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The wildly complex anatomy of a sneaker - Angel Chang


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Australians call them “runners." The British know them as “trainers.” Americans refer to them as “sneakers.” Whatever you call them, these casual shoes are worn by billions of people around the world. Today, roughly 23 billion shoes are produced each year. So, how can we balance our love of sneakers with the need for sustainability? Angel Chang explores how shoe manufacturing impacts our planet.

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Sneaker consumption is at an all-time high globally with roughly 23 billion produced every year. Shoe manufacturing is also a polluting process and accounts for 1/5 of the fashion industry’s carbon emissions. How can we balance our love for sneakers without hurting the planet?

Sneaker production has become a global industry. China produces over half of the 25 billion shoes produced around the world (as of 2010). Together with India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, they account for over 75% of footwear production worldwide (as of 2017). The synthetic materials used may be produced in South Korea from plastic coming from oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia. The leather may come from cattle raised in the U.S. or Venezuela.

Despite requiring a lot of machinery, it may be surprising to know that making sneakers is done entirely by hand. Every shoe is machine-stitched by hand and each procedure is handled by a different sewing machine operator. Even putting laces into the shoes is still be done by human hands. Stitching is the most complicated and labor-intensive part of shoe construction. Labor is cheaper in the factories in Asia. This is one reason why it has been so hard to bring shoe manufacturing back to the United States.

According to a 2012 MIT study, the bulk of the shoe industry carbons emissions, 64%, can be attributed to manufacturing processes alone. This is because coal energy is used to power factories in Asian countries, where most sneakers are manufactured. Synthetic materials like the polyester, polyurethane, and nylon used in these shoes require tremendous amounts of energy to produce. Synthetic materials, along with manufacturing, make up 92.8% of a sneaker’s total carbon footprint. This book details the complex process of shoe manufacturing and all the synthetic materials involved.

The alternative is to wear eco-sneakers. But their carbon emissions, on average, are only 10% less than the emissions of a standard pair of sneakers. This is because they still follow the same manufacturing processes as standard sneakers. Currently, only 3.4% of sneakers on the market qualifies as eco-friendly and, even if everyone bought these instead, experts say we would only reduce emissions by an average of 10% per year. Furthermore, more than 85% of all sneakers are sent to landfill or incinerated, releasing harmful chemicals.

Americans now purchase 3 pairs of sneakers on average every year (out of the 7 new pairs of shoes they buy annually). Until factories change their manufacturing processes, the most effective thing consumers can do is buy fewer sneakers and wear them for 2 years or longer. By purchasing 1 less pair of standard sneakers per year, 2 pairs instead of 3, consumers will automatically cut their sneaker carbon emissions by a third.

Sneakers are just part of a wider environmental problem facing the international fashion industry. Check out this TED-ed lesson on the lifecycle of a t-shirt to learn about the environmental impact of t-shirts.

The following reports go into further detail about why fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world: Global Fashion Agenda (1, 2), Ellen Macarthur Foundation (1, 2), Greenpeace (1, 2).

As a reaction, sustainable fashion activists and organizations are raising consumer awareness globally of fashion pollution and the harm being done to garment workers. A new generation of sustainable and ethical designers has also emerged, including this TED-Ed lesson’s Educator Angel Chang.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Angel Chang
  • Director Ella Dobson
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Animator Ella Dobson
  • Art Director Ella Dobson
  • Compositor Ella Dobson
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Emma Bryce
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma

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