Where Do We Go From Here?

Four industry leaders weigh in on the sneaker world’s sustainability blindspots and where we should start addressing them.
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After a pair of sneakers leaves your regular rotation, where does it go? Odds are, it’s either donated to a thrift store, sent off to the landfill or stored in a deep, dark corner of your closet. But we’re challenging ourselves to rethink not only how many kicks we consume, but also how we dispose of them. 

In order to fully understand the scope of waste that the footwear industry produces, consider how many sneakers are dropped each year. In their annual report, World Footwear News found that production peaked when 24.2 billion pairs were made in 2018. Considering that the global population is a little under 8 billion, that’s a lot of sneakers. Far too many, in fact. And because of their construction and materials, recycling is no easy feat. 

National Geographic proposed that sneaker waste get ground into crumbs and used to make play surfaces and tracks, but that can only account for a portion of what’s produced. Just throwing them away is an option, but it’s a damaging one. When a pair of sneakers gets tossed in the trash, it’s out of sight, but not off the grid — scientists have concluded that it would take nearly 1,000 years for a sneaker to decompose. It’s becoming clearer that the issue can’t just be solved by swapping out sustainable materials. We’re going to have to slow the cycle of sneaker production and lengthen the lifespan of each pair we buy. 

To get more insight, we asked experts and industry leaders in the realms of sneakers and streetwear to sound off on how consumers can give their shoes a longer life expectancy and how brands can address overproduction. 

We caught up with Helen Kirkum, the London-based founder of Helen Kirkum Studio, Sydné Barnes-Wright, the creator of sustainable accessory brand ETHEREAL, Gia Seo founder of the New York creative agency, Department Of, and Frankie Collective’s creative director, Sara Gourlay.

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If you were heading sustainability in the sneaker industry, what would you do?

Gia: The first thing I would do is stop producing new things. I would probably go back to past collections, look at my sell-throughs, know which products performed well and figure out new ways to develop old products. The biggest problem with our industry is that there’s just too much stuff. It’s completely saturated. So I would just go back and figure out which older styles or older materials sitting around could be turned into something new. 

Sydné: A very big trend that has sparked in the streetwear and fashion industry is purchasing vintage and used garments. While it's a form of recycling, it does not reduce the amount consumed. So I would love to create a platform that grants easier access to deadstock fabrics, workshops, and resources that allow designers to create more sustainable pieces. 

Sara: While we love that sustainable fashion is now at the forefront of the industry, fashion is still the second largest polluter in the world. Sustainable fashion is about more than just the fabrics you use — it’s about how they’re made, where they were made, and whom they were made by. Being able to transparently show and communicate the ethics of your supply chain is the first step to being sustainable.

We also have to think about the entire lifecycle of our products. With only 1% of clothing being recycled into new pieces and 73% ending up in the landfill, we have a long way to go. While some of these points are daunting and involve investment and new technology, there are simple changes we can make. For instance, there are so many plant-based and biodegradable options for packaging and shipping that could be the industry standard. For instance, I think virgin plastic should and can be banned from packaging and shipping. 

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Can sneaker customization and redesigns slow the cycle of consumption? How is this reflected in your work?

Sara: Our designs center around how we can salvage as much material as possible from vintage garments that would otherwise end up in a landfill. By choosing an upcycled piece over a newly-made garment, we slow the cycle of consumption and provide an alternative to textile waste. Customizing your clothes is a great way to give them new life. It’s as easy as throwing on a patch, splattering some bleach or dying it — the options are endless. 

Gia: I think customization is the future. With such a saturated market, people want things that can feel personal to them. What troubles me, though, is when companies like Nike have a customization platform. It’s great because it’s so accessible, but at the same time it makes it too easy to say, “I want pink shoes from Nike and next month I’ll get black shoes from Nike. What’s another hundred bucks?” It’s almost like customization is too simple at this point. I don’t have an answer in regards to how fast fashion can become more slow, but I do agree that customization can be the route.

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Once a pair is too old, worn or outdated to have a spot in your regular rotation, what's your next step?

Helen: If the pair is still in good condition, I donate it using a donation bin. If you do this, though, make sure you tie your laces together so your sneakers don’t get separated in the sorting process! If some parts are too worn down and can’t be fixed, they come over to the studio to get added to my collection of sneakers to deconstruct and rework into new pairs.

Sydné: My next step is to always brainstorm how this piece can continue to be a part of my wardrobe. For instance, can this piece be elevated with a new colour if I dye it? Can this piece be deconstructed to make a new textile or functionality, so that instead of a sweater it's a new bag?

Sara: When a piece in my regular rotation is outdated, I look to the resale market. The resell market is crucial to extending a product’s lifecycle. That’s why when you’re purchasing new clothing, it's important to invest in quality pieces over fast fashion pieces that won’t last or have a resale value. When you buy a resellable piece like a pair of denim pants, you’re saving up to 1,800 litres of water — and that’s how much water it takes just to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans. That doesn’t include the water used in creating cotton fabric, constructing garments, chemical-intensive washes and dyes, and other factors.

But then there's the issue of damaged clothing that can’t be worn again. Personally, I’m messy and my clothes get stained quickly. I often use a coffee splatter dying technique to mask stains, but when I can’t, I bring them to work and we transform them into new pieces. For example, our patchwork sweatpants are made from 3 sweatshirts. We cut each piece one by one to work around stains and holes. 

Gia: There are a lot of great companies that invest in the recycling of our sneakers. It could be anything: sneakers, clothing, accessories or furniture, but there are multiple companies like this in New York that are just dedicated to sneakers. For example, TIDAL is a flip-flop brand that’s actually 100% circular. Zero carbon emissions — period. They have an incentive where you can send your used sneakers or flip-flops back to them for free. I noticed that a lot of bigger companies have had that capacity now, especially with the pandemic. 

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For you, is thoughtful consumption a challenge when new streetwear drops are incessant? 

Sydné: When I was younger I struggled with that very deeply! As I get older it's important for me to distinguish how I feel versus how society wants us to feel. As a society driven by capitalism, that system thrives on us feeling inadequate. This drives our need to consume more than we have to. Just know that you owe it to yourself to be true to you. Nothing is wrong with treating yourself and appreciating the art of fashion, but it's unrealistic to keep up with everything that’s new.

Gia: No. It’s not difficult to be a thoughtful consumer. But as someone who falls into the influencer category, that’s a different level of consumption. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t receive a package every day, sometimes multiple times each day. It got to a point where I had to ask brands to stop sending me certain things. What I realized is that the influencer agency created this expectancy. Once I started to lose that mindset, it became so much easier to be thoughtful because I had complete control over the things that I was bringing into my life. The influencer industry is great because it opened a lot of doors for people who wouldn’t have had that access, but it’s also awful because it’s created a market where people aren’t buying things to give brands the sell-throughs that they need. Instead, they’re receiving things, posting them, and either throwing them away, donating them, or just forgetting about them completely. 

I actually got in trouble because I would do unboxings where I would show how to recycle the packaging. Instead of just opening the box to show people the product, I was showing people how to recycle the packaging that the product came in. And brands got upset with me! They’d say, “I can’t believe you put a Dior box in a garbage can.” And I’d say, “I can’t believe you produced a box at a billion dollar company using cardboard!” I hope that this changes, because unboxing is the most wasteful thing. And no one gives a shit what you’re getting anyway. 

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