A Single Pair of Running Shoes Leaves One Big Carbon Footprint

Many of us lace on a pair of running shoes with the intent of walking to a destination and thereby reducing our carbon footprint by a bit. But just one pair of running shoes generates 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions — the equivalent of keeping a 100-watt light bulb on for one week – scientists from MIT have found.

What’s more, most of that energy is expended in the manufacturing process, as the researchers learned after analyzing a pair of Chinese-made men’s size nine Asics gel Kayanos. The rest of the energy is generated from the processing of raw materials.

Billions and Billions of Synthetic Running Shoes are Bought Every Year

Some 25 billion running shoes were purchased around the world in 2010; Americans alone buy some 58 million pairs a year. Most are made in China, Cambodia and developing countries where environmental and human rights regulations are far less stringent than in the U.S. (as revealed by the calls for a global boycott of Nike over conditions in its factories in the 1990s). You can recycle your running shoes, but people tend not to.

Electronic devices require many parts and hundreds of steps to put together and a commensurate expenditure of energy. “Less advanced products” that do not contain any electronic components tend to require a far less complicated process to manufacture, but not so with synthetic running shoes. Made of plastic, polyester and other synthetic components, a typical running shoe contains about 65 discrete parts and needs more than 360 processing steps to put together — cutting, sewing sewing, injection molding, foaming, heating.

By highlighting the amount of carbon emissions produced in the making of one pair of shoes, the MIT researchers hope that manufacturers might figure out steps where reductions could be made. For instance, factories often throw out unused materials; what if they recycled the scraps? Researchers also noted that certain features could be printed, rather than separately added, onto a shoe, to lessen the number of steps in the manufacturing process.

Shoe Companies Say They’re Seeking to Make More Sustainable Shoes

Shoe companies including Nike, Adidas and Patagonia have said they are trying to develop more sustainable methods for manufacturing running shoes. Nike has sought to reduce waste with its “Flyknit” technology  (in which the upper part of the shoe is one piece, reducing the amount of fabric wasted) and says that nearly 85 percent of its footwear manufacturing waste is not being sent to landfill or incinerators, but is recycled and otherwise disposed of. Patagonia and Timberland both make some types of shoes that, after use, are meant to be disassembled and recycled.

Another shoe company, Brooks, has been working with its suppliers in China to develop more eco-friendly methods of producing shoes. Most of the components of running shoes are made, as Runner’s World puts it, “exclusively from heavily processed crude oil.” But other materials could be used: sockliners could be made from bamboo; shoes could be assembled with glues that are less toxic; soles could be made from recycled materials and even rice husks. Shoes could also be packaged in boxes made of recycled materials.

Athletes, non-competitive runners, parents outfitting their children and anyone who wants to go for a walk to follow the doctor’s orders and exercise all have certain demands about their shoes. They must be sturdy, of course, comfortable and able to endure a few rounds in the washing machine — as Runner’s World notes, foam made from recycled materials does not perform as well; it rebounds faster and degrades at a faster rate. Some want their shoes colored and styled in certain ways. Some choose to replace their running shoes frequently.

Running shoes could be made with more sustainable methods and greener materials, but consumers need to realize that the finished product might not be what they are used to. Certainly, any one who is active needs shoes that fit and are durable. But the next time you reach for a new, “economically priced” pair of shoes, keep in mind that that it is 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions — quite a big carbon footprint! — you are swapping your old pair for.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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Samantha Richardson

This is a harsh article to read, considering I am about to buy a new pair. I desperately need new shoes since mine are falling apart after four years, but at least I now know I can recycle my old pair!

I shall just have to find the most eco-friend shoe I can.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Virginia Belder
Virginia Belder2 years ago


Joseph Belisle
Joseph Belisle2 years ago

Like Temba and others have said here already.
I'm training myself to run without using running shoes. It's difficult. I never realized how week my feet are. I have to wear safety shoes for work and they are really stiff. My feet don't have to work hard in them so they weaken. Ever since I found out how criminally corporate Nike is I've hated buying running shoes. But I'm not going to quit running.

Margarita G.
Margarita G.2 years ago

Noted! thanks!

Edgar Zuim
Edgar Zuim2 years ago

By the way things are going, pretty soon we can no longer breathe and exhale ...

Jerry Mayeux
Jerry Mayeux2 years ago

Consider the Connection to:
Environmental Conservation CTC2 [RECYCLING]
Recycling conserves natural resources including energy.

Temba Resident
Temba Resident2 years ago

I have an even better method, go barefoot, that's right, save money, that's one less pair of shoes, it's healthier, better for back and leg postures, barefoot running is no longer a fad, it's growing, google primalfootalliance dot org, much of what shoe companies tell you about feet and shoes is misinformation, they are only interested in making money, not health, and not facts.
barefoot running, barefoot hiking, barefoot living, google it.

KAREN L.2 years ago

Coke is produced with sugar, salt and more sugar, and use an incredible amount of water to produce just one liter.....running shoes designed to be ecological produce carbon dioxide.....what's next?

Yvonne J.
Yvonne J.2 years ago

And yet another reason I am glad I go barefoot as much as possible. The only "regular" footwear I use moderately is Muck boots in the winter for farm chores. Otherwise I go barefoot, or wear Xero Shoes huaraches or Vibram FiveFingers...Even around the horses (which are also barefoot). The Xero Shoes have a 5000 mile warranty on their outsoles, so don't expect them to wear out anytime soon! I have about 1000 miles of running (most of it on asphalt and chip-seal roads) on a pair of VFF KomodoSports - the soles just show slight wear and the upper is perfect...I still wear them regularly.