as much, if not more the responsibility of the big brands to make sustainability an integral part of their working so consumers can buy what they want,’ she says.

As environmental awareness rockets, smaller start-up brands are taking on the big boys. One of the newest kids on the block is former Premier League footballer Michael Doughty who co-founded green trainer company Hylo Athletics last year.

These sports shoes are made from renewable materials that can be composted. Customers can also send them back to the company for recycling when they’ve finished with them.

‘I’ve worn all the big brands throughout my career but as I grew more aware of the science of climate change I began to think didn’t align with how I view things,’ explains former QPR and Swindon Town player Michael.

‘Playing football I loved being outside. But I was troubled by habits in the game. We would train and there would be a tub of plastic water bottles. You would pick one up, open it, take a sip and throw it back in the box. No one would know which one was theirs, so you would pick up a new one. By the end of training you would have 50 bottles that would be half drunk and thrown away. That was every day, for 300 days a year.

‘I was chucking on clothing, wearing boots, and actually, we’re selling something to an audience and we don’t really know it. We’re inadvertently an advocate of it.’

Michael’s friend Jacob Green was running on Hampstead Heath when the penny dropped. ‘He was out in the fresh air running on grass but his feet were encased in plastic,’ he explains. ‘He had that lightbulb moment and rang me to say ‘there’s an opportunity here’. We got excited about building a brand people connect with.’

The player was so convinced that in 2020 aged just 27 and with his first child on the way, Michael quit football to work on the idea full time with Jacob.

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

‘I don’t want to be in a position as a dad in 30 years time where the science is pretty grave and the world around us has changed completely, with my daughter asking me: “What did you do about it?”,’ he says.

‘I want to change things and I think we can, but there’s nothing worse than thinking you’ve let your kids down.’

Defending the decision to produce Hylo trainers in China, Michael says: ‘Everything moved there in the 90s. So it’s where all the innovation is happening, a bit like Silicon Valley for tech. We would love to say ‘Made In England’ but there aren’t the factories.

“We have made sure though that our supply chains are close,’ he adds. ‘Everything is within 1,000 km and six of the nine materials we use come from within 100km of our hub. We have independent audits of factories to ensure our shoes are made ethically.’

Another British brand that launched in lockdown brings manufacturing even closer. Waes shoes are 100 per cent plastic free and made in Portugal.

Co-founder Ed Temperley is a surfer with a passion for the environment.

‘I had a company that forecast waves for the surfing world,’ he explains. ‘We’d see ocean plastics wherever we travelled. We would be in the furthest reaches of Indonesia searching out new waves, four days sail from anywhere and you would notice ocean plastics on every beach, every nook, every crevice.

‘But that’s only part of the problem,’ adds Ed. ‘The real issue is micro-plastics that you can’t see. We breathe them in all day long. Imagine a giant smog of plastic particles. They are everywhere, in the air, in the national parks, in the snow packs on the highest mountains and in giant columns in the sea.

‘That was our starting point with Waes, the realisation that shoes are plastic and we knew that shoes wore down.’

Ed cites research from The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany which analysed micro-plastic residue in oceans and found the abrasion from shoe soles were seventh in the top 10 sources, after car tyres, paint and asphalt used in making roads.

‘Every time you tread in a traditional trainer you release micro-plastics,’ he explains. ‘To create an eco-friendly shoe brand we had to be plastic free. Every element we use is 100% natural and can be composted.

Ed points out that “greenwashing” – making ecological claims that are complicated or misleading – is common in the trainer world.

‘Say you produce a vegan shoe – it might be 50% organic but 50% plastic,’ he says. ‘That means it will be single-use plastic and will shed plastic during its lifespan.

“If you’ve got a shoe made of four of five different materials, it might have a bit that is eco and have recycled bottles in it but it’s a nonsense to think someone is going to pull that apart to recycle.

“There’s also a lot of built-in redundancy in shoe production. Companies mass produce shoes that cost $8 to make and $50 to buy so they can afford to waste some.

“We make slightly more expensive beautiful, comfortable sneakers that people want to buy that last a long time and are sustainable.

Ed adds,  ‘The big brands’ business models are so engrained. Nike for example came from a place of trying to bring change.

‘They’ve got this disruptor culture. If you work at Nike you are one of the best, an opinion former and innovator. But the business model is embedded in profit cycle.

‘I don’t see how that can change without government policy. Fundamentally I believe in the free market but when it comes to eco there needs to be regulation otherwise brands can say anything they want and get away with it.’

However, market leader Nike has pledged to double its business while halving its carbon footprint. It has introduced Flyknit – a material made from recycled bottles. Adidas have also said they aim to become a sustainable business. 

Sneaker connoisseur Kish Kash is the presenter of the Soleful: Sneaker Stories podcast. He has a collection of more than 2,000 pairs of trainers, three of which are featured in the Sneakers Unboxed exhibition.

He believes brands are taking the environment seriously.

‘Young people are on to climate change which is brilliant,’ says Kish. ‘So the major brands are making an effort.

‘They can’t just switch things up at the click of a finger. But Nike has the Move To Zero initiative and Adidas has Own The Game. Both have pledged to reduce carbon emissions across their supply chains by 30 percent by 2030.

‘Nike are taking old shoes back for recycling in the US. Adidas have created vegan Stan Smiths from mushroom leather.

‘The smaller green labels have a bit of a stigma attached to them because of their designs. If you are a kid coming out of design school, where are you going to work? You are going to choose Nike over an ethical brand.’

A recent survey by fashion e-tailer Spartoo revealed men spend more on shoes (with a collection worth £891) than women (£789), largely driven by their trainer purchases.

Kish believes this over-consumption isn’t helped by the frequent release of new designs known as ‘drops’.

‘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.’

Fashion stylist and self-confessed sneakerhead Kitty Cowell, 34, owns more than 300 pairs.

‘For me they are a directory of history,’ she explains. ‘I love the stories and culture behind certain styles, especially when they are connected to music and sports. 

‘Because of my job I have a lot more than I need. I am always donating and getting rid of pairs.

‘A lot of my collection is bought from places like ebay, and have been slightly worn and are not box fresh.

‘I don’t participate in ‘keeping up’ with drops. I do buy new but I don’t like to encourage constantly needing the latest release. If you have a pair of Jordan 1’s in a BRED [black and red] colourway – you might want one more pair so you have a pair when they are worn out – but you don’t need five.

‘However there are so many kinds of sneakers, it’s easy to want more and there are tonnes of people who either aren’t aware or just don’t care about the environmental impact,’ adds Kitty.

‘If we as consumers get behind the changes the brands are making and buy their more sustainable products it will push them to do more. Someone like Sean Wotherspoon, an American designer, doing sustainable collabs with Adidas helps.’

Michael Doughty is also optimistic sports brands can turn this around, but feels that the environment needs a Marcus Rashford moment to speed up the process.

‘I think that would be incredibly exciting,’ he admits. ‘We used to idolise the guy or girl who sacrificed everything to win, at the cost of anything that stood in their way. We can now celebrate people who sacrificed everything to win but not their core values and principles and not to the detriment of the planet.’

Green influencer Jemma Finch, 26, CEO of website Stories Behind Things, no longer buys trainers from the bigger companies and instead wears eco brands like Allbirds, from America and Kate Middleton’s favourites, Veja, from France.

‘As sustainability grows in popularity so does the rise of ‘green washing’ – and it’s confusing, she says. ‘Brands need to be more transparent, they need to publish clear information about their supply chains.

‘If someone is a conscious consumer it’s not fair to feel they are making a positive impact by buying a sustainable product only to find out the company that made it has been exposed for using 90 per cent plastic.

‘The high street brands market small collections as ‘sustainable’ but that word isn’t regulated. It can be as little as 10% non-plastic but that might as well be 100% because you can’t recycle it.’

Jemma believes change will come from the next generation of consumers.

‘What is exciting is what’s happening with younger people,’ she says. ‘Gen Z are more than happy to favour sustainability credentials over what is perceived to be cool or classic. 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.

‘It would be so good to have a brand like Yeezy come out and say we are only going to use 100% sustainable materials. That would really push the needle forward.’

Jemma adds, ‘Hopefully in the next couple of years we will see consumers demanding more transparency. 

As start ups begin to fill the market with sustainability genuinely at the core of what they do we will see this new metric of success.

‘It should no longer be cool to disregard the planet.’

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