The nasty truth about trainers

The nasty truth about trainers
The nasty truth about trainers

Sneakers are big business – and leave a heavy eco footprint. But some brands are disrupting the industry and bringing change, writes Bel Jacobs.

The nasty truth about trainers The nasty truth about trainers The nasty truth about trainers

Last December, more than 12,000 so-called ‘sneakerheads’ descended onto the Anaheim Convention Center in California for Sneaker Con, the world’s biggest sneaker convention. On shelves and tables, held aloft by eager vendors, thousands of pairs of trainers, including some of the world’s rarest kicks, were on display. “Sneakers represent so much, from a person’s style to what they have been through,” stylist Aleali May, one of only two women to design for the Nike-owned Jordan brand, commented at the time. “The great part about Sneaker Con is that it sees that all these people have something in common – and that starts with our sneakers.” 

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Sneaker culture has transformed in the past decade. Tech and innovation, the elevation of sportswear into luxury, high-profile collaborations with the likes of Dior and McQueen and the influence of street culture have combined to turn a basic accessory into something much, much more. Factor in the enthusiastic patronage of cultural heavyweights such as Michael Jordan, Travis Scott and Kanye West, and the trainer is now a bona fide cult item. In fact, it is reputedly West – with the 2015 launch of his iconic Adidas YEEZY line – that really propelled the shoe into the mainstream.

The nasty truth about trainers View image of (Credit: Getty Images)

And where culture goes, money follows. In 2018, the global trainers market was valued at approximately $58bn (£45bn), with a forecast of $88bn (£68bn) by 2024. Resale alone is estimated to be about $1bn (£777m). At Sneaker Con, in the heaving Trading Pit, over $1m worth of sneakers can be traded at any given event. In fact, their status as a commodity may play a large part of sneakers’ appeal. “Yeah, you have core sneakerheads who love the history of design,” says Kitty Cowell, a stylist who self-admittedly owns a “silly amount of trainers”. “[But you also have] the modern audience who are driven by hype and money…”

The result is that the modern trainer is a complex entity. From variable height tread to the multi-density mid-sole, from the flex point to the lace lock: each component offers a site for technical and creative wizardry. And possibilities are endless. In February this year, Scott, arguably the preeminent collaborator in the industry, released his take on the SB Dunk, transforming Nike’s skate shoe with a mix of plaid and paisley, braided laces and pink swoosh. On the same day (probably no accident), West launched the Yeezy Boost 350 v2 Earth, a minimalist symphony of browns and olives.

But, as ethical spotlights turn with intent on the fashion industry, footwear is coming under greater scrutiny. And the news isn’t good: trainers leave a heavy – excuse the pun – footprint. More than 23 billion pairs of shoes are made every year, of which a large proportion are trainers; more than 300 million pairs are thrown out in the same time period. Most trainers are made from problematic materials including nylon, synthetic rubber and plastic. They are shaped by energy-intensive processes such as injection moulding, foaming, and heating – and then bound together with environmentally damaging chemical solvents. 

The nasty truth about trainers View image of (Credit: Getty Images)

“The footwear industry is at least 10 years behind the rest of fashion in terms of human rights and environmental standards,” says Tansy Hoskins, author of the upcoming book Foot Work: What Your Shoes are Doing to the World. “As a result, every point of production is in crisis. Every day, workers are exposed to toxic chemicals and dangerous materials. The problem is the discrepancy between the marketing and the reality of trainers. They’re often sold as tools that can reconnect us to the natural world, through running or outdoor activities, but they’re actually destroying that world. And because they’re massively trend-based, they’re seen as disposable.” 

Younger consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products – Matt Powell

The most controversial – and the most common – fabric in sneaker production is leather. Animal rights issues aside, animal agriculture (of which leather is sometimes, not always, a by-product) is responsible for a chunk of greenhouse gas emissions, while leather tanning, particularly when carried out in poorer countries, is a highly toxic process that pollutes waterways, environments and workers alike. “Cattle farming is also the number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon, and 50% of all leather products are shoes,” adds Hoskins. “So there’s a direct correlation between chopping down rainforests and the shoes on people’s feet.” 

The nasty truth about trainers View image of (Credit: Adidas)

Fuelled by mounting concern, industry monoliths Nike and Adidas were pretty quick off the mark. In 2015, Adidas teamed up with environmental initiative Parley for the Oceans to release the first performance shoe with an upper made from marine plastic waste and illegal deep-sea gillnets (fishing nets that are hung vertically so that fish get trapped by their gills); last year, it revealed the Futurecraft.Loop, a 100% recyclable running shoe. In 2018, Nike was recognised by Textile Exchange as the brand using the most recycled polyester in the industry for the sixth year in a row; from 2010-2018, the brand turned 6.4 billion plastic water bottles into footwear or apparel. Nike is also tapping renewable energy sources for its factories and aiming for carbon neutrality.

None of this gives Hoskins confidence: “Brands like these churn out hundreds of millions of pairs of shoes every year,” she shrugs. “Efforts like these pale in comparison to the scale of production – and 90% isn’t recyclable.” According to others though, the buzz is only growing. “Sustainability is an important theme in retail; younger consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products,” sportswear retail expert Matt Powell told Business Insider earlier this year. “Brands have long been concerned about making products sustainably; [now] they’re being more forward about it. ”

Back to basics

Part of the reason for this transformation in sensibilities is the burgeoning number of brands trying to do good. The simple sneakers and iconic V of Veja regularly grace the ankles of Meghan Markle; the Paris-based brand launched in 2004, with the explicit intention of revivifying the livelihoods of wild rubber tappers in the Amazon. Silicon Valley start-up Allbirds makes its shoes with merino wool or eucalyptus trees, sugar cane for the SweetFoam soles and recycled plastic and castor-bean oil for the inner-workings of the shoes. Nothing New sneakers are made with only recycled materials.

The nasty truth about trainers View image of (Credit: Getty Images)

Bids for sustainability riff on the basics: material innovation, clean tech, transparent supply chains and circular design models. Despite using real leather, Everlane promises pristine tanning processes, blends of natural and recycled rubber and carbon offsetting. Like Adidas, vegan designer Stella McCartney teamed up with Parley. Recycled synthetics are key motifs: Greats and Converse both redesigned signature silhouettes in recycled plastic while Timberland recently launched its Emerald Bay women’s sneakers, also made from recycled plastic bottles.

The US outdoor wear brand would like to do more but, in a system predicated on production, consumption and disposal, none of this is without challenges. “Cost is currently the biggest roadblock [in sustainable sneaker production],” admits Isabella Colombo, Timberland’s director of women’s footwear. “At the moment, most sustainable materials are not cost neutral and, until they become industry standards, they will never be. Plus, the process of making sneakers is not energy efficient. Designers need to engineer products from the concept stage with a circular model in mind. This, in itself, will lead to material and process restrictions.” 

The nasty truth about trainers View image of (Credit: Vivobarefoot)

That may already be happening: some young brands are actually trying to get their customers to buy fewer shoes. Founded by footwear-dynasty scions Galahad and Asher Clark, Vivo’s distinctively thin-soled, wide-bedded shoe work on the principle of ‘barefoot technology’. “The less shoe we make, the better it is for people in that it lets your feet do what they were supposed to do, and for the planet – in that there is less waste,” says Galahad Clark. 

The brand is also aiming for 90% sustainable materials in its supply chain this year. “It was a complete system rethink that made us step outside our comfort zone – and take our supply chain partners with us,” says Clark. “We had to simplify the way [we made our shoes], how we could put recycled and natural materials with performance at the heart of all our products, how we could make those products last longer”. 

The nasty truth about trainers View image of (Credit: Getty Images)

Meanwhile, emerging brand Other Year is building fully recyclable sneakers, with a stated mission of keeping shoes out of the rubbish dump. “The biggest challenge was that the industry is so stuck in its way,” says founder Harry Edmeades. “We really had to push suppliers. The factory in Portugal actually laughed at the idea of taking the shoes back when the customer had finished with them.” 

Trainers might be just the thing to disrupt the status quo

Meanwhile, what to do with the billions of other sneakers currently exiting production lines? Royal College of Art MA Footwear graduate Helen Kirkum bridges the worlds of art and fashion with unique trainers patched together from old shoes. Her process took her first into the emotional bond that people have with sneakers: “My friends wouldn’t give them to me, even when they were battered and worn out,” she laughed. “[Sneakers] hold specific memories for people and that’s when I really started to get into old shoes, when I realised they told stories.” 

The nasty truth about trainers View image of (Credit: Getty Images)

And it was when she started visiting recycling centres to gather raw materials that she came face-to-face with the excess that plagues the industry: “I come from a traditional background, when brands built their reputation on making shoes that you can repair; that culture doesn’t exist in sneakers. [Visiting the centre] really opened my eyes, when I saw piles and piles of old garments in front of me that even the centres were struggling to keep up with. I thought, this is such a good resource of materials, not just to use but to show the beauty of what these materials can look like.”

“Our shoes are not sustainable enough,” adds Clark of Vivo. “Like the rest of the industry, we have a long way to go to make not just sustainable or neutral but truly regenerative footwear. 2020 marks a decade of serious change where all companies, big and small, realise that we need to completely redesign the way we do things.” And trainers might be just the thing to disrupt the status quo. Edmeades sees his sneakers as “a communication tool, a catalyst to talk about responsibility in ways people can understand. This isn’t just a shoe,” he continues. “It’s the future of how we need to consume everything. Change is coming.”

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