Apr 21, 2024
by Karl Smith
No More Sneakers. It’s Time to Break the Cycle.
by Karl Smith
Apr 21, 2024

In 2023, 1.2 billion pairs of sneakers were sold worldwide. If that sounds like a big number, well, that’s because it is. And it’s also a number which has barely changed for the last decade, meaning that – during that time – we’ve produced at least one pair of sneakers for each of the near-eight billion people on Earth.

Considering not all of those were actually in need of new sneakers, or even wanted them for that matter, that’s pretty much the very definition of excess in consumption.

But that’s not where it ends, either. That 1.2 billion in sales is dwarfed to a mind-bending extent by the over-20 billion pairs of shoes now manufactured annually. More astounding still, however, is the fact that figure is matched, near enough pound for pound, by the number sent to landfill.

While there’s no exact figure on either front for sneakers (although it’s worth noting that Nike alone produces around 800 million pairs and adidas around 500 million), it’s fair to say we can extrapolate a pretty dizzying conclusion from these all-inclusive footwear statistics: in short, there are too many. Too many sneakers manufactured, too many bought, and too many discarded.

So what’s the answer?

There are people working on solutions, of course – next-generation and recycled materials that take virgin plastics and leathers out of the equation; biodegradable materials that can be broken down and won’t rot in landfill, releasing harmful chemicals into the Earth; even modular sneaker designs that mean a shoe can be manufactured without toxic glues, physically torn apart, and recycled in their individual component parts.

Each of these is a step in the right direction – seriously important work that not only pushes the bounds of contemporary sneaker design but also makes genuine strides towards an Earth-friendlier footwear industry. Nike’s ISPA sub-line, CAMPER’s recent Roku model, Natural Fiber Welding‘s various innovations in lowering the impact of footwear materials, neatly showcased in UNLESS’ DEGENERATE sneaker, and various other efforts by other brands and other innovators are all very much worth shouting out.

But – like recycling plastics – none of these are really a long term or permanent solution. They address the symptoms, maybe even have the potential to abate them in some meaningful way, but they fail when it comes to the root cause; a panacea for the pain, rather than anything like a cure for the disease.

And make no mistake, we are in desperate need of a cure. Soon.

Realistically, there is only one solution: not to create more products – no matter how much lower the impact or how purportedly Earth-friendlier they may be – but to produce less.

In fact, as drastic as it sounds – and as far a cry as it is from our present situation – the ideal is to produce nothing new at all; to hold on to what we have – to reuse, repair, repurpose, recycle, and to upcycle in new, more and more imaginative ways, developing and fostering a culture not of “making do” but of “making last,” not of asceticism and deprivation but of creativity and ingenuity.

Because, truth be told, there is a cultural element to our consumption that needs addressing – perhaps not as much as the corporate manufacturing aspect, but imperative nonetheless. Yes, we can’t buy what isn’t there – that’s obvious – but that doesn’t mean we have to continue indulge the whims of for-profit production.

Of course, the media has a huge part to play in this – as cultural arbiters, platforms that specialize in footwear and fashion news (including this one) need to seriously consider and reconsider their position as an essential engine in the perpetual motion machine of our never-ending hype cycle. Now, instead of giving airtime to every new release, talking up every new sneaker just because of its newness, the time has come to be more discerning – to accept that the act of publication is not ever a neutral one.

The only way to break the cycle is to sever the connection between brand and consumer – or at least to stem the flow.

There are some products that will always sell, so long as they’re sold, but there are others which rely entirely on publicity to gain any traction whatsoever at a commercial level – hype, after all, isn’t the same as “cool.” Hype is engineered, not inherent, and without that narrative element there’s no incentive to purchase when it comes to the 99% of new releases which offer nothing to differentiate them but the fact of their fleeting newness.

But, while it’s one thing to shunt responsibility onto the media and to shift blame onto consumers, the capability to make real change – or to avoid it – is still mostly in the hands of the brands.

Take today as an example: Earth Day 2024 – a day carved out to celebrate our planet and, in a way, say thank you for everything it gives us. It’s a day to take a deep breath and take stock of our problems and of the possible solutions. It’s also, absurdly, a huge day for new releases — a glut of green and blue sneakers, special editions produced solely for the occasion, destined to be marked down, remaindered, discarded – and, perversely, a day that often highlights brands’ worst impulses when it comes to overproduction and pushing mindless consumption.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We all have our part to play, and some will be less keen to do so than others, but change is possible: a change in attitudes and in habits, a change in modes of consumption, and – hopefully – a change for the better in the future of our planet. None of these things are set in stone. Yet.

So, this Earth Day, take a moment. Take a breather. Take a second’s pause before you hit the buy button on a pair of sneakers you’ll have forgotten about by this time next year.

What we’re saying here isn’t anything new. But, in the end, nothing new is the only real answer.