Eco-Friendly Running Shoes: Actual solution or marketing gimmick?

Eco-Friendly Running Shoes: Actual Solution or Marketing Gimmick?

How many pairs of running shoes did you buy this year? What about last year? Based on how much you run, this answer will vary. Now, what did you do with those shoes once you’re finished with them?

If you’re like most people (me included), you probably threw them into the trash. And once they were in that trash can, they were no longer your problem, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Those shoes end up in a landfill, along with over 300 million other pairs of shoes. Either that or incinerated, which may provide energy yet releases even more carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

So, what to do? It seems like a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario, right?

If you ask the top shoe brands, they will answer eco-friendly running shoes, which are running shoes made from recyclable materials. However, is this the best option for the brand, the consumer, and the Earth itself? Not quite.

Carbon Emissions from a Pair of Shoes

According to a 2013 MIT study, a pair of running shoes generates around 14 kg (30 lbs) of carbon dioxide emissions. That is equivalent “to keeping a 100-watt light bulb on for one week.”

As you may have guessed, large portions of that come from the making of the shoes. Not the transporting, storing, or caring for them once they’re on consumers’ feet.

When looking at the lifecycle of the shoe-making process, it breaks down like this:

The total carbon emissions from an average pair of shoes reaches 14 kilograms.
Credit: MIT

As you can see, the beginning stages of the lifecycle are the most significant contributors to emissions.

Where Do Most Emissions Come From?

According to the study, more than two-thirds of the carbon emissions from making a shoe come during the manufacturing processes. And most of those emissions come from powering the manufacturing plants.

The vast majority of these manufacturing sites are located outside the USA—mainly in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Nike is no stranger to the criticisms they’ve faced over this policy.

Nike is far and away the leader in shoe sales.

Since Nike is the largest footwear supplier in the world, and by a large margin, we’ll use them as an example.

Nike Sustainability Goals

Their FY20 highlights for sustainability consist of:

  • 100% renewable energy in U.S. and Canada for our owned and operated sites
  • Globally, Nike was powered by 48% renewable energy in FY20
  • Since FY15, our footwear suppliers have achieved a nearly 10% reduction in energy consumption per pair produced

This information doesn’t look too bad, right?

However, if you do a deeper dive, Nike’s wording is important.

Let’s look at the first claim.

100% renewable energy in U.S. and Canada for our owned and operated sites.

This is a great step, and I don’t mean to belittle its importance. Some improvement is better than none.

As stated above, more than two-thirds of carbon emissions come from the manufacturing process. Why is Nike’s wording important here? Almost all Nike’s manufacturing facilities are located outside the United States and Canada.

Nike repeatedly cites the reduction of carbon emissions in “owned or operated facilities.” That doesn’t include contracted manufacturing facilities. And when Nike owns none of the factories that manufacture its shoes and apparel, that’s a huge problem.

If over 67% of carbon emissions are coming from the manufacturing process; what impact is Nike really making in environmental conservation? For instance, if I claim I’m dieting from sweets and eat everything but 33% of a cake, am I really dieting?

The same is true for the extracting of raw materials as Nike uses independent contractors to source these as well.

The second-largest contributor of carbon emissions in the making of a shoe? The materials processing, or the raw materials being farmed, creates the materials to be used in manufacturing.

Of the 14 kg of carbon emissions, materials processing and manufacturing account for 13.5 kilograms of the total emissions.

This means 96% of the emissions are coming from facilities not owned nor operated by Nike. So, how much of this is genuine care, and how much is simply a marketing scheme?

Adidas Sustainability Goals

This isn’t to make Nike out to be the only bad guy on the block. The second-leading shoe brand, Adidas, follows the same game plan. While having more factories in the US compared to Nike, most of its factories are located elsewhere. And as Adidas states on its own website, it has “outsourced most of its production.”

If you look at Adidas’ own goals on sustainability, you find the following.

“Firstly, the Green Company program targets improvement of the environmental performance at our own sites around the world, which includes administration offices, own manufacturing sites, distribution centers and retail stores.”

The Green Company refers to the name of the environmental program Adidas uses at their sites and is a large part of their sustainability goals.

However, like Nike, the wording is important. It is improving the environmental performance at its “own manufacturing, distribution centers, and retail stores.”

Its own carbon emissions are a drop in the bucket compared to what the factories they outsource to are producing. Further steps need to be taken to curb the emissions of all factories, not just the ones they own.

Adidas mentions that they work together with their suppliers and manufacturing sites to “improve environmental conditions, increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.” However, they give no detail on what steps they take to do this.

Adidas’s statements are written like a job applicant that has no experience in the actual job they’re applying for. Instead of mentioning the exact steps, they will take to improve the business, they choose to speak broadly about their work.

In other words, a bunch of bluster and no substance.

Enter Eco-Friendly Running Shoes

So the shoe brands solution? Create a shoe that uses recyclable materials. Whether that be from existing plastic—Adidas sources its plastic from the ocean—or from leftover and unused materials, as Nike has done.

This is great for reducing the waste that people and companies generate. Yet, it doesn’t solve the emissions problem that comes from making these very shoes. It’s removing one waste and re-forming it into another in a sense.

As well, seeing the prices of these shoes has become a bit shocking. For instance, let’s look at an interview with Executive Board Member at Adidas, Eric Liedtke, posted on Forbes in 2018. In the article, Adidas announced it “intends to sell five million pairs of ocean plastic shoes — at an average retail price of around $220.”

It’s okay if you needed to take a seat after reading that retail price. I did, too.

How Much Do Eco-Friendly Running Shoes Cost?

Footwear prices have continued to increase due to inflation and rising costs associated with the manufacturing process. As a result, it’s become more expensive than ever to do an activity that we were built to do.

It’s easy to point fingers at Nike, Adidas, and others and view them as gluttons who are making insane profits from a pair of shoes that costs around $20-$30 to make.

Yet, as has been shown by Sole Review, a shoe brand will only make around $5 of profit for each shoe they sell. Some will make even less, depending on the shoe and the materials used.

Shoe brands make around $5 per shoe. How much will they make off of eco-friendly running shoes?

There has not been much research into the costs associated with producing eco-friendly running shoes, but we do have data on the average price of these shoes.

An article written and posted on RunRepeat that analyzed shoe prices showed the average pair of eco-sneakers is listed at $159.79. Compare this to the cost of an average pair of running shoes, which is $111, and you see the massive price increase.

And they’re only getting more expensive. Again, looking at the shoe from Adidas that will retail for $220, this is a huge expense to justify.

For comparison, that is almost what the average American spends on food in a month. $220 for a pair of running shoes that you’re literally running into the ground is an insane amount of money to be spending.

What About a Shoe Subscription Service?

The running company, On Running, is introducing a subscription-based service for its eco-friendly running shoes. This is a unique service, as far as I’m aware.

The shoes, made of castor beans, are part of a back-loop system. For those unfamiliar, this means that the shoe is produced, used, returned, and reused in making another pair of shoes. This cycle repeats itself endlessly.

The subscription process goes something like this:

  • A down payment of $29.99 to let them know you’re interested (this counts toward your first month)
  • The shoes will ship to you, and your subscription begins
  • You pay $29.99 every month to keep your subscription active
  • When you need a new pair—On Running puts this at around six months—you let them know
  • They ship you a new pair, and you return the pair you’ve been wearing
  • Repeat the process for as long as you like

This seems like a good service, especially the ability to avoid sending old shoes to the landfill or an incinerator. As Zero Waste Europe highlights, incineration for energy is not a viable alternative and has potentially more adverse effects on the environment.

And yet, if you do the math, this is still more expensive than the average pair of shoes. Across six months, you end up paying around $180, about a $70 increase over the average price. Even more when the average price of a pair of running shoes is around $75 if you shop online.

Many people would agree that they’re willing to pay more to help the planet, but when the gap between an average pair of running shoes and a pair of eco-shoes is this large, how many can justify the purchase?

When choosing between the immediate problem of having enough money to pay bills, and the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” issue of a worsening environment, consumers will opt for the cheaper option—even as the environmental problem becomes less out-of-sight.

And when consumers look at the increasing profits of companies like Nike and Adidas, it’s tough to be told to pay more for shoes when their profits are in the billions and only increasing.

So, What’s the Solution?

The average pair of shoes equates to about 14 kg (30 lbs) of carbon emissions. The average eco-shoe equates to around 12.8 kg (28.2 lbs). Unless every shoe company can reduce its per shoe emissions to the Adidas x Allbirds collaboration standard of 2.16 kg (4.8 lbs), buying fewer shoes is the best option.

Sounds easy, right? Buy fewer shoes, and there are fewer carbon emissions and fewer shoes in the landfill. Simple.

Not exactly.

If you’re a runner that logs many miles, you go through running shoes every 2-3 months. Many times, it’s not even because you want to buy a new pair. You’ve worn the shoe down so much that running in them is asking for an injury.

So, what to do?

As consumers, we do need to do our part in pushing Nike, Adidas, and the other shoe companies to focus on curbing the emissions from factories that are independently owned. While still not a solution to the overall problem, it’s at least a starting point in mitigating the biggest contributions.

As for the actual shoes we will wear, our options are more limited. The best case scenario is the use of more durable materials in the shoe causing an individual pair to last longer. However, it’s not in the interest of shoe companies to make more durable materials. Their entire game is getting us—the consumers—to buy more shoes. They’re not going to create something that will destroy this current model.

So, they’d instead pass the buck (literally) onto the consumers, and this isn’t going to be a viable solution. Eco-friendly running shoes will be too expensive, and consumers will continue purchasing a more affordable option.

Which is the option that has us in the position we’re already in.