Sarah Smarsh and Simran Sethi are writing a series on the impacts of everyday things. They will be posting previews on Green Options before launching the posts on Huffington Post. Here’s a sneak peek on sneakers.
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.
Read more at the Huffington Post.
Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Lacey Johnston for research assistance.