Living barefoot is one small step to help end shoe pollution

Shoes not only damage feet over time, they do considerable damage to the environment. There are basically three ways that happens.                       

        1.  Discarded shoes make up a large part of landfills around the world.
        2.  The manufacturing of new shoes damages the environment.
        3.  Walking in shoes and heavy boots tramples and destroys natural eco-systems.

Discarded shoes make up a large part of landfills around the world

Shoes that are worn out or no longer wanted by consumers are usually thrown out into the trash. Even used shoes that are donated to charities eventually wear out or are discarded for other reasons. Sometimes even shoe manufacturers, distributors, or retailers will throw out shoes that are not sold after a period of time.

These shoes end up in landfills and will eventually end up contaminating the soil, oceans, and drinking water. The chemicals used in the manufacturing process leach into the environment as the shoe slowly starts decomposing. This has a huge negative impact on the environment, as well as wildlife and humans due to biomagnification and bioaccumulation.

The United States consumes and throws away more shoes than any other country on earth per capita

According to World Footwear, footwear production reached 24.2 billion pairs in 2018, growing by 2.7% from the previous year, and by 20.5% since 2010. 86.2% of all footwear is produced in Asia, with China alone producing 64.7% of all shoes and other footwear worn around the world.

The United States is the 3rd largest consumer of all footwear produced in the world, exceeded by China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, with China’s consumption more than 50% larger than India’s.

The USA closely follows India in total consumption per year, with its wealth and obsession with shoes largely making up for the much lower population. Thus, per person consumption of shoes by Americans is the highest of any country in the world.

For example, an extrapolation based on the population of India compared to the total pairs of shoes consumed in that country in 2018 reveals that each man, woman, and child consumes roughly two pairs of shoes per year on average in that country.

For the United States, the same calculations for that year based on population and total shoes consumed reveal that each man, woman, and child in the USA consumes almost eight pairs of shoes annually on average.

Shoes consumed in each country also includes unsold shoes in stores that are eventually thrown out or discarded in some way.

Approximately 2.8 billion pairs of shoes are discarded around the world each year

According to references attributed to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Americans throw away over 300 million pairs of shoes each year. Estimates aren’t available for the number of shoes discarded worldwide each year, but applying the 12% of consumption throw-away figure for Americans to the total shoes produced worldwide, that would extrapolate to approximately 2.8 billion pairs of shoes discarded each year around the world.

These discarded shoes end up in landfills all over the world. Shoes are thrown away for various reasons, not just for being worn out. Needs change. Fashions change. Children outgrow them. Often, shoes that don’t get sold are thrown out by large shoe companies themselves.

It is estimated that leather shoes can take 30 to 40 years to decompose in landfills, while rubber soles can take as long as 80 years. But there is evidence that leather shoes could take much longer to decompose under certain circumstances, such as those that make their way into our oceans.

This is clearly evident when observing what still remains in the wreckage of the Titanic. Humans bodies there have all decomposed and disappeared. The leather shoes worn by many of the passengers still remain essentially intact, lying around at the bottom of the ocean after almost 108 years.

This short YouTube video from National Geographic shows shoes from the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean that have never decomposed.

In addition to leather and other materials, shoes are often produced using chemicals such as ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), used to make the soles of many shoes, which is estimated to take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

The manufacturing of new shoes also damages the environment

It’s not only the disposal of shoes that has created a big problem for the environment. Shoe manufacturing poses many threats to the well-being of our planet as many toxins, chemicals, and fossil fuels are used and leaked into the environment during this first step in the shoe life cycle.

The material in sneakers contributes significantly to the world's carbon footprint.
The material in sneakers contributes significantly to the world’s carbon footprint. – Source: RunRepeat

Shoe manufacturing also produces large amounts of carbon dioxide which contributes to the already serious effects of climate change and global warming. It’s been estimated that shoe manufacturing accounts for 30% of the carbon footprint.

Chemicals used in the manufacturing process also contribute to the negative impact that shoes have on the environment. A number of toxic chemicals are commonly used to process different parts of a shoe, including chromium, plasticiser phthalates, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), dimethyl fumarate (DMF), and others. These chemicals are easily leaked into the environment and water through the discharge from factories. These chemicals can harm wildlife who may consume contaminated water or plants.

Factory workers in the shoe industry are at risk for their health and safety

Shoes also have many negative impacts on the health and well-being of the factory workers who help make shoes, due to the large amount of chemicals used in the processes. These companies, located mostly in China, India, and other low-wage third-world countries around the world, are outside the reach of the higher safety and environmental rules and standards that would apply to them if they were located in the U.S.

Maximizing profit is the main goal of all these shoe manufacturers, with the safety and welfare of their workers or the environment of a much lower priority.

Fossil fuels used in the shoe manufacturing industry produce large amounts of greenhouse gases

In the shoe manufacturing process, large amounts of machinery as well as chemicals are required. To power these machines, large amounts of fossil fuels are needed, and these fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases when burned.

Coal is one of the sources of energy that is used very often to power these factories as it quite cheap compared to oil or other sources of energy. Burning coal produces carbon dioxide which eventually ends up in our atmosphere, contributing the greenhouse effect in our atmosphere.

A 2013 MIT study found that the production of one shoe produces 30 pounds of carbon dioxide, mostly in the manufacturing process. There are more than 24 billion shoes produced each year.

Transportation of shoe products from Asia also contributes to the carbon footprint

Another factor often overlooked that also contributes to carbon dioxide emissions from the shoe industry is transportation. Transportation is fundamental to the marketing aspect of the shoe industry as most footwear manufacturing companies locate their factories in third-world countries because of cheap labor and lack of strong environmental regulations.

Since these factories are situated far away from their potential customers, transportation such as ships, airplanes, and trucks are needed in order to deliver the goods to the retailers.

Recycling old shoes is not the often-claimed panacea to environmental issues

One of the often-cited solutions to pollution from the ever-growing landfills around the world is recycling. Some materials can be recycled easily and efficiently, such as some metals, like aluminum, as well as certain types of plastic food containers and bottles. Shoes on the other hand are extremely difficult and expensive to recycle.

A process to more efficiently recycle shoes was recently developed and tested at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, UK, after an over ten-year period of research. Dr. Shahin Rahimifard, Professor of Sustainable Engineering at Loughborough, who led the project, stated:

Footwear is incredibly difficult to recycle as it can contain up to forty different types of material, many of which are stitched or glued together. In our process, the first, manual step is to pre-sort shoes into broad types, such as trainers, and to recover metals, such as eyelets. Next the shoes are automatically shredded and granulated, with the granules automatically separated into four waste streams: leather, foams, rubber and other material.

Nike, the largest manufacturer of athletic shoes in the world, has also developed a program to recycle old shoes, called Nike Grind, in which shoe parts are ground up to be used in new shoes or other products.

Shoe recycling programs amount to a ‘drop in the bucket’ as a solution to shoe pollution

But these programs, in the whole scheme of things, are so small and specialized that they barely make a dent in the problem of discarded footwear. Not only that, as with almost every other material that can be recycled for future use in some other product, recycling, even when it can be done efficiently, amounts to nothing more than the proverbial “kicking the can down the road.”Discarded shoes are a big part of landfills around the world, polluting our soil, rivers, and oceans.

Converting old materials to new uses does not destroy them or make them disappear from the face of the earth. Sooner or later, they will still get into our landfills and help contaminate the environment.

The way to truly rid the earth of environmentally damaging products is to stop producing them.

Donating shoes to people in third-world countries makes the pollution problem even worse

Another “solution” to the glut of unwanted shoes is the idea of donating them to people in third-world countries who have no shoes or who usually don’t wear shoes.

This idea is based on two faulty assumptions:

        1. People in poor countries who have no shoes actually want shoes, and,
        2. Providing shoes to these people somehow keeps discarded shoes out of landfills.

Donating shoes to people who don’t usually wear shoes is culture meddling

In countries with relatively warm climates, such as in Africa, many people, especially children, live their lives without shoes or may sometimes wear only very minimal sandals, such as flip-flops. Providing shoes to children who normally go barefoot, and where going barefoot to school and other places is common and accepted in their culture, is doing more of a disservice to them than helping them. It is a form of ethnocentric culture meddling whose negative consequences are usually overlooked.

Someone once said, “Of course they’ll be better off, because we know how to make someone ‘better off.’ We just make them like us.”

What children in poor countries really need most are school supplies, food, and medicine. These are necessities. Shoes are not necessities, particularly in these countries with year-round warm climates.

Donating shoes to kids in poor countries who are usually barefoot brings into play an insidious psychology. Poor children of Africa (or any children generally) look upon a new pair of shoes like a shiny new toy. Most probably love them – not because they think they need them, but because it’s something special and different that they’re unfamiliar with. They’re not going to turn them down, like they wouldn’t turn down any special new colorful gift from somebody. These children should not be expected to have the knowledge and maturity to make an informed decision as to whether they need shoes or not.

Donating shoes to poor countries creates profitable new shoe markets and even more pollution of the environment

What this misguided largess of many Americans and others around the world actually does is expose and encourage a whole generation of barefoot kids to become consumers of these products, products that contribute to burning up vast amounts of natural resources in their manufacture as well as eventually ending up as useless trash of non-biodegradable materials.

Giving away shoes actually creates new customers by creating a demand for shoes in these poor countries where there was never a demand before.

Impressionable young children in those countries who traditionally had enjoyed the health – and economic – benefits of being barefoot, will soon begin to look upon bare feet as some sort of stigma to be avoided at all costs. And thus, new consumer demands and markets for more shoes to be produced have been created.

At the very best – disregarding other consequences – any reduction of shoes in the landfills of first-world countries due to donations to other countries transfers that eventual waste to the landfills of those other countries. There it will continue to pollute the environment – but in another part of the world. Out of sight, out of mind.

Bare feet are eco-friendly and cause no damage at all

Bare feet are part of the natural ecosystem of the earth. That’s true for animals, and it’s true for humans. Bare feet are never discarded, like old worn out shoes – until you die, of course, and then they will naturally and harmlessly decompose along with the other parts of the body into the earth,  equilibrating your bodily matter with its surroundings, and recycling it so that other living things can put it to use.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Living barefoot – that is, never wearing shoes (except in the most extreme circumstances) – is one small step that people can take toward stopping or slowing down this ever-growing pollution of the earth by shoes and other footwear.

If you usually wear shoes, just being barefoot for short periods of time delays that eventual discarding of the shoes you did not wear that day. And for that period of time that you were barefoot, your shoes weren’t damaging the surface you were walking on.

That damage is not only from the gradual wearing off of minute potentially toxic particles from the soles of shoes that eventually get washed down storm drains and eventually end up in our rivers or oceans, shoes also damage natural vegetation on the ground beneath us.

Signs reading “Keep off the grass” would likely never be needed if no one wore shoes. Bare feet are hardly likely to ever damage even the most delicate grass by walking across it.

In the book Barefoot Dreaming (1992), a collection of poems celebrating the wonders of God’s creation and the need to protect our environment, author Adele Coombs writes:

Going barefoot is the gentlest way of walking and can symbolise a way of living — being authentic, vulnerable, sensitive to our surroundings. It’s the feeling of enjoying warm sand beneath our toes, or carefully making our way over sharp rocks in the darkness. It’s a way of living that has the lightest impact, removing the barrier between us and nature.

One member of the Society for Barefoot Living recently wrote in a message to the group (cited with permission):

Ten years ago, before I became barefoot, I had worn a beaten path around my 20 acre property from taking walks.  Since I became full time barefoot the beaten path has grown over and can’t be found.  My bare feet do not beat down a path and do note even maintain an existing beaten path.  Shoes do a lot of environmental damage wherever there is a beaten path.

Bare feet are the very essence of ‘Leave No Trace’

Hiking barefoot is eco-friendly, natural, and gentle to the earth's surface. Hiking boots and shoes damage the environment.
Hiking barefoot is eco-friendly, natural, and gentle to the earth’s surface.

Nowhere is the difference between the effects of walking in shoes vs. walking barefoot more evident and obvious than when hiking, whether on a regular trail or off-trail (on a surface in nature not regularly trod upon by humans).

When you hike barefoot, you barely leave a footprint at all, even when the ground is soft. Compare that to a group of hikers in heavy, sturdy boots or even lighter trail runners. The damage to the trail is far greater in that case than if a group of lightly treading barefooters were walking through.

Richard Frazine, in his book The Barefoot Hiker, states it well:

The most solid and tangible argument favouring bare feet from the environmental point of view concerns the impact of trail users on the trails themselves and the unfortunate necessity faced by those who maintain the trails of shifting them from time to time to reduce what can, in some places be a serious erosion problem. Walking barefoot, as nature intended, humans hardly disturb even the most delicate ground cover; and can delight, for instance, in the soft, carpet-like, feel of moss in good conscience. Shoes, however, can be very damaging to even the most resistant grass cover. Hard and unyielding, they do not gently mold themselves to the earth as bare soles do, but rather stamp into her the rude signature of their treads. Shoes leave a mark on even the firmest ground while bare feet hardly print in the softest. Thus a whole troop of barefoot hikers will cause less trail damage than a single hiker in shoes.

Bare feet are also silent, often barely whispering to the ground, even when running, and even when heard, making a sound which seems much more to belong in the forest than the sound of shoes.

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Grant Pepper

Outstanding, brilliant dissertation. Go barefoot; feel the earth and save the planet!

Julian Toussaint

Brilliant article. I have often made these arguments myself, but they relied on my prior knowledge and assumptions. Your article is well researched, full of substantiated evidence and clearly argued, ultimately making a simple point: living barefoot is good for the planet. Thank you so much! :)

tobias köhler

Shoe pollution has become an environmental problem since shoes have become cheap mass-produced items, bought in larger quantities, worn for a short time, impossible to repair and thrown away. A higher share of plastics complicates things further. My conclusion: I walk barefoot whenever possible and for the few situations when I need protection against very cold weather (or shoes are expected in a few situations of business life) I try to wear shoes that are not only elastic and “minimal” but also of good quality. Wearing them rarely and taking good care of them means a lot less rubbish. I… Read more »

Neil C

Some really good points were brought up in this article Kriss. The whole culture of shoe companies and how they advertise with catch phrases such as Nike’s “just do it”, whatever that is supposed to mean, is trying to brainwash us To buy products we don’t necessarily need, just like most of corporate America. As a barefooter who is also a proud liberal progressive, I am very concerned with the environment and global climate change. Although I think even mainstream America is on the same page. Being barefoot is so natural and healthy, as it conditions the feet and at… Read more »

Kate Hildenbrand

Very well written. I’m waiting for temperatures to pick up a bit (we are at -10 Celsius with thick snow and ice at the moment) to convert to barefoot walking. Can’t wait!

I run a podcast for sustainability, minimalism, and living a life worth living, and going barefoot feels like a natural next step. Thank you for the insights!

Tommy Knapp Jr

I started this 8 months ago and I love to go barefoot all the time now. When I learned there is good health benefits to it, I decided to make a change to go barefoot everywhere all the time and I’m glad I did. My advice to anyone who hasn’t done it yet? Put away the shoes and socks and go barefoot all the time. I did and I love ❤ it