Shoes encompass a broad spectrum of footwear. From cheap shoes to more expensive shoes. The shoes discusses in this post will specifically be popular american made shoes such as Nike, New Balance, Vans, and Adidas. These are the shoes I buy and use on a day to day basis.
These shoes have an interesting life cycle. They contain many different materials, parts, and fabrics. From the sole, to the body, to the laces, to the box they come in. Each different material is manufactured in a specific factory. This means that all of these materials must be transported to an assembly location before it actually becomes a shoe. Here in lies the first problem. How are all of these materials being transported? Most of it is by cargo ship. That means a huge ecological footprint is being made just to ship these materials from different locations before they even become a shoe. Then the shoe must be assembled and shipped to the country of trade to be sold. This only adds to the ecological footprint of the shoe life cycle.
Here is where I come into the picture. I shop at a store and purchase a pair of vans. I bring them home and begin using them. Hopefully there is a recycling unit to recycle the cardboard and paper the shoes came in. The shoes will probably last me a year or two. This is pretty good for a pair of shoes. Sometimes I will donate these shoes if they are in decent shape, but most of the time I throw them away. Here lies another problem. Because the shoe is composed on many different materials and fabrics, its virtually impossible to recycle, so it ends up in a landfill. This is the second problem. None of the components of the shoe are biodegradable, so it sits, adding to the biomass. This is the end of the shoes life cycle.
The two biggest problems with this product is the fossil fuel footprint and biomass it adds to landfills and waste. The bigger of the two problems is of course the footprint from transporting shoe materials on cargo ships around the world until it reaches an assembly plant. The rubber on the soles might be manufactured in the Congo, the fabric on the toe could be produced in china, the laces might be made in Brazil, and the canvas on the side might produced in India. Each of those extending to far reaches of the world. That would take 4 cargo ships (not to mention cargo ship fuel is the worst type of fuel for the environment) just to reach a place where the physical shoe can be produced. Then once the shoe is produced, it will make even more trips to the appropriate vendors all over the world. This one shoe has seen more spots on the world than most of the people wearing it.
Then there are the social impacts on those that have to produce these materials. Poor working conditions, low wages, and almost always in third world countries. Not only is the production of the shoe harming the air we breathe and the atmosphere that protects us, but its contributing to the economic and demographic gap before third world countries and first world countries.
There are plenty of ways to reduce this. Rather than relying on material market hubs around the world to produce materials for a shoe meant for those living in the United States, have hubs situated locally that can make those materials. Or better yet, have all of the hubs centralized around the assembly sites to reduce fossil fuel consumption. And as for the life expectancy of shoes, take better care of them. Or even separate the different parts of the shoe to make it viable for recycling. Tear off the sole. Take off the laces. Don’t toss them in the garbage bin all the way in tact. Provide better working conditions and centralize control over the materials going into a specific shoe. This allows companies to control the materials used to make their shoes and ensure they are coming from healthy working environments because they are controlled internally.
And keep in mind that those shoes wrapped around your feet have already stepped foot in China, Brazil, the Congo, even before you get off the plane for the first time.