Last time, we learned that your yoga mat may be messing with Earth’s Zen. Today, we look at another staple of the American workout: tennis shoes.
Not the Chuck Taylor kind. The rubbery, cushy, pumped-up, neon kind that may or may not feature springs, air pockets, reflectors, retractable wheels and motion-sensitive lights.
Training for the New York City marathon in 2004, Sarah wore through three pairs of these running-shoes-on-‘roids in twice as many months. In an era when the majority of "tennis shoes" are purchased not for athletic endeavors but for comfort, these products don’t hold up to the promise suggested by their $100 price tags, she noted (and then doled out for another pair).
But with ye olde cobbler long dead (re-soling Jesus’s Birkenstocks in forgotten profession heaven) and cheap production methods shortening the lives of shoes, Americans have gotten into the habit of pitching worn out (or simply undesired) kicks and buying new ones. Shoe-shopping has become something of a fetish, a joke, an emblem of the spoiled housewife who fills her emotional void with Italian suede.
We could go into Manolos, but we’ll focus here on sporty treads, not just to stay on-topic but because they account for a third of the U.S. shoes market.
The production of athletic shoes is infamously shady, from a human rights perspective. Historically, manufacturing giants such as Nike have followed cheap labor, exploiting workers in developing countries so that they might enjoy enormous profit margins. (Nike has really turned itself around in recent years, however, and is now one of the greener players on the field.)
In terms of Mama Earth, your walking shoes definitely walk all over her. They’re loaded with plastic components, such as vinyl, that produce cancer-causing emissions when manufactured AND during their decades-long (some say centuries-long) decomposing process in landfills.
As for the cushioning that has been the foot’s savior, it’s the landfill’s curse. Typically made of polyurethane treated with flame-retardant chemicals, the soles and lining of discarded shoes seep toxins into our earth and water–evidenced by studies finding these chemicals (penta-BDEs) in human breast milk. This bad-ass chemical is banned in Europe, but U.S. polyurethane foam still kicks it poison style.
Leather shoe components may result from inhumane slaughter, may come from species other than claimed on the packaging, and certainly were fashioned with highly toxic, energy-guzzling methods.
Then you’ve got all the stuff that holds your shoe together. Glues, solvents and such. It won’t touch you when you’re running, as far as we know, but it’s a health hazard to the poor people assembling your shoes, and ultimately to your grandchildren when they drink water tainted by the Reeboks you threw out a half-century ago.
Whoa, player, what’s the good news? Nike has a well-established shoe recycling program, Reuse-A-Shoe, that turns old tenneys into basketball courts, tracks and other sports surfaces. The company also has designed an eco-friendly boot that incorporates hemp and recycled rubber waste.
Last year, Brooks introduced a biodegradable midsole. And some companies, such as Birkenstock and Splaff, have environmentalism embedded into their mission statements.
And Simple’s Green Toe line (Simran loves ’em) are green from sole to lace.
Besides shopping for conscientious brands, you might ask yourself if you need to be shopping for shoes at all. Sarah says emotional shoe-shopping is a habit worth kicking. Simran, who has been called Imelda by quite a few, says make your fetish eco and try Charmone Shoes, Terra Plana or Beyond Skin.
This post was written by Sarah Smarsh and Simran Sethi. Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Lacey Johnston for research assistance. You can find the entire Life Cycle series here.