How green are your runners & sneakers?

Green Lifestyle

Thanks to a carbon intensive manufacturing process and the plastics, chemicals and toxins many runners are made of, they can leave a larger footprint than you think.

How green are your runners & sneakers?

Etiko Blue & White Hightops (outside), and Red and White Lowcuts (centre), all $90.

How green are your runners & sneakers?

Vibram FiveFingers TrekSport $179.95.

How green are your runners & sneakers?

Nike Flyknit Lunar One+ $200.

How green are your runners & sneakers?

Newton Trance 12 women’s show $259.95

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Running could be the ultimate green sport. No fancy equipment is needed; just the great outdoors, a strong pair of legs and the will to keep going. Oh, and of course a pair of running shoes. And here lies the catch. Your running shoes could be among the most labour-intensive items you own.

A recent study by researchers at Melbourne Institute of Technology found a typical pair of running shoes generates approximately 13 kg of CO2 emissions over its lifetime: the equivalent of running a 100-watt light bulb non-stop for a week. It may not sound like much, but with billions of shoes being sold around the world each year it all adds up.

For low-tech items, dedicated running shoes are incredibly complex. An average pair comprises around 65 components that may undergo as many as 300 separate processes to assemble. This makes the manufacturing process very carbon intensive. Approximately two-thirds of all emissions credited to running shoes over their lifetime are generated during the manufacturing process, which means keeping shoes simple will help to reduce their carbon footprint. More casual sneakers are simpler to make but, at the end of their life, the materials many are made from can clog up landfill sites for many, many years.

Running shoes are, in essence, just shoe-shaped, heavily processed crude oil, which will endure for around 1,000 years in landfill. Although there is no completely ‘green’ running shoe, manufacturers are making headway. Rebecca Kynaston, long-time triathlete and distributor for Newton running shoes says, “There are so many environmental and ethical issues for shoe manufacturers to attend to. Each brand needs to decide on its priorities, be it reducing waste, reducing use of toxins and chemicals, ensuring workers’ rights or increasing the use of recycled materials in shoes and packaging.”

Newton uses at least 10% recycled rubber in its shoes, and 100 per cent recycled webbing. The shoes are produced in the company’s own factory and are sold in recycled shoe boxes. Newton also runs a number of social responsibility programs.

Brooks has been a leading light in the running industry when it comes to sustainable practices. “Every year our goal is to reduce waste,” says the company’s technical representative, Mark Lawton. “The less waste, the fewer resources used, the lower a shoe’s carbon footprint.”

Brooks running shoes have biodegradable midsoles, compression molded instead of being cut from large sheets of materials, which reduces offcut waste. They include recycled material (the Green Silence racing shoe uses up to 75% post-consumer recycled materials), water-based adhesives and soy-based dyes. The boxes are post-consumer recycled.

Nike offers a ‘green’ choice with its Flyknit shoes. The entire upper is made in a single piece from synthetic yarn woven by a knitting machine. The new technique means the Flyknit has 35 fewer pieces than a standard Nike running shoe and produces 66 per cent less waste. (Nike has been criticised in the past for the wages and conditions of the workers making its product in overseas factories. When we went to press we weren’t able to ascertain if Nike had introduced fair trade processes but will keep you posted.)

‘Barefoot’ running shoes such as Vibram Fivefingers are a green alternative for those wanting a more natural running experience as they have no heel, midsole or arch support. That means fewer components and less materials.

In the casual sneaker realm, Australia’s own Etiko has made great inroads into producing sustainable, fair trade footwear. They’re not certified fair trade because, as Etiko points out on its website, there’s no fair trade standard for footwear. Etiko, however, pays a social premium to overseas rubber producers and canvas stitchers, and its factory is fair trade. The soles of its sneakers are all-natural, sustainable, FSC-certified latex, and the canvas and laces are made from certified organic cotton.

Etiko recently acheived an A+ rating in the Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Report, and won the Product category of the inaugural Fairtrade Awards run by Fairtrade Australia New Zealand for its hightop sneakers. Etiko co-founder Nick Savaidis said he hoped more of the big-name shoe companies will follow the lead of Etiko in sourcing sustainable materials and employing fair trade practices. “If a little company like ours can do it, you’d think those big companies with all their resources could do it too,” he said.