Shoes are necessary to our lives, and their manufacturing and disposal are inherently unsustainable. Shoe waste and pollution from shoe production are at an all-time high.
Every year more than 20 billion shoes are manufactured, and of those 20 billion shoes, 300 million pairs of shoes end up in landfills. Unfortunately, it is tough to recycle the metal parts in the shock-absorbent soles of shoes, and this results in 95 percent of shoes being thrown away at the end of their life instead of being recycled. When shoes enter landfills, they contaminate the environment by emitting chemicals into the soil and the groundwater. The dye on the shoes release heavy metals, and the soles of the shoes decompose into chemicals that harm the environment. The materials that most shoes are composed of cannot biodegrade quickly, and shoes take between 25 to 1000 years to biodegrade (depending on what they are made of). Leather shoes take 25 to 40 years to biodegrade, whereas shoes made of synthetic materials take up to 1000 years to decompose.
According to Unsustainable Magazine, the manufacturing process of shoes releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Manufacturers use unrenewable energy sources such as fossil fuels or coal to power factories. When these materials are burned for energy, carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere. Another issue involved in the manufacturing process of shoes is transportation. Because most companies outsource their labor from developing nations, they must ship the shoes using planes, ships, and trucks. Transportation issues contribute to the sustainability issues of the shoe industry.
The shoe industry is responsible for 1.4% of GHG emissions in the world.
How is the shoe industry changing to mitigate these problems?
Brands are focusing on how they can produce shoes differently to become more sustainable. Better manufacturing standards, eco-friendly shoes, and shoe recycling programs are developed to combat the growing pollution problem that comes from shoes.
What is a sustainable shoe?
According to Sustainable Urban, footwear must adhere to four sustainability pillars to be considered sustainable.
- Responsible materials: The product does not use harmful materials or degrade natural resources by using nonrenewable materials.
- Ethical production: The product has ethically sourced and fair labor.
- Efficient life cycle: The product has a small carbon footprint, is long-lasting, and creates minimal waste when it is used.
- Minimal impact disposal: The product can be recycled or turned into another item for continual use
What can we do?
A solution to the environmental problems created by the manufacturing and disposal of shoes is investing in environmentally friendly and sustainable shoes. A shoe company that focuses on innovating environmentally conscious shoes is AllBirds. I own AllBirds shoes, which is one of the reasons why this topic is interesting to me.
AllBirds – History
Two native New Zealanders, Tim Brown, and Joey Zwillinger teamed up to create shoes inspired by natural materials with environmentally conscious practices in mind. AllBirds is a certified B-Corporation and they are striving to reduce their carbon footprint to near zero by 2030. The company is well on its way to reducing its carbon footprint. In 2021 alone, AllBirds reduced its average carbon footprint by 12 percent.
The foundation of the AllBirds company is the idea of “better business practices”. Allbirds defines “better business” in three different areas: accountability, reduction of their carbon footprint, and commitment to change.
One way that Allbirds is holding itself accountable is by measuring its carbon footprint. The company is transparent and measures “everything that contributes to our carbon footprint, from the factory floor to the lights in HQ”.
Priorities to reduce carbon footprint
Allbirds believes in doing more than offsetting the negative impact they are making on the environment and they employ strategies to reduce their footprint to zero. One priority that Allbirds has developed is regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is important because modern agriculture practices destroy land by stripping carbon from the soil. When the soil is damaged it is no longer able to remove carbon from the atmosphere to store it in the ground. Regenerative agriculture introduces an opportunity to reverse climate change and increase the long-term viability of the land. Allbirds prioritizes getting to know the farmers that they work with and helps transform their farms into regenerative farms. The company also offers financial incentives to encourage their farmers to use their land to store carbon.
Another priority that Allbirds focuses on is using renewable material in their shoes. Allbirds shoes are made of natural materials like wool, trees, sugar, and trino. By replacing petroleum-based materials with these natural materials they are combatting the depletion of nonrenewable resources. When the company is unable to find a suitable renewable resource replacement they innovate new materials to stay sustainable and natural. SweetFoam is an example of one of these materials created by Allbirds. SweetFoam is a trademarked material used to make shoe soles. Plant leather is also used for aesthetic purposes on shoes.
Allbirds also prioritizes responsible energy usage by maximizing the use of ocean shipping instead of using planes to deliver their products. A special care label is put on each of the products to encourage customers to wash and dry Allbirds products in an environmentally conscious manner. Another important fact to mention is that Allbirds understands that responsible energy requires change on a global scale through legislation and policy changes, and they state that they use their voice to encourage these changes.
To review Allbirds’ carbon footprint tool, visit this website: Sustainability Guide & Practices | Allbirds
Carbon offset projects
Even though Allbirds is working towards being completely carbon zero, they are not there yet so they still invest in carbon offset projects to neutralize their current carbon footprint. Some initiatives Allbirds has invested in are the Argentina regenerative wool project, the Capricorn Ridge wind energy project, the Sichuan clean cookstoves project, and the new renewables portfolio project. Each of these projects focuses on different areas of sustainability from land to energy and air.
During the Argentina regenerative wool project, Allbirds worked alongside farmers in Argentina and provided financial support in exchange for the ability to learn about how sheep can help create natural carbon sinks. This project increased biodiversity, watershed health, and profitability for farmers. When sheep can take carbon out of the land, the soil will be depleted much slower than without the sheep.
The Capricorn Ridge wind project consisted of AllBirds sponsoring NativeEnergy’s work to accelerate the development of wind energy. This project created local jobs and community development all while reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The Sichuan clean cookstoves project supported low-income families in the Sichuan province by providing them with more efficient cookstoves and biogas digesters. This initiative is impactful because it removes the health and environmental hazard that is coal and wood-burning stoves.
Allbirds supports NativeEnergy’s new renewables portfolio to ensure that their operations in North America are run on 100 percent renewable energy. This project encourages solar energy usage.
To stay in the loop on Allbirds’ carbon offset projects take a look at Sustainable Shoes & Clothing | The Most Comfortable Shoes in The World | Allbirds
What kind of shoes does AllBirds sell?
Allbirds offers running sneakers, hiking shoes, and stylish wool shoes for men, women, and children. When you click on an item on the website there is a details section that describes the sustainability features of the shoes and the carbon footprint of the individual shoe. For example, the Women’s SuperLight Tree Runners have, FSC-certified TENCEL™ Lyocell (eucalyptus tree fiber), SuperLight Foam made with sugarcane-based green EVA, Bio-based TPU eyelets, Shoelaces made from recycled plastic bottles, and SweetFoam® insole foam. The carbon footprint of the SuperLight Tree Runner is 2.85 kg CO2e.
Allbirds customers can also choose to shop for used products on the Allbirds ReRun website. Not only are these shoes a less expensive option than new shoes, but reselling gently used shoes helps prevent the shoes from entering the landfill. When the shoes reach the landfill their useful life ends, but when they enter the ReRun store they are given a new life. Another incentive to trade in shoes is the 20-dollar payment in return for sending your shoes in.
Check out the ReRun program here: Gently Used Allbirds Shoes | Allbirds ReRun
If you are looking for a shoe company that is committed to making social and environmental change, make sure to check out AllBirds!