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Let's limit ourselves to "casual sport" shoes (e.g., everyday trainers, casual, etc.) . I have been doing some research online, essentially along two different lines:

  • sustainability, using http://rankabrand.org/

  • animal-free materials, browsing through the several companies which trade "vegan" shoes online (in the UK).

What would be the main sustainability considerations when buying a pair of shoes? Which materials or what part of shoe manufacturing or disposal have the largest environmental impact?

  • 2
    It considerably depends on the type of shoes (running shoes or everyday shoes) and whether it is planned to repair them. Two experiences I made: (a) After some detailed research I found a manufacturer of running shoes who offers to replace the sole when it is worn down (++). (b) One pair of eco-shoes I brought were worn down after ten month. I talked to a shoemaker about these shoes and he told me that the quality of the used material was low and that the shoe were not made for lasting longer than a year (--). – daniel.neumann Aug 2 '16 at 12:33
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Main considerations:

  • source of materials.

Obviously more oil is a bad thing. This casts aspersions on any plastic too.

  • Longevity.

A shoe that lasts for 10 years is a 20 times the value of one that lasts for half a year.

  • Cost of making.

Cost is a measure of crystallized sweat. Energy. Labour. Cheaper is better. Cost != Retail Price, although often they are proportional.

  • Locality

Something that you make is better than something downtown. Downtown is better than next county. Next county is better than China.

Turning that into pragmatic answers:

  1. Sandals made from old tires are a big win. The tires already exist, so making sandals isn't really an eco cost. Unless you walk for a living they are good for decades. I see these throughout central and south America. Price in Peru was about 20 sols-- about $2

  2. Rope soled shoes. Don't last nearly as long. You can find them on Instructables if you want to make your own.

  3. Leather moccasins. As long as we eat cow, we may as well use the wrappers the bovines come in. This is also something you can do for yourself from the internet.

  4. Go barefoot. Not a full time answer, but your feet toughen up a lot, and you can get away with it when not at work most of the time.

  5. Buy used shoes at Salvation Army, Goodwill and other such stores. This is tough as someone else's shoes can be worn in patterns that cause you foot and knee grief.

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    I disagree with your point about "Cost is a measure of crystalized sweat. Energy. Labour. Cheaper is better." Low prices for shoes and clothing usually mean they were created in sweatshops, sometimes even with child labor. These manufacturers often don't follow environmental regulations and some are involved in illegal dumping of chemicals. – THelper Dec 19 '16 at 13:09
  • May not be the best measure. I think it's a usable measure within a culture. Note too that Cost != Price. – Sherwood Botsford Dec 20 '16 at 18:10
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Summary: choose natural materials such as hemp, jute, organic cotton, or bamboo, preferably from a manufacturer that uses vegetable-based dyes, is fair-trade certified, and is working on reducing its environmental impact. Try to find shoes that last long and only buy new when you really have to.


The biggest environmental impact of shoes comes from the used materials and the manufacturing process. If you also value 'social sustainability' you should also factor in the working conditions of the people who create the shoes.

  1. Materials

    According to Nike materials make up around 60% of the environmental impact of its shoes. Especially leather, synthetic plastics, and certain hybrid materials have a big impact, but also cotton, dyes and glues.

    The big impact of leather comes from raising cattle and the chemicals typically used in the tanning process (chromium). Plastics and hybrid materials are usually made from oil, and cotton is grown using lots of water, fertilizer and pesticides. Dyes and glues contain chemicals that negatively affect the environment as well as the health of the workers that manufacture shoes.

    Vegan leather isn't necessarily a more sustainable choice because it can be made from PVC which is one of the worst types of plastic.

  2. Carbon footprint

    A typical pair of synthetic trainers generates 30lbs (13.6 kg) of emissions, equivalent to leaving a 100-watt bulb burning for a week (source)

    Most shoes are made in Asia, but surprisingly transportation is only a small part of a shoe's carbon footprint. Researchers from MIT did a life-cycle analysis of an ASICS synthetic sport shoe and found that transport on average only accounts for 3% of the shoe's carbon footprint, and at most adds up to 7% when shipping to Canada (about the farthest country from China where the shoe was made). Raw material extraction and processing accounted for about 29% of the total carbon footprint and the manufacturing process was responsible for 68%. The reason why manufacturing has such a large footprint is because a single shoe consists of many parts that require multiple processing steps for assembly. The machines in Asian factories that perform these steps typically run on electricity generated by coal.

  3. Labor conditions

    Developing countries like India and Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent also China, do not have strong worker safety or environmental protection standards. Sweatshops are common in these countries and there have been many reports about child labor. Workers are often exposed to toxic chemicals and left-over chemicals are often spilled or dumped.

Recommendations

There are a few blogs that list fair-trade and sustainable shoe manufacturers (e.g. this one and this one) but the downside is that it's difficult to compare between listed companies. Alternatively you could do some investigations yourself. You already mentioned Rankabrand in your question which can be very helpful. A similar website is EthicalConsumer.org which has a section on shoes with interesting background information, but the newest company reviews there are behind a paywall.

If a shoe manufacturer is not listed anywhere you can use the Internet to find out more. Especially look for information if the manufacturer is:

  • using or switching to environmentally friendly materials,
  • using or switching to renewable energy in their factories,
  • trying to reduce the number of processing steps in manufacturing.
  • was involved in child labor or dumping scandals in the recent past.

Good materials to look for are natural materials such as hemp, jute, organic cotton, bamboo, vegetable-based dyes and to a lesser extent recycled plastics. If you are really set on leather, go for vegetable-tanned leather or better yet Piñatex.

Unfortunately it's hard to tell in advance what the quality is of a pair of shoes and how long they will last, otherwise you could take that into the equation as well. The least impact comes from not buying new shoes often and wearing your old ones as long as possible.

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