When you think about it, how we acquire and maintain our shoes serves as a pretty accurate metaphor for our behavior as consumers in general. It's a scary thought considering properly maintaining our shoes - taking them to the cobbler, the shoeshine, or caring for them ourselves - is nearly an obsolete concept. Moreover, today little girls are bombarded with messaging that when they grow up they can expect to have an irrational obsession with acquiring way more shoes than they'll need. It sounds like we're in need of a new narrative and that a close examination of our relationship with shoes is a pretty good place to start. So here are a few ways we can be more mindful stewards of our shoes (and our planet).
1. Only acquire what you truly need
A TIME Magazine article reported that, on average, American men own 12 pairs of shoes, and American women own 27 pairs! Well hey, that's not so bad if we're actually wearing and getting great use out of those shoes, right?
In 2013, Huffington Post published the results of a study that found shoe owners were only wearing a quarter of their shoe collection. Top reasons for avoiding 75% (!!) of the shoes in their closets included:
- "They're too uncomfortable."
- "They don't match with anything."
- "I don't want to damage them - they were too expensive!"
So next time you're considering purchasing a shoe, ask yourself if you really need it. "Will this be a '25%' shoe that wins a spot in my regular rotation, or a '75%' shoe that holds a regretful position in the back of my closet?"
2. Know the story of how your shoes were made
If you're purchasing a brand new pair of shoes, you're creating demand for those shoes, and therefore financing whatever systems, materials, and processes contribute to the making of that pair of shoes. So make sure you know what you're buying! Are you paying for unfair labor, animal abuse, community-devastating pesticides, pollution? Not so sure?
Head to the website of the brand you're considering supporting and take a look at their "About Us" page. Is there any mention of their commitment to sustainability or ethical labor standards? If not, send them an email and wait for their response before you make your purchase.
We're big fans of shoe brands Nisolo and ABLE, who not only demonstrated their own commitment to fair labor by publishing their lowest wages but initiated a movement to demand the same from the entire fashion industry! #lowestwagechallenge
3. Buy shoes second-hand
Buying second-hand allows you to remove yourself from creating demand for new goods, the source of all the many problems we alluded to above. But it does more than that. It extends the lifespan of an item that was discarded, making its environmental-footprint-to-useful-life ratio much more palatable. Waste and Resource Action Program (WRAP), reports that extending the use of a garment by 3 months can result in a 5-10% reduction in the item's carbon, water, and waste footprint. In an age when 8% of global carbon emissions can be traced to the clothing and footwear sectors, this is a pretty compelling statistic.
But wait. Buying second-hand indirectly creates demand for new goods; If we all bought second-hand, wouldn't we eventually run out of second-hand shoes to buy? This holds true in theory, but let's check in with reality. In 2015, EPA reported that we sent 21 billion pounds of clothes and textiles to landfills. This represented a 68% increase over 15 years. Looks like we still have plenty of room for improvement!
4. Take damaged shoes to the cobbler for repair
How do you know when your shoe is in need of repair or replacement? According to a Seattle Times article, it depends on the type of shoe, and spoiler: it's all about the soles.
"If the upper part of the shoe dries out or starts cracking, then it's not worth repairing. But if the uppers are fine, the bottoms can always be fixed." -Business Insider
Rephrased, a worn-out sole isn't a good reason to discard a shoe. It's just a sign that it's time to see the cobbler.
5. Dedicate time for maintenance
While a cobbler can help you with worn-out soles, the rest is up to you (or the shoe-shiner!). Take time to clean up your shoes any time they start looking dirty. Non-porous materials like rubber, leather, and plastic can be cleaned with an old toothbrush (like that bamboo toothbrush you've been stashing away to compost later). Leather can be polished with banana peels and a bit of vegetable oil, and vinegar can be used to remove scuffs!
6. Take them off when indoors
One of the ways you can extend the life of your shoes is by only wearing them when you need to. So when you visit someone else's house, take your shoes off at the door. And institute a no-shoe policy in your own home. As an added benefit, this will reduce wear-and-tear on your floors, extending their useful life, and it will reduce the amount of bacteria tracked into your home, thereby cutting down your frequency of cleaning days.
A University of Arizona study indicates that the outsides of our shoes can carry hundreds of thousands of units of bacteria, including E. coli, meningitis and diarrheal disease. Furthermore, our shoes can track pesticides and lead into our homes. 98% of lead dust found in homes is tracked in from outside!
7. At the end of their life, look for options other than dropping them in the trash
If your shoes are in wearable condition, donate them to your local thrift shop, or mail them into an organization like Soles4Souls that specifically matches a pair of shoes with a person who really needs them. If your shoes are beyond wearable, however, you might think twice about donating them to your neighborhood second-hand store. If they can't be re-sold in your local market, they'll either end up in a landfill or in an auction bin that will get carted off to another country at an unbelievably discounted rate, creating impossible market conditions for their local shoe industry and an eventual trash burden that they aren't as well-equipped to manage.
If you have an abundance of well-worn shoes and want to make sure they get recycled, you can purchase a Terracycle Shoes & Footwear Zero Waste Box. But if you're looking for a free way to ensure your ratty shoes get recycled, you might be out of luck. Textile recycling (and especially recycling blended materials), is resource- and energy-intensive, and there isn't much of a market for it.
"There’s greater influx of energy and materials used in recycling than repairing and there are a lot of challenges around textile recycling especially when you’re working with blended materials [...]. Most textile recycling programs that brands advertise actually mean moving product somewhere else in the world." - Nellie Cohen, Manager of Patagonia's Worn Wear Program
Responsibly disposing of your well-worn shoes is tricky, so you should keep end-of-life in mind before you purchase a pair of shoes. Support companies with take-back programs like Adidas and Nike, or look for materials that are compostable like cotton and hemp.
It's a lot to digest, we know, so we recommend incrementalism. Pick two or three of these practices to implement now. Just as we're focusing on shoes as a starting point to being mindful consumers, pick just a few, and the rest will follow!
Tell us how else you're being a mindful steward of your shoes (or your environment, or your community) - reach out to us on Instagram or comment below!