The 2012 Olympics may be the first at which the environment has been a major focus.
The organizers promised that the London Games would be the greenest ever. They invested in new walking and cycling routes for spectators, promised to sell only sustainable fish, and have offered food in compostable or recyclable packaging. Some environmental advocates say the Games have fallen short of their targets, but they have served as a starting point for thinking about sports and the Earth.
Maybe the Games have inspired you to lace up your sneakers. But shoes feature some pretty environmentally unfriendly materials. All of the environmental calamities associated with eating beef — greenhouse gas production, destruction of rain forests, pollution of waterways — are also associated with wearing leather.
The harmful impacts of manufacturing leather extend beyond the raising of cattle. Many tanneries rely on hexavalent chromium, a probable carcinogen, to toughen rawhide into leather, because it works faster than traditional, vegetable-based materials.
In purchasing a sneaker, therefore, one of the best things a consumer can do for the environment is to select a model with little or no leather.
A group of graduate students from the University of California at Santa Barbara demonstrated the point in 2008 when they analyzed the environmental impacts of Simple Shoes, a brand that emphasizes its green credentials.
The group found that a kilogram of leather was responsible for about 10 times as much greenhouse gas production as synthetic alternatives or natural options such as hemp, jute and wool felt. In fact, Simple Shoes models with less leather performed significantly better than more-leather sneakers in almost every environmental impact category, including acid rain production, eutrophication of waterways and human toxicity.
It’s easy to find non-leather running shoes. Major manufacturers such as Saucony, Merrell and New Balance offer completely synthetic options, and some online retailers sell vegan shoes.
The cotton in a sneaker’s upper and its laces is also a concern, because cotton production requires large amounts of chemicals.
According to the advocacy group World Wildlife Fund, cotton accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide use and 11 percent of pesticides, even though less than 3 percent of farmland is planted with cotton.
You can lighten your cotton impact if you use a shoe made with organic cotton, which uses none of these synthetic chemicals and requires about half as much energy to produce as the conventional version, according to a 2005 report from the Stockholm Environment Institute. (Organic cotton is not without costs, though: It takes more land to grow organic than conventional cotton.)
Then there’s the ingredient that makes sneakers special: the rubber outsole. Rubber-soled sneakers were first marketed in 1917, and Bill Bowerman helped rocket the Nike company to prominence when he sculpted new soles by pouring rubber into a waffle iron. Most of today’s sneaker outsoles are made from synthetic rubber.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the manufacture of synthetic rubber results in the release of more waste than the volume of rubber produced. That waste includes several forms of volatile organic compounds, some of which are suspected carcinogens.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to avoid synthetic rubber in sneakers. Some companies sell models with recycled car tires rather than virgin synthetic rubber, but few are suitable for serious running. Natural rubber is also better for the environment than synthetic, but few shoemakers use it.
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