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Billions of people around the world are wearing sneakers. Initially invented in the late 19th century, these simple canvas and rubber creations have changed a lot. Today, sneaker consumption is at an all-time high. The United States is the country that buys the most sneakers. Americans purchase three pairs a year on average. To meet this demand, factories, mostly in China and Southeast Asia, are producing roughly 23 billion shoes each year. But making shoes has become more complicated, more labor-intensive, more dangerous for the workers involved, and for our planet.
Shoe manufacturing accounts for roughly one-fifth of the fashion industry’s carbon emissions. To better understand the shoe’s carbon footprint, we need to dive into the anatomy of a sneaker. For starters, the heel, insole, midsole, and upper layer are usually made from synthetic textiles like polyester, nylon, latex, and polyurethane that emits tons of greenhouse gases. Some of the parts of sneakers used natural materials like rubber. But today, most of them are made with a synthetic blend of natural rubber and byproducts from coal and oil.
Producing these materials accounts for 20% of a sneaker’s carbon footprint. But more than two-thirds of the shoe’s carbon impact comes from the next step: manufacturing. A typical sneaker consists of 65 discrete parts, and each of them is produced by specialized machinery in distributed factories. But the transportation required to ship these pieces to one assembly plant emits even more CO2. The assembly of a typical sneaker requires more than 360 steps and accounts for the remaining 20% of a sneaker’s environmental impact.
The dispersion of factories raises labor abuse as well. Most brands don’t own their factories, so their plants are in countries with little or no worker protection laws. As a result, many laborers earn below the living wage and are exposed to harmful chemicals.
Since the shoes are made of so many different materials, they’re almost impossible to break down into recyclable components. Thus, 20% of these shoes are incinerated. And the rest are tossed into landfills where they can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.
How can we balance our love of sneakers with sustainability? First, designers should simplify design elements and focus on using eco-friendly materials. Factories should develop energy-efficient manufacturing processes. We can also buy fewer shoes, wear them for longer, and donate those we no longer need.
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