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Why do sneakers leave a large carbon?

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Over the last 5 years the sneaker industry has grown exponentially and shows no indication of slowing down. Current projections anticipate the global athletic footwear market to exceed 95 billion USD by 2025, a near doubling from the 2016 valuation. According to the World Footwear Yearbook, over 24 billion pairs of shoes are produced annually with sneakers accounting for the largest share. The rapidly growing sneaker industry causes huge environmental consequences.

Sneaker production is exceptionally carbon intensive, accounting for 1.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, which is significant given that air travel is responsible for 2.5 percent of all emissions. A study conducted by MIT found that a typical pair of running shoes generates approximately 13.6 kilograms of CO₂ emissions. “Unusually high for a product that does not use electricity or require power-driving components” comments Randolph Kirchain, one of the co-authors of the research. The bulk of these emissions come from manufacturing, which is unsurprising considering the production processes and materials involved.

We should understand how conventional sneakers are made and their environmental impact. Actually, materials processing and manufacturing make up 92.8% of the carbon footprint. When a group of researchers at MIT performed a life-cycle assessment of a standard pair of sneakers, they found a typical pair of running shoes generates 14 kg of carbon emissions. The majority of sneakers are predominately fabricated from plastic and/or plastic-like materials. All these petroleum-derived plastics (polyester, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) produce alarming numbers of carbon dioxide. The end of life includes disposal of the shoes and the impact that has on the environment. When in use, the only real emissions are when the sneakers are washed. At the end of life, the majority of sneakers (more than 85%) are sent to landfill or incinerated - releasing harmful chemicals.

The green alternative is using recycled materials which are called eco-friendly shoes. Recycled polyester uses up to 84% less energy to produce than virgin polyester. RunRepeat has one of the largest databases of sneakers around, with 2,556 shoes from 34 brands. 89 of those are classified as ‘eco-friendly.’ Of the 89 sneakers, more than 95% include recycled plastic. For example, Nike Free RN Flyknit MS incorporate Nike’s own polyester knit material into their design. It’s made from plastic bottles diverted from landfill and that are recycled into polyester thread.

Considering that close to 25 billion pairs of shoes were produced worldwide in the last year, it is clear that immediate action is essential. We should take a serious thought about the environmental impact of our shopping habits. The average pair of eco-sneakers equates to 12.77kg of carbon emissions. If each person buys eco-sneakers, their carbon emissions fall to 38.31kg per year rather than 42 kg. That’s a reduction of 8.8%. However, purchasing eco-sneakers isn’t the most effective way to bring down that carbon footprint. The most effective thing a consumer can do is to buy one less pair of sneakers per year.

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