by Theresa Peluso
This is the second and last article in my latest series, which explores the life cycle of different consumer goods, from primary resource extraction/production to disposal. The format is based on a series of Reader’s Digest articles in the 1980s about various human organs, titled “I Am Joe’s (insert name of organ here)”, which provided clear, well-written explanations about how our lifestyles affect our bodies. This time, the topic of discussion is running shoes.
We’re just your average running shoes, made by a well-known manufacturer. Our owner – let’s call her Jane – bought us about three months ago. Even though Jane likes to hold onto things whether or not they’re fashionable, we have learned that she’ll only wear us for about a year, and then replace us. Some serious runners go through as many as three pairs a year. It seems Jane’s more concerned about the health of her feet, knees and back than about the natural environment. If she didn’t take running so seriously, she’d probably hold onto us for longer. Apparently, she has a boxful of old running shoes, and that’s probably where we’ll end up, until she figures out what to do. I know we won’t end up in a landfill site – at least not right away – because Jane is obsessed about waste diversion. She wishes she could just replace the soles, which are the part that wear out first, but of course that’s not an option with running shoes.
To look at us shoes, you wouldn’t think we’re especially harmful to the environment, but just think of how many people are like Jane, replacing their shoes once a year, if not more often. (If they play other sports, they’re probably replacing that footwear too, at regular intervals.) In any case, according to one report, in 2004 the footwear industry produced 12 billion pairs of shoes worldwide, of which Americans were by far the biggest consumers.
Let’s consider the carbon footprint (pardon the pun!), pollution, and social costs of running shoes. First of all, we’re mostly made of petroleum-based synthetic materials, and I’m sure you’re familiar with the environmental impact of oil extraction. Don’t forget that these petroleum-based materials take many hundreds of years to break down. K. Albers, P. Canepa, and J. Miller (Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, March 21, 2008) have summarized the environmental impact of traditional running shoes as follows:
Long before these shoes complete their product life cycle and inevitably become waste, their environmental impacts can be felt during the traditional footwear manufacturing process, which utilizes both natural and synthetic materials. The petroleum-based synthetic materials contain toxic substances and the process of extracting and processing natural materials is often no better in terms of environmental performance. For example, leather and cotton production require significant inputs of water, land, fertilizer, and pesticides while leather tanning releases chromium and other harmful chemicals into the environment. In addition to an environmentally harmful production process, many footwear companies have worldwide supply chains in which products are transported across the globe while burning fossil fuels, thus contributing to global warming.
We also need to take into account the social costs involved in making running shoes. Producing running shoes is a complex operation, given that they can consist of as many as 50 components, assembled by hand. Major companies, in response to public pressure, are starting to monitor the working conditions of the labourers who manufacture their products, but much more needs to be done. Workers are paid very low wages, far below a living wage; they are forced to work excessive overtime; they are verbally abused, harshly disciplined and sexually harassed; they are prevented from unionizing; and they are forced to work in unsafe conditions, including working with toxic substances and using dangerous machinery. In addition, several countries where these factories are located have very lax environmental regulations. You can find more information on this topic at www.consumersinternational.org/TheRealDeal.
There is good news for people concerned about the environment. We’re not into name-dropping, so we’re not going to give specific brand names, but several companies have come up with more environmentally-friendly options. They incorporate recycled rubber, recycled plastic bottles, recycled webbing and toxin-free glues in their running shoes. Other companies use soy-based dyes to colour the fabric, and biodegradable midsoles. Some use renewable materials such as merino wool and plant cellulose fibres for the inside foam liners and foot supports. One brand even incorporates recycled scrap metal in their rubber bases. (We bet those shoes don’t wear out in a hurry!) To top it off, post-consumer recycled materials are used for the shoe boxes. You can find out more at www.examiner.com.
Finally, when Jane finally decides to replace us, she’ll probably add us to the box with all our predecessors. What she should do is take us to the Hub, Almonte’s second-hand store. If we’re still in fairly good condition, we’ll be put on the shelves for sale. If nobody wants us, or we’re found to be defective, we’ll be recycled through the Salvation Army. There are other organizations that collect shoes for donation to Third-World countries, or recycle them (such as Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program, which converts them into material used in sports surfaces like basketball courts, tennis courts, athletic fields, running tracks and playgrounds for kids around the world). You can check the website www.soles4souls.org/ for more information. We’re quite sure that Jane will pursue one of these recycling options before too long.
Well, we’d better shuffle back to our spot by the door. We think Jane’s taking us for a run tomorrow.