Chances are the shoes you are wearing took a long journey to reach your feet. China produces more than half the shoes made in the world. In a perfect world, our shoes would come from a local maker. And if your town still has a cobbler, that’s undoubtedly your best eco-friendly bet. For the rest of us, choosing shoes made closer to home, in the Western hemisphere, is the next best option.
Recently, I decided to make a more sustainable sneaker, called PSUDO blu, What I learned along the way can guide anyone interested in choosing eco-conscious footwear.
Shoes need to be simplified to reduce their environmental impact. The average running shoe, for instance, includes 65 discrete parts. Ideally, a shoe should be made with recycled materials and be recyclable at the end of its useful life. But I found that the industry is far from offering closed-loop solutions to making and recycling shoes, and consequently, more than 300 million pairs of shoes are discarded annually in the U.S.
By asking questions about the shoes you are considering, you can make better choices and send a message to the retailer and their suppliers that you want environmentally responsible options, not more of the same polluting footwear walking the streets today.
From Fujian to Your Feet
Together, the footwear and garment industries contribute 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. Chinese-made footwear comes with a double dose of emissions because they are made in coal-powered factories and transported to U.S. shoppers on heavily polluting cargo ships. Centered in the province of Fujian, the Chinese shoemaking industry is wasteful, uses immense amounts of water, and often emits toxins into the environment.
However, a promising solution is close-to-home or “nearshore manufacturing.” In fact, Mexico and Canada recently passed China as the top exporters of products to the United States. Although it can be more costly to make shoes in these countries, nearshoring can significantly reduce carbon emissions associated with producing and transporting shoes and clothing.
When setting up manufacturing for the original line of PSUDO shoes, we wanted to ensure that all our shoes were 100% made in America. But it turned out that we could reduce our costs and impacts by moving to a 100% solar-powered facility in El Salvador. Other shoe and clothing manufacturers are following suit.
The Key to Changing the Sneaker Game? Simplicity.
The true environmental challenge lies in the carbon cost of refining, preparing, and assembling the numerous components required to make a shoe. We found a solution by adopting simpler designs with fewer parts, reducing the need for extensive raw materials and labor during production and assembly. This streamlined approach not only simplifies the manufacturing process but also reduces the shoe’s embodied carbon.
Millions of tons of waste and scraps are either burned or buried in landfills where the plastic breaks down into toxic microparticles while these chemicals contaminate the soil, waterways, and groundwater. Photo courtesy of Blumaka
The PSUDO Blu is made of an insole, an outsole, and a one-piece fabric upper. That’s three parts in total. You’d be hard-pressed to find a simpler sneaker design anywhere. It might seem obvious, but consumers who are trying to be conscious of the environmental impact of their purchases should prioritize buying simpler products. They have a lighter carbon footprint.
Many shoe and clothing manufacturers have recognized the potential of embracing recycled materials, especially recycled plastic. Our shoes are made with Repreve, a fabric that is 75% recycled plastic collected from beverage bottles. The benefits of using recycled materials are
two-fold. There’s no need to refine raw materials, reducing the energy needed. At the same time, you’re helping to develop and support an entirely new supply chain which actually keeps plastic from the ocean.
Recycled fabric is great for a shoe’s upper, but what about the insole and outsole? Those have always been a sustainability problem. Last year I met the leaders of a company called Blumaka, which developed shoe manufacturing standards and processes that focus on environmentally responsible impacts. Their soles are made with 85% recycled foam that requires 99% less water while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65% compared to traditional sole manufacturing.
If you’re trying to lighten your carbon load as a consumer, you should be aware of the source of the materials used to produce the goods you purchase. Ask for recycled materials and be sure to choose products made from recycled or up-cycled, rather than net-new, materials.
The next step is to look for shoes that are designed to be recycled, and for brands that take their old shoes back, a form of closed-loop manufacturing that companies are just starting to adopt. But I am confident it will be common within a decade.
The Transportation Problem
Although close to home, nearshoring footwear manufacturing still requires you to reach your feet. Freight transportation is extremely carbon-intensive, and so nearshore manufacturing means less time in the air, on the water, and roads—all of which means fewer greenhouse gases associated with the transportation of your shoes.
I continue to search for decarbonized shipping options, but the electrification of trucking and “last-mile” delivery still has a long way to go. Amazon’s introduction of 100,000 electric delivery vans is a step in the right direction, but shoppers should always ask where a shoe came from and how it was shipped. Trains, for example, are far more efficient than diesel trucks.
Most retailers will not have these answers, but that is because consumers are not asking. We can anticipate a significant reduction in the shoe industry’s carbon footprint only if we can make sustainable practices the consumer preference.
Your Active Choices Shape Your Options
Shoemakers, like all businesses, listen to shoppers. Consumers who take the time to understand the product manufacturing process—from materials to delivery—can reshape the choices available to them with one simple step: ask questions.
But forward-thinking manufacturers must also embrace the responsibility of educating the market – their partners, suppliers, retailers, and consumers – about the environmental impact of their purchases. I encourage all retailers and e-commerce sites to start sharing environmental and recyclability information about their products
Our choices can embody simplicity to reduce the waste built into traditional shoe designs, addressing environmental and ethical challenges in the manufacturing process. Together, we can take meaningful steps toward a more sustainable future for both fashion and the planet.
About the Author: With three decades of experience, Michael Rich, founder of PSUDO, is working to revolutionize the $70-billion sneaker industry. PSUDO achieves zero-waste production and each pair prevents 7.2 single-use plastic bottles from polluting oceans and landfills.