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Footwear's Footprint: How Sustainable Is the Shoe Industry?

A look into the footwear industry's carbon footprint, issues with unsustainable materials, and waste. Plus, positive changes being made.

Written by
Eve Robinson

When it comes to building a sustainable wardrobe, a lot of focus (read: ire) falls to fast fashion. But what about footwear? Though shoes are designed to travel with you, it's the journey from factory to foot that is cause for concern—and that entrepreneurs like Jordan Clark are striving to reimagine. 

Clark is the founder of Amsterdam brand Dooeys, a line of slip-on shoes crafted from plant-based and recycled materials. Each year, more than 20 billion pairs of shoes are manufactured around the world, and one study from Quantis claims that the footwear industry is responsible for 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions stemming from the production chain and materials used. Which is why Clark opts for alternatives like coconut husk footbeds, cork insoles, and vegan apple leather. 

“The fashion industry itself is responsible for up to 10% of annual global carbon emissions, which is huge—but then you look at the meat industry, and it's responsible for up to 14%,” says Clark. “Pair those two together... I can't just follow in the footsteps.”

Let's Talk About the Shoe Industry

As noted above, each year more than 20 billion pairs of shoes are produced around the world, and 300 million pairs are thrown away. While shoes can be recycled, they typically aren't. A vast majority are made with unsustainable materials—including plastics, glues, and leathers—that require a wealth of resources to create and don't break down easily, which means that many of those 300 million discarded shoes may take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills.

Shoe manufacturing typically requires the burning of fossil fuels to power the factories, both of which emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The fast fashion industry is a familiar culprit in this issue. With the production process, Clark relents “there are so many problems… specifically fast fashion and producing large quantities of shoes that end up in a landfill,” in part because of the low-quality materials that give shoes a shorter lifespan.

Leather and Plastics

In 2021, Leather accounted for 33% of footwear sales, and the industry’s demand for leather is projected to grow as general consumption rises worldwide each year. These numbers are certainly enough to raise concern, and for good reason.

According to PETA, the leather-making process poses a risk to everyone. To start, raising animals whose hides will later become leather requires a massive amount of resources. Cattle raised for beef are often also used for their hides. Livestock waste can contaminate groundwater, contribute to soil erosion, and contribute between 7% and 18% of global methane emissions.

For humans, studies of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.” A 2008 study from the India Institute of Toxicology Research found tannery workers had double rates of morbidity.

The leather industry’s tanning process alone generates 145 billion gallons of tannery wastewater yearly. On top of that, leather manufacturing is part of the 14.5% of emissions every year that comes from raising livestock.

Plastics are another familiar face in the show industry. According to National Geographic, 47% of exported footwear is made from rubber or plastic. Those plastics appear in your shoelaces, sole linings, and internal structures of the shoe. 

And beyond the shoes themselves is the whole other can of worms of packaging and shipping, both of which can have hefty environmental impacts. Tackling one piece at a time is how Clark is reshaping footwear. First and foremost is re-envisioning the shoes themselves.

A More Sustainable Future

We live in an age where we can understand the impact of raw materials on the planet. Fortunately, these findings come at a time when research and technology are able to engineer solutions that mitigate the impact of harmful materials.

For something as essential as shoes, Clark, among others, is invested in durable, affordable alternatives to leather and plastic. Plant-based, recycled, and biodegradable materials are all in the frame for the future of sustainable footwear. 

It takes some ingenuity to discover what materials have the potential to replace staples in any product. Clark found inspiration from looking toward other industries, such as clothing, furniture, and even automotive industries. She asked, "What are other industries using that are innovative and pushing the envelope?" and then found ways to adapt those innovations for the shoe industry. 

Extensive research has shown that there are a variety of eco-friendly solutions that do not sacrifice shoe quality and durability. Vegan apple leather, coconut husk, sugarcane, recycled bottle lining, recycled polyester suede, and cork are just a handful of innovative alternatives eco-conscious designers are using to rethink shoes. 

These innovations aren't perfect. For example, as the technology stands, apple leather requires some plastics and polyurethane to meet durability standards, and thus is not biodegradable. But apple leather is a step in the right direction and is better than defaulting to standard leather.

Much of the journey toward any eco-friendly industry will require trial and error, adaptability, and patience. "We still have a long way to go," says Clark, "but we're already leaps ahead."