In search of the biodegradeable shoe

I have reached the end of the line with my footwear. I can see daylight through the heel of my trainers, and when I went to London in the rain last week, I realised my favourite work shoes are no longer waterproof. My wife will be quietly pleased to see them go, but they’re the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned and I will be somewhat distressed to see them go – not least because I have to go shoe shopping again.

The shoe is the front line in the battle against consumerism. It’s where most people first begin to understand branding, where children are made aware in the playground of whether or not they’re cool. There’s a show in London at the moment called Shoes: The Musical. “You can never have too many shoes” say the fashionistas, and the average American woman apparently has 19 pairs. In case you ever find yourself thinking you probably have enough now, the shoe department at Selfridges has 5,000 different product lines to prove you wrong.

The trouble is, there’s no shortcut to making a shoe. There are too many processes that need to be finished by hand, and shoe companies maximize their profits by locating their factories in the countries where wages are lowest. If you paid £100 for your trainers, the brand gets most of that, and the person who actually stitched the thing together was paid in pennies. Sweatshops are par for the course in the shoe industry.

A shoe also uses a complex set of materials, particularly trainers. There are plastics and rubbers and polymers, a smorgasbord of synthetic fibres and resins that make shoes durable and flexible. That’s great for comfort and sporting performance, and bad for the environment. All kinds of poisonous processes are required to create and colour those materials, vast amounts of water use, and then once the shoes is worn through, it’s fated to remain in landfill for an estimated 1,000 years.

I guess I’m ideologically opposed to the idea of buying new shoes. It’s not a guilt thing, it’s about standards. I genuinely don’t want a pair of shoes that was made in a sweatshop and will be kicking around for centuries after I’m gone. If there isn’t a pair out there good enough, I’d rather just wear the old ones until I find what I’m looking for.

So I’m on a quest for a pair of good shoes.

Where to start? I know Nike have their somewhat tokenistic reuse-a-shoe, but that doesn’t count. In contrast, Adbusters have their anti-Nike ‘blackspot‘ trainer, made from recycled materials and in unionized factories. Or there’s Tom’s, who donate a pair of shoes for every one bought, but there’s no information on their materials or disposal policies.

Terra Plana take things a little further, putting as much information about their shoes out there as possible through an ‘eco-matrix’ for each product. That’s great, but as the writers of Cradle to Cradle argue so persuasively, being less bad is not the same as being good. Timberland ‘earthkeepers’ are designed to be taken apart and recycled at the end of their life, which is close to the cradle to cradle ethic.

“The future of fashion lies in a reconciliation between nature and industry” say OAT shoes, who may be on to something with a shoe they claim you can bury in the woods when you’re done with them. The sole even has seeds embedded in it. Unfortunately it’s limited edition and isn’t exactly on the high street.

Simple also do biodegradeable trainers, and they have come up with an innovative solution to break down rubber and plastic components. A mixture of microbes is added to the soles, and these activate in the heat and damp of a landfill or compost heap, breaking down the materials into dust. The process takes 20 years, so I won’t be putting them in my own compost bin, but it’s a start.

Biodegradeable shoes are nothing new. Quite the opposite – all shoes used to be biodegradeable once, just as all farming used to be organic. So maybe the answer is just traditional craftsmanship, hand-made as nearby as possible, out of leather and cork and natural rubber. Perhaps the shoes made by Danish company Duckfeet would fit the bill, Josef Seibel or Think!.

What do you reckon? What makes a good shoe, and where do you find them?

8 Comments on “In search of the biodegradeable shoe”

  1. Jon February 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Agreed – a good shoe these days is hard to find. Currently I’m mostly wearing Ethletic‘s clones of Converse All Stars which are less bad for their fairtrade material and manufacture and use organic cotton and FSC certified rubber but still not really good as they’re not that durable and once they’re worn through there’s not much you can do other than throw them out.

  2. Andrew February 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    My reckoning is that you have to be rich to buy fairly-traded environmentally sound products, whether food, clothes, jewellery etc.

    Because of sweatshops and other unethical practices, our sense of what things are worth is warped. I’m just as guilty. I bought two pairs of trainers at a Vans outlet store for £13 a pair. Maybe I could afford to buy some Josef Siebels or Duckfeet shoes, but I couldn’t justify the extra cost unless I had such a significant amount of money that I wouldn’t notice any different.

    However at the moment I would notice the difference between spending well over £100 on a pair of shoes compared to £13.

    If people simply don’t have the money to buy ‘ethical’ products or they just can’t justify the additional cost as it would mean sacrificing other things, they’ll keep buying cheap goods.

    Ethical producers need affluent people to buy their products. But does that go against much of what this blog’s about?

    What’s your opinion on this Jeremy?

    • Jeremy February 18, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

      I think it’s the other way round. It’s not that ethical shoes are too expensive, but that unethical shoes are too cheap. In the past I’d have had a pair of everyday shoes and a pair of sunday best, and that would be fine. I’d get them fixed if they broke, and I’d have to save up to get a new pair when they wore out, because there are no shortcuts to making a shoe and they’re always going to be pricey. If a shoe is cheap, it’s because someone somewhere isn’t getting paid, or because the materials are poor quality, or probably both. The problem is not the high price of good shoes, but that we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s right and normal to have 12 pairs.

      It’s not just shoes either. A £2 supermarket chicken has been kept in poor conditions, no doubt about it. So I’m going to eat less chicken, because the good ones are more expensive. Or furniture. I’d rather wait, save and buy a really good wardrobe, probably second-hand, than a cheap flatpack one that’s going to go wonky the first time I move it. Cheap stuff usually means that someone or something is paying the difference for us, in unfair wages or environmental degradation of some kind.

      I guess I will have to spend a small fortune on a good pair of shoes, and that will mean sacrificing other things – and I’ll start by sacrificing the other 6 pairs I could have had if I’d bought cheap ones.

  3. Byron Smith February 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Excellent reply Jeremy.

    And a very helpful post, even though I know you’re feeling frustrated. Shoes took a while to come onto my radar. I grew up owning one pair of school shoes and one pair of sneakers. I still now only have two pairs (well, three if you count slippers), which means I’m not in the shoe market very often. Thanks for giving some leads for next time I need some.

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