Circular trainers: how consumption became culture

Circular trainers: how consumption became culture

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Peter Dennis explores “Sneakerhead” culture and its impact on shoe consumption as well as how big brand’s, such as Adidas, sustainability initiatives are looking to take a step in the right direction.

In 2020, the global sneaker market was valued at $79 billion, with predictions it will rise to $120 billion in 2026.

23 billion pairs of shoes are made every year and 22 billion are thrown into landfill. With new designs launching every day, Sneakerhead culture and trainer consumption are only growing.

Sneakerheads collect and trade trainers as a hobby; however, being a Sneakerhead requires more than a just collection of shoes. Knowledge on the history of sneakers is essential to be part of the community and having the skills to fix up and style trainers is hugely valuable.

The subculture has its roots back to the eighties following the release of the first Jordan 1s capitalised on the popularity of basketball star Michael Jordan. As well as basketball, Sneakerhead culture was hugely influenced by hip hop and music, with shoes becoming popular after the biggest artists were seen wearing them.

Even if someone doesn’t have a collection of thousands of shoes – most of which have never been worn – if they want to grab the latest release from Nike, they’re feeding into the culture that’s led to millions of shoes being manufactured every day.

Award-winning journalist and author, Tansy E Hoskins said the “sheer scale” of shoe production is a major problem. “66.6 million pairs of shoes are being made not every month or every week, but every single day.” 

“An in-depth academic study once found that only 5% of shoes get recycled, and this figure is not believed to have increased much since then.”

This July saw the most anticipated shoe release of 2022: the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s. Designed by the late Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White and artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear at the time of his death, the trainer collaboration is retailing at $2,750.

Sneakers have taken on a value that isn’t just monetary, they’ve become a mainstay in popular culture with a global community forming around them.

Looking in from the outside, it may seem unbelievable that someone would pay this much for a pair of trainers – let alone risk getting them dirty by wearing them to the pub.

But rare sneakers have become a global commodity, according to The Times, becoming an asset of choice for Generation Z. To many people, shoes have taken on cultural value and have become a totem of social status.

While rare sneakers are one factor driving “sneakerhead” culture, accessibility, globalisation, and social media are all bigger reasons why 62% of survey respondents chose footwear as their most bought streetwear product.

2022 also saw Europe’s largest trainer festival, Crepe City, come to Scotland for the first time. 2,000 sneaker-mad consumers descended on Glasgow to experience the showcase of some of the world’s rarest, and most valuable, footwear; prices ranged from £50 to several thousand.

Given the vast market across the globe, it’s no surprise that sneakers are a huge source of waste. Of the 22 billion pairs of shoes thrown away every year, on average, it takes between 30-40 years for just one pair to decompose.

Sneakers have taken on a value that isn’t just monetary, they’ve become a mainstay in popular culture with a global community forming around them.

This has become a double-edged sword, both harming and helping the environment. As consumption drives increased manufacturing and waste, the desire for sneakers has increased repair and reuse and made the concept much more mainstream.

Big brands

Nike sells over 780 million pairs of shoes every year. In 2020, Adidas produced 379 million pairs. As the two biggest brands in the market, what are both Nike and Adidas doing to be more sustainable?

Nike says that its vision is “zero waste, period”. By using recycled materials, more efficient production methods, and smarter packaging, Nike says it will take an approach to help prevent waste from being created before products are sold. And, like Adidas, it is also offering a take-back service and utilising products at the end-of-life in production.

Adidas has committed to replacing virgin polyester with recycled polyester by 2024 “wherever possible”. The brand also says that by 2025, nine out of 10 of its articles of clothing will contain some form of “sustainable” material. I spoke to a representative at Adidas who said: “Our commitment to sustainability has been embedded into our business practices for over two decades.”

We have defined a roadmap for 2025 and beyond that allows us to create and drive positive impact – Adidas

To underline this commitment, Adidas said that in 2021, sustainability was defined as one of the strategic focus areas of its “Own the Game” strategy. “Consequently we have defined a roadmap for 2025 and beyond that allows us to create and drive positive impact.”

“In 2019 we changed the game with the creation of the first ‘Made to be Remade’ product – the FUTURECRAFT LOOP.

“Over the last three years we’ve continued to innovate with the process being expanded out in further products and we’ll be announcing the next chapter of the ‘Made to be Remade’ story later this year.”

Adidas said that alongside this “material innovation”, just as important are the systems and wider infrastructure they’ve been able to test. “We are going to continue to build our understanding of how our consumers interact with this type of product and how best to drive towards a circular service.”

Are big brands becoming more sustainable?

All this focus on sustainability on the surface may seem like a step in the right direction, but is it leading to substantive actions? With greenwashing becoming more prevalent in an effort for brands to onboard the “green” consumer, do we as consumers need to dig a little deeper when it comes to claims of sustainability?

Tansy E Hoskins wrote “Foot Work – What Your Shoes Tell You About Globalisation” about what she describes as an industry that is “exploiting workers and deceiving consumers”. When I spoke to her, Hoskins criticised Adidas and said it had made “seriously misleading” claims regarding its ocean plastic range, which is produced in partnership with environmental group Parley for the Oceans.

She referenced how Channel 4’s Dispatches had found that despite Adidas claiming to make shoes from “ocean plastic”, only 20% of the upper part of the shoe was made from recycled plastic and none of it was removed from the ocean.

Both Nike and Adidas have faced allegations of “greenwashing”.

“Initiatives like these seem more concerned about sustaining business as usual than about sustaining life on earth. Let’s get some real transparency from sneaker brands – what is Adidas’ net carbon emission? How many kilograms of carbon go into making these shoes they say are sustainable?

In the episode of Dispatches, Channel 4 found that Adidas’ ‘ocean plastic’ trainers are actually made from throwaway bottles found on land in the Maldives and sent to be made into shoes in Taiwan.

In response to the programme, Adidas told me that sustainability is at the top of its agenda. “We clearly state that Parley Ocean Plastic is made with plastic waste intercepted on beaches and in coastal regions to prevent it from polluting the oceans. We offer complete information about the materials used for our products across all our channels.”

Adidas also contended that claims plastic bottles were only sourced from tourist resorts “is not correct”. 

“Parley collects plastic waste from different coastal communities around the world. In 2021 alone, Adidas and Parley collected almost 6,000 tonnes of plastic waste – corresponding to approximately 300 million plastic bottles. In 2021, we produced close to 18 million pairs of shoes containing Parley Ocean Plastic.”

Following the Dispatches programme, both Nike and Adidas have faced allegations of “greenwashing”. Because of questions surrounding the initiatives from the biggest brands, I asked Hoskins how the problem of shoe waste should be tackled.

“First of all we should not be making 66.6 million pairs of shoes a day, this number needs to be brought dramatically down to a sustainable level. Secondly, shoes need to be made with recycling in mind – this means not glueing or bonding together 10-15 different materials per shoe and also ending the use of metal in almost all footwear.

“Thirdly, responsibility for supply chains – including waste – should legally lie with brands, they should not be allowed to make billions of short-life units and then have no responsibility for them once they’ve made profits from the sales.”

It’s important to note that brands set the scale of production in accordance with what people want to purchase. Supply and demand. One argument is that if people brought less shoes, brands would make less trainers. However, brands have to take a share of the responsibility for fuelling the culture of consumption around, not only shoes, but apparel in general.

Whether it’s collaborating with a celebrity, releasing infinite new colourways of existing designs, or bringing out limited edition runs of shoes to build hype, the actions brands are taking are playing a part in driving consumption.

At the same time, the internet and globalisation have made it possible for an international community to form around shoes. And, unfortunately, this community often focuses on consumption; who has the largest collection of shoes? When is the latest new design being released? 

However, many consumers are making every effort not to throw away shoes. Whether it’s for sustainability reasons or not, repair, reuse, and reselling are becoming more and more popular.

Repair, reuse, resell

Shoe production keeps rising year on year. More and more celebrities are collaborating with big brands to produce new trainer designs

Sneakerheads don’t want to throw away their trainers. No matter what state they’re in, whether it’s scuffed soles, torn leather, or ripped laces, sneakerheads are reluctant to bin their shoes; in fact, these are sometimes the state people buy trainers in.

Just imagine, you scour the internet for details of when a pair of shoes are releasing; from there, maybe you wake up early sitting by your phone hoping to be the person on the other side of a screen clicking quick enough to secure the purchase. Although more common in the US, maybe you queue for hours outside a store so you can get your hands on the latest release. If you’d done any of these things, would you throw away what you had brought at the first sign of trouble?

The answer is almost definitely not. So when “tragedy” does strike, let’s say you spill coffee on your sneakers, who do you call?

Well, there’s a whole new market for boutique shoe repairers.

Vinnie Tao set up Sneaker Pharm (short for sneaker pharmacy) as a way of breathing life back into old shoes so they don’t end up in landfill. Writing in his blog, Tao said: “Be it consciously or as a side effect, when you bring a pair of shoes to us you are contributing to a positive change towards sustainable consumption.

Be it consciously or as a side effect, when you bring a pair of shoes to us you are contributing to a positive change towards sustainable consumption

Not everyone who uses services like Sneaker Pharm intends to wear their newly clean shoes. Sometimes they intend to sell or trade their revitalised trainers. While online stores like Depop, eBay, and Vinted offer an avenue to sell “pre-loved” shoes, sneaker conventions are often where the biggest sales and trades happen.

Sneaker Con hosts events around the world, from Toronto to Shanghai to London, every year. eBay sponsors the event and in 2020 acquired Sneaker Con’s authentication business. When customers purchase select brands over $100 on eBay, Sneaker Con vets the shoes at a warehouse to verify their authenticity and ensure they match the listing’s description. eBay says that since implementing the initiative, over 1.5 million trainers have been authenticated.

While researching her book, Tansy E Hoskins visited Sneaker Con to speak to Sneakerheads to improve her understanding of the culture around trainers.

I asked her whether she felt sneaker conventions were purely driving consumption or if there is an argument they’re promoting reuse.

“I had a good time while researching Sneaker Con. The focus of the event is definitely obsessive and expensive consumption, but a lot of it involves trading second-hand shoes – so yes, reuse and vigilant care that prolongs the life of footwear is very important in those scenes.

“A lot of the people, primarily young men, who attend sneaker conventions are marginalised from the usual ways people find respect within society so they have created a world where their knowledge, presence and expertise is valued.”

Changing culture, reducing waste

Shoe production keeps rising year on year. More and more celebrities are collaborating with big brands to produce new trainer designs. Shoes have evolved from an everyday necessity to an ever-growing subculture, so if the demand for trainers is there, what’s the solution to the 22 billion pairs of shoes that are thrown away every year?

I asked Tansy E Hoskins if behaviour change is possible for consumers to tackle the problem of shoe waste. She turned the question around to the big brands contributing to the production of 23 billion pairs of shoes per year.

Shoes have evolved from an everyday necessity to an ever-growing subculture

“I honestly think it’s the executives at Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Puma, Converse and so on, that need to wake up and change what they are doing. They are the climate arsonists in this scenario – the ones driving the use of fossil fuels, tonnes of carbon, toxic glues, leather that has caused the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and metal that makes shoes really hard to recycle. 

“The boardrooms are where the really polluting decisions are being made – along with strategies to release limited runs and collaborate with celebrities to fuel consumption hype.”

So is it possible to be an ethical sneakerhead?

“Yes, I think you can be an ethical sneakerhead but you have to connect not just with the design and hype of a shoe,” Tansy E Hoskins said, “but with the materials and the work that goes into making footwear.”

Hoskins said this means recognising that people, the planet, and animals have been “exploited” to make our shoes and demanding brands end this “exploitation”. 

“No one wants to be lied to and at the moment the big sneaker brands are lying to us all – we cannot continue as usual and there will be no point to all these shoes on a dead planet.”

Of course, consumers are the ones consuming and the ever-increasing production of footwear is, after all, in response to market need – sneakerhead or not, people often own many pairs of shoes. We can all buy pre-loved, repair shoes, and sell or donate our worn shoes rather than allow them to pile up in our wardrobes or worse, landfill.

Voting with your wallet also shows brands that consumers want to be more sustainable. However, changing this purchasing habit is going to be more difficult than switching supermarkets, for example. Shoes are a commodity. For many, they hold cultural value. If their brand of choice doesn’t offer sustainable shoes, consumers have a difficult decision to make.

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Jorge Oliveira

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