The Running Community Has a Waste Problem
Update <July 26, 2021>: Following the publishing of this story, we received a number of comments and direct messages from runners around the globe who shared the same problem with their shoes — the soles were damaged, but the uppers were still in working condition.
As a result, we’re asking readers to send us photos of their own worn-out running shoes, in an effort to get the attention of top footwear brands and push them towards more eco-conscious design solutions, like in-house sole swaps.
For details on how to contribute, check out our Instagram announcement post below.
Original Story <May 30, 2021>: In recent years we’ve seen a notable uptick in “give-back” and repair programs. Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, APC, Levi’s, Arc’teryx and others have embraced the concept of rehabilitation. Can the running community be next?
Since going vegan seven years ago, I’ve become more mindful of my consumption habits. Where I’ve failed however, is the amount of running shoes I’ve worn out to feed my appetite for miles. The short lifespan of running sneakers, specifically their sole units, has become an affliction that shouldn’t be overlooked when discussing environmental responsibility.
It is time for brands to stop making more sneakers, and instead offer replacement soles and consider introducing a modern take on cobbler services that expand the lifecycle of our running sneakers.
I am not a prototypical runner. I never thought I’d even enjoy the sport, but nearly 13 years ago, I started running as a way to work toward ending an addiction to cigarettes (among other things). I had just read Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, so I grabbed a pair of beat up Nike Daybreaks and tried to make it around a 100m track four times.
Since then, I’ve logged over 5,000 miles in over 700 hours, or roughly 30 days nonstop. I have ran in Mizuno, New Balance, adidas, Asics and Nike, and I’ve retired and discarded an embarrassing amount of sneakers. But It doesn’t have to be that way, or at least it could be very different.
I estimate that I’ve discarded at least 20 pairs of sneakers since I began running. This is based on an average of 250 miles per pair, which is currently a generous estimate considering I’m only getting 200 miles per pair over the last year.
Most of the published material from brands suggest that runners can get 300-500 miles in a pair of “high-quality running sneakers.” If price was any indication of quality, you’d likely surmise that each pair of the $200-$250 USD Vaporfly Next % and 4% that I’ve purchased in the last 12 months should stand up to those figures. And they haven’t.
As a runner who doesn’t embody the physical build of most elite runners, I believe most casual runners can relate. In my case, I have begun to supinate, while a large majority of runners pronate. These two impediments account for 55% of all runners (supination 10%, pronation 45%) and both behaviors are integral in wearing down soles before their intended output.
As seen in some of the images within this story, I have worn my sneakers down to the carbon fiber plate embedded in the sole. Yet, none of the uppers are anywhere near the end of their performance life. In 13 years, I have never had to retire a pair of running sneakers because the upper was no longer in fully working order. It’s the soles that wear out.
So this leads me to ask: why aren’t brands paying more attention to the disparate lifespans of uppers and soles?
Theoretically, brands could offer replacement or donor soles to runners as a way to minimize waste. Either through authorized dealers or within their own brick-and-mortar, brands could be repairing and glueing new soles onto the uppers that still have miles to run.
If the sneakers are designed with this lifecycle stage in mind, the sole should be easy to remove and replace with a new one. If the brands don’t want to handle this service internally, they could subsidize a local service partner who is authorized to make these repairs. The customer can simply drop off and pick up their pairs at leisure.
The results of these kinds of services would include waste reduction and the development of new jobs, and for the brand they’ll also incentivize customers to visit their stores.
To make a relatable comparison, when my car needs an occasional repair, I bring it to an authorized service location. That shop doesn’t discard the whole vehicle if something needs to be fixed, but rather they replace the necessary parts and return it back to me. I then go back out into the world as an ambassador of that manufacturer, and when the time comes to consider purchasing a new vehicle, if they’ve done a good job over the years, I’ll feel compelled to make my next purchase with the same brand.
The counter discussion always turns to money. Why would a brand want to discourage you from buying a new pair of sneakers? Who is going to repair them? And what is the liability for replacing the sole of a performance sneaker?
Brands shouldn’t view repair and mending services as a negative effect on their bottom line. If the statistics around consumer loyalty to brands who exhibit environmental consciousness are true, brands could spin this as another initiative to decrease the sneaker industry’s substantial negative impact on the environment.
Although it seems obvious that the more financially beneficial approach for a brand would be to do nothing and expect the consumer to buy a new pair every time they’ve worn down a sole, it may not always be the best approach.
Take the health of a runner for instance. If a hefty price-tag of a new sneaker leads runners to push their sneakers beyond the capacity of the sole unit, this could certainly lead to injury. My heightened awareness around mindful consumption has caused me to push sneakers to the brink, at times even inducing shin splints and other minor injuries.
Another issue is whether or not brands want to embrace the burden of repairs. Yes, it may require specialized staff (or it can be outsourced as previously mentioned), but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative. The logistics of where the repairs can happen seem complicated, but I’d actually encourage the brands to put the process front and center.
It’s time to champion the concept of repairs. Brands could use this moment to lead by example. Show us your process, simplify your construction, and envision the life cycle. Brands have the power to encourage repairs and make it socially acceptable.
This leads us to the liability of it all. While I may not be qualified to answer this question on behalf of the legal counsel that protects all major sneaker brands, I will say this: Veja is currently doing it at one of its stores. Although the scale of Veja’s program is currently small, it leads us to believe the concept works within the realm of legal realities, and could be applied and expanded to a larger audience.
At present, hurdles exist at every turn as the sneaker community continually challenges the industry to do and be better. In all of these cases, perfection can not be the enemy of the good. This is not a time to stand still, but rather an opportunity to experiment with programs that can lead us into new structures. The running sneaker category has an opportunity to own an impactful moment of leadership by extending product life cycles.
Over the years, I have lobbied for interchangeable parts as well as mend-and-repair programs within the sneaker community. There is no reason for us to continue to discard uppers that would easily survive hundreds of additional miles. If I were to multiply the 20 pairs I have personally discarded, and multiplied it by the millions of runners who have done the same, it’s difficult to come to terms with how much waste we are creating.
Around the globe, the running community consists of people who stay active in solitude or through running groups, and in recent years the movement has grown and become more mission driven. In the wake of another “Earth Day” littered with fleeting promises by the industry’s worst offenders, the running community should acknowledge its role in compounding the burden of waste and take measures to implement meaningful programs that minimize waste.
It’s time to chart a course toward keeping well-functioning uppers in circulation, and embracing the integrity and practices of cobbling. The responsibility lies with us. We need to make it clear to our favorite brands that this is the kind of solution-minded thinking we want to see.
Let’s make the old new again.