Athletic Footwear Designers Are Catalysts to Pollution.

This post isn’t targeted just at Athletic Footwear designers, but its the design area that I have greatest insight in.

Most footwear designers want to design the fastest, lightest, or most visually impacting products. In doing that they select the most suitable materials, PU cage moldings on the upper, Teijin Microfibres, or Cobec metallic synthetics, Polyester sandwich meshes etc.

But what about the long term life of the shoe, what of the millions of Nike Free Cross trainers 2 years on lying in the garbage dump?

Given what every footwear designer knows of the huge industrial waste of every Chinese shoe factory, of the Pacific Gyre and the fact that most designers probably shop in more organic supermarkets like New Seasons or Whole Foods. How does the designer of the iconic Nike Total 90 III soccer shoe, or the price point Adidas Commander Lite TD basketball shoe who knows of the plastic pollution that exists in the world today, how do they feel being willing accessories to global pollution?

How do Athletic footwear designers feel that a days work designing synthetic shoes are knowingly negatively impacting the world for 1000 years?

P.S I know that there are many worse polluting products than shoes, but I would like to hear the personal thoughts of any designers reading this.

What about the computer/mobile phone you used to create that post? The electricity you are wasting by posing that question on an online forum?

Just talking about the issue you’ve raised expends resources and pollutes the air. Picking on a shoe designer does not solve anything.

I’ve been joking how I’ve been “designing landfill” for the past ten years! 99.9999% of things that are designed, produced and sold are eventually used and thrown away. As a footwear designer, I do my best (within $ limits) to make products less toxic. There is only so much you can do without making the price-point too high and it looking too “hippie”. You also have the problem of no one buying the product and then your out of a job. I have done a ton of research on this subject and it turns out the majority of the American / European consumer does not care. If a sustainable product costs more than a the same product that is unsustainable… the consumer buys the cheaper product.

I have done footwear design for a few companies. When I was there I would find alternatives to the materials that were the norm. When I presented the information I was told that they were to expensive. I had already anticipated this question so I only chose products that were the same cost as the originals. When I pointed this out I was told that they were not durable enough. The end story seems that no one wants to change unless they have to. There are a few companies out there that pay more attention to the subject. I do believe it would be easy to make the change in materials with out effecting the end product to much.

Hello All

This industrial/business context is by far one of the most difficult to answer.
Just Imagine the reforms which need to be accomplished worldwide in the footwear industry, in order to bring correct answer.

now blend these reforms with the rest of the world businesses reforms which need to occur simultaneously…

You are approaching this situation from a design point of view. Trust me when I say Design will probably be the last profession to convince about a change. Today, We designers are finding or creating opportunities from each organization we are involved in. These major organizations are more or less interacting, lobbying together, the biggest mentoring the smallest into a profitable competition: GROWTH.


By reforming the whole world process and production chains, you create a new frame with its uncertainties.

Today it looks to me that the answer lies in-between these two antagonisms.

Either we fundamentally reform our business models and turn our industries into a holy unpredictable era,

but we take a chance to protect our environment.

Either we keep on going with the present models and we certainly turn our environment into an unpredictable future.

It is all about control, Unfortunately humans are short sighted money makers…I am not so different…

The Footwear industry is been through several small reforms the last ten years…I confess not enough…I would love to change the codes…but from where can we start???

a good day all

AFDs specifically wow that’s deep!!! I don’t think u have insight at all. Corporations, designers, manufactures, world governments and consumers are all catalysts to global pollution. One entity is not the sole culprit all parties involved r resposible. I think the problem with the AF industry is the big 2 aka nike and adidas r not influencing the industry as a whole to think greener. Nike has the regrind program but if your not a shoe head u don’t know about it. and there in lies the problem. adidas they got some “green” shoes but that’s it. The industry as whole has got step up because this decade is the beginning of the “green” revolution. the consumer as well must demand greener AF to hold these corporations accountable also the corporations should offer incentives for returning shoes that need recycling, a coupon is start. just my 2cents…great post btw.

Well that’s greenwash IMO. If they really cared and it wasn’t just marketing, then ALL their shoes would be made in a way that really considered our environment. It’s the same as a supermarket putting a few organic ethically sourced t shirts out, when 95% of the rest of the merchandise is fast fashion from Bangladesh. It’s insincere. They don’t mean it, they’re not doing it because they care, they’re just doing it because WGSN told them so.

If you’re wanting green and ethical, then mainstream athletic footwear brands is not where you will find it. Tell me I’m wrong, but I don’t think the average customer of their products is interested. There are brands out there but they are niche.

We are not going to change mindset overnight. However, i think that “going green” is something that should be taking place within footwear in a gradual manner, with improvements season to season. It is too much to ask a supplier to turn their whole business green as the price will scare people off - baby steps at this stage are required until it is something that becomes standard as demand increases. No need for the brands to promote this as something special - it is something that should morally happen across the complete range.

Interestingly, I think it is one of the few topics where i think brands should share knowledge - take brooks’ licensable biodegradeable midsole for example. From what i saw at the exhibition in berlin, the fact that the industry is not green is a side issue compared to the view the public have of sweatshop conditions that they believe happen in asia (which i have never seen or experienced). Until that perspective is overturned, it would make no difference if the shoes you were cranking out were 100% edible, people have stronger feelings over the perceived labour issues. The industry as a whole needs to address this first before turning their ethical focus elsewhere.

But for the lack of green shoes - don’t lay the blame solely at the designers door. Developers // Sourcing are able to pick and choose materials that fit the brief, respect the budget and promote green credentials from a wide range of suppliers from textiles to eco friendly TPUs.

So, like santas little elves, we are working silently in the background, pushing and negotiating suppliers to implement hidden ways to make our products as green as we possibly can.


the designers do play a role thats for sure, but when the materials and processes are all noticeably more expensive then its pretty much not gonna happen. like guru said, nobody is willing to pay more for it… i dont care how many earth loving types step up and say they want it, its still probably not enough to place an order.

im just hoping that the consumer as a whole starts using their money to buy more of the green products and hopefully this will help to start bringing the costs down??

i also agree with what was said about the nike regrind. it seems like such a great process but nobody really knows about i can only assume its not a big deal to them, since there is an endless supply of old shoes being tossed out all the time and nike isnt really trying to ‘get them’ to be able to recycle and cut back on the landfills.

I realize that cell phones pollute, as does bacon vacuum plastic packaging, but this is a footwear and soft goods forum.

I am wondering how Athletic designers feel morally speaking that they are part of a polluting machine and help it thrive.

I repeat I’m not targeting Athletic Footwear designers, but its the design area I am most interested in and would like to hear other designers opinions on how they feel about creating a new landfill every time they design a million pairs selling shoe.

Regrind, is creating a landfill out of your schools football field, the rain will wash all the toxic elements into the soil…Recycled meshes do not get recycled when the shoe gets thrown away.

Hypothetically speaking, if people have asked older Germans if they knew about the holocaust? Then will your grand kids ask you, as a designer did you realize how much plastic you were putting in the environment?

So designers, how do you feel?

I’m not a shoe designer, so pardon my breaking-in here, but it does seem that the footwear design industry can be questioned a little more stringently than, for example, a cellphone or computer or the electricity itself.

What other industries create something so complex, only to have it out-of-fashion before it even begins physically degrading in utility or appearance? Footwear, especially sneakers, are on a super-fast obsolescence time-line, quite disproportionate to the amount of production and materials that go into them.

I mean, I design hulking beastly equipment using all kinds of materials, but at least we build it to work for ten years. It will spend eons in a landfill, but we are working on DFD strategies that might help. Sneakers are visually obsolete in, what, three months?..before the ‘next’ thing is in the works.

I’d wager to say that most people keep a pair of shoes longer than they keep a cellphone. And shoes may go out of trend, but they aren’t technologically obsolete. To add to it, most shoes are thrown out only when they really breakdown and fall apart. Most technology gets tossed when it is just no longer current and well before it actually is broken.

Just saying.

Personally, I don’t feel much pressure or guilt in doing what I do. It’s just not personally one of my priorities making things environmental. I’d rather focus on designing things so they have a good emotional attachment and add value to a user’s life, let them express themselves, etc. than designing some electronic widget that is C2C green. But that’s just me. I’m not passing any judgement on anyone else’s priorities.

And I’m not even going to get started on the fact that while many things can be designed to be recycled, few actually ever are.


i think you are using sneakerheads as your test pool of consumers when they are like 0.01% of the buying pool. most consumers do keep their shoes a very long time like R said. Also, im assuming this is true for most all shoe companies, the vast majority of the pairs produced are in a few long running, well performing sku’s, so the ‘change every season’ fashion stuff doesn’t get produced on the same scale at the bread and butter stuff that moms and dads wear across the nation… or world.

and there are many other industries and companies that create something so complex that gets ‘replaced’ by another version in the same year. so although i do have some disdain for the waste in our industry, i wont agree that its somehow much worse than many others.

we produce many shoes that are built to last way longer than what the consumer wants to use them. cant blame the consumers lust for new stuff on the industry itself.

im still using a original razr cell phone, just because they came out with 12 new version doesn’t mean i have to buy them.

Its great to see the additive chemical or whatever it is that can be added to EVA midsoles so that they decompose after 20 years or so, and recycled rubber and environmentally friendly leather, recycled linings etc, but when doing all of those raises the retail cost of the shoe by $10-$15 it makes no sense to anyone.

It seems that ground up shoes and shoe materials could be used for lots of things… generic padding, cushioning material, surfacing material, etc, but i guess its the chemicals in the plastics and leathers that prevent this (i dont have that deep of knowledge of them)? Hopefully that can be solved.

It made me feel sad when I went to Koh Lanta in Thailand and instead of driftwood washed up on the beach it was piles of odd Crocs and flip flops.

I feel genuinely sorry for the tiger-shark which feasted on any of them.

I completely agree, and actually I think that more is happening in most industries than a lot of people realise. Companies are very aware that in the not-too-distant-future they are going to be forced by law or consumer pressure to prove their green credentials, and change is already happening in the background. At this stage though, it can be dangerous to shout about a ‘green’ product, simply because it is not yet viable to produce a cell phone, or a shoe, using 100% recyclable, reusable or compostible materials and resources. Until you hit that magic number, can you imagine the reaction if you sold your product as ‘green’ only to have to admit that maybe only 10% of it is produced from post-consumer material? I would say that most designers are aware of the need to change, as are sourcing, manufacturers etc… BUT everyone accepts that this is a step by step process.

I personally hate it. The first outsole plant I went to in southern China was a real eye opener. I’m still very interested in the idea of working greener and try my best when I can, but the amount of waste in the plant was astounding. We were doing TPR injection at the time and during inspection each machine had two pallets loaded waist high with flash and rejects and it wasn’t even noon. There was plenty more to come.

Here we are a few years later and I have made small inroads. We have changed manufacturers and our current factory uses a modified LEAN manufacturing method, they have their own compression molding plant and are very focused on waste and resource management. It’s a bit of a relief, but…I have to agree with what others have said already: if the bottom line is effected negatively with cost increases, there isn’t any motivation for change. The only opportunity I can see in the next 5-10 years is if the consumer market continues to tighten it’s purse stings. Import duties on canvas upper/rubber bottom shoes doesn’t help much, but demand for lower price points, textile uppers, simple designs and overall product longevity are all helpful too. (The one-piece molded designs that everyone seems to be pushing are not helpful, imo.)

As far as regrind goes, most outsole factories already add a little regrind into their rubber compounds - but as I understand it that’s limited to no more than 10% of the compound makeup. Rubber, once it heats and cools changes molecular structure so when you regrind you’re basically just adding filler. It’s something, but it’s not much, and certainly more difficult to market to general consumers (it’s not post-consumer waste in most cases, it doesn’t improve the rubber and so on).


Black EVA (in some factories) is mostly the rejected molded pieces and the leftover blocks from dye cutting (all colors), reground together and dyed. You can always ask your factory if they use this process. If they do, use it for your insoles and offset in your tooling.

Water based glues have also come a long way and are now the same price as the old VOC glues.


Interesting discussion as it applies to most anything that is produced commercially.

I’m curious about the water based glues, are they as strong as the solvent glues? Are they in use commercially? Here is the problem, for example, proposing them to my factory for production of snowboard binding straps, which are made on shoe production lines using the same materials and processes. Factories and brands want to take zero chances, zero. The resistance would be equal by the American brands that are produced and the factory that makes them. Everyone imagines them peeling off 10 months from now, the default has always been, stick with the nastiest, most aggressive, toxic smelling glue, because it sticks. The default is to mitigate risk because in the market there is near zero awareness.

Any designer that has seen and smelled a Chinese or Vietnamese gluing line and not felt some guilt about the production chain they are participating in, has a much stronger disposition than myself.

The water based adhesives (it’s not glue, there is actually a difference, though I’m not sure on the technicals of it) don’t tend to be as strong just yet though the costs have been mitigated to some extent. What does that mean? The tips of outsoles might delamitate with a bit faster, you need more bonding margin (surface area) to ge the same hold, BUT the value is that the shoe is much greener to produce.