The Great Environmental Cost of the Shoe Industry

Every year, over 24 billion pairs of shoes are produced around the world. While shoes are a necessity for everyone, there are also plenty of shoes that are bought solely for luxury and aesthetic value and then thrown away before they are worn out. There are some shoe companies that are creating eco-friendly shoes, but the vast majority continue to produce shoes that are made with toxic chemicals, foam, and plastic parts.

It’s important to understand the life cycle of shoes to see where changes need to be made to protect the environment. From start to finish, here are the main stages where the shoe industry needs to improve.



During the production of many sneakers, high heels, skate shoes, and sandals, toxic chemicals are used in the process of turning raw material into usable fabrics and shoe parts. Chemical dyes can be particularly damaging as they create nasty runoff that leaks into waterways surrounding the factories and eventually ends up in the oceans. For example, chromium, a common chemical used in the tanning of leather, is carcinogenic, which puts the health of workers at risk and kills local fish populations.


When it comes to shoe materials, unfortunately, many are made from plastics and synthetic fabrics that are non-biodegradable. Common synthetic materials include EVA and PVC, which clog up landfills and can take up to a thousand years to decompose. Traditional sneaker foam is particularly bad for the environment. To add to the negative impact, the materials for many shoes, like ones made of cotton, are also grown using pesticides that are toxic for fish populations, damaging to the soil, and harmful to human health.


Each year, Americans throw away 300 million pairs of shoes, which end up in landfills and take decades to decompose. While the goal is to have shoes that are durable and long lasting so that you don’t need to buy a new pair every season, it’s difficult to do this when you impulse buy shoes without knowing what they are made from. Ultimately, the less waste we produce, the lighter our carbon footprint will be and the better off our planet will be.

While many clothes can be resold as second hand or upcycled, shoes are unfortunately not that easy to recycle because they have so many different parts made of various materials. People also don’t love the idea of wearing shoes that have been used before, especially not ones where you can see obvious wear and tear. As a result, shoes end up in landfills where they may not break down for many years depending on what they are made from.

Better Shoe Solutions

There are many ways to avoid purchasing shoes that are bad for the environment. Here are just a few key practices to implement in your life.

    1. Buy shoes less often and wash them frequently to keep them looking new for longer
    2. Invest in high quality shoes that you think you will wear a lot and have for years
    3. Check the labels of shoes to see what they are made from. Eco-friendly materials include organic cotton, hemp, Pinatex, bamboo, and apple leather
    4. Do research on brands before you shop to learn about their company practices
    5. Take your shoes to a cobbler to repair them rather than throwing them away
    6. Donate shoes where possible

While you can’t change the entire footwear industry overnight, you can take small steps in your own life to choose shoes that are better for the environment. Simply being aware of the consequences of your purchases puts you in a position of creating meaningful change.

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