Eco-sneakers are still killing the planet, just a little slower [Study]
The Adidas NMD_CS1 Parley Primeknit is made from recycled plastic bags retrieved from the ocean.
With the threat of climate change becoming more real in people’s minds over recent months and years, consumers have begun to re-evaluate their decisions to see what sustainable choices they can make.
It seems the sneaker industry is only too aware of this. Recently a number of sneakers advertised as eco-friendly have been released. Currently, 1 out of 29 pairs of sneakers has at least some sustainable element to it.
On the surface, this appears to be good news. The sneaker industry is tuning in to the needs of consumers in a way that can help make the world a better place.
However, the carbon emissions attributed to these eco-sneakers are only 9.12% less on average than the emissions of a standard pair of sneakers.
And they cost an additional $48.79.
This raises questions about the intentions of the sneaker companies. Are they really interested in reducing their environmental impact or is it just a way to cash in on the latest trend — sustainability?
To best understand whether the sneaker companies are serious about sustainability, you first need to understand the environmental impact of a standard pair of sneakers.
An MIT study completed in association with Asics looked at the carbon emissions of a pair of sneakers in detail.
It concluded that, over the course of their lifetime, a single pair of sneakers is responsible for emissions equivalent to 14 kg of carbon dioxide.
This is split between four stages of the sneakers lifecycle:
● Materials processing – 4.0 kg
● Manufacturing – 9.5 kg
● Logistics – 0.2 kg
● Usage and end of life – 0.3 kg
As you can see, only 4.0 kg of the total 14 kg of carbon emissions created is due to the materials used in the shoe.
That’s what makes it surprising that 100% of the shoes advertised as eco-sneakers can be classified as eco-sneakers because of a more sustainable material used in either one or two parts of the shoe.
The majority of the emissions (64%) can be attributed to manufacturing processes. A large amount of the emissions in this part of the lifecycle can be attributed to coal energy used to power factories in South East Asian countries where the sneakers are manufactured like China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
So, instead of focusing on introducing cleaner forms of energy to power factories or improving factory processes to require less energy, it’s a surprise to see sneaker companies focusing almost exclusively on materials.
Surprising until you realize that turning plastic bottles diverted from landfill into a material that can be used to create the upper of a pair of sneakers is sexier and much easier to sell than a factory that uses wind power instead of coal power.
To really understand the intentions of Nike and Adidas, it’s essential to read their sustainability reports.
Exactly because factory processes and energy policy aren’t as sexy as creating new materials. Maybe these things are going on behind the scenes and they are just not making a lot of noise about it.
Well, there’s good and bad news.
The good news is that there is some innovation happening.
For example, Nike invented a new process that allows them to dye polyester without using water. This will save approximately 100 – 150 liters of water per kg of textiles dyed.
Unfortunately, this is the exception. Not the rule.
In fact, Nike’s entire approach can be summarized by their ‘moonshot objective’ to double their business while halving their environmental impact.
Looking at the finer print, talk of reducing environmental impact by half means reducing the environmental impact per unit of stock sold by half. If you are doing this and selling twice as much stock, you are essentially polluting at the same rate.
Nike’s use of per unit figures may be practical in terms of measuring and reporting, but it is distorting the net pollution that Nike as a company is responsible for.
That’s because putting time, effort and resources into making processes more efficient and enforcing stricter environmental policies on outsourced manufacturers is hard. It will bite into profits and for corporations, profit is the most important thing.
As consumers, we need to be aware of the math when shopping for sneakers.
The average American buys three pairs of athletic footwear each year. That equates to roughly 42 kg of carbon emissions each year.
The best way to reduce this is not to buy sustainable sneakers. Instead, try buying fewer pairs of sneakers.
By purchasing three pairs of eco-sneakers each year, you will reduce your carbon footprint by less than 4 kg. However, by only purchasing two pairs of standard sneakers you are automatically cutting your carbon emissions by 14 kg.
The best thing you can do is wear your sneakers until they are no longer usable.
That’s why it can sometimes be better to buy a solid pair of standard sneakers over a lightweight pair of eco-sneakers.
Your carbon footprint will be smaller if you can make a standard pair of sneakers last two years than if you have to buy two or three pairs of eco-sneakers that have worn out in that time-frame.