The Unsustainable World of Sneakers

From an infamous feud between two brothers who established rivalry sneaker brands Puma and Adidas, to “sneakerheads” joining a 6am queue to wait for the latest release, sneakers have become a cornerstone of modern living. Whether it’s on the red carpet or just a way to get to the office in record time “sneakers have made their mark as cultural commodities” (FastCompany). But how did sneakers reach world domination? The answer: celebrity and a modern love for comfort.

In 1984 Air Jordan sneakers were exclusively released by Nike in a collaboration with the basketball megastar Michael Jordan. Through his phenomenal skill on the court, and an infamously magnetic personality, Jordan changed the way young people thought about movement. His presence both on and off the court demonstrated the beauty of moving with a lightness and ease in a style of casual footwear the world hadn’t really seen before. Since 1984, endorsements by sneaker brands with celebrities have gained stratospheric momentum: Tiger Woods  most recent contract with Nike will earn him $100 million over five years (FinancesOnline).

In recent years the sneaker world has seen an interesting shift with the inclusion of celebrities outside the sporting world being endorsed by sneaker brands. This year, Nike announced a collaboration with singer Billie Eilish for the release of their new vegan (leather-free) Air Jordan’s. Needless to say, through a combination of modern lifestyles requiring practical footwear and teenagers clambering for the latest sneaker release it comes as no surprise that leading brands such as Nike or Adidas make more in annual revenue than the GDP of some countries (BBC).


“In 2020, the total global sneakers market revenue was valued at approximately 70 billion U.S. dollars and was forecast to reach a value of 102 billion U.S. dollars by 2025”


Where Did It All Go Wrong?

The inherent problematic nature of the sneaker industry has raised both social and environmental concerns in recent years. The constant churning wheel of sneaker trends bases its value on symbolism rather than accessing its true worth with regards to usability. There exists a cognitive dissonance when considering entry to a sneaker convention costs £25 with models costing up to £700, whilst “Syrian refugee children as young as six have been found employed as shoemakers in Turkey” (Guardian). If that wasn’t alarming enough, according to a report by Research Gate, “the production of one shoe produces 30 pounds of carbon dioxide” as well as the use of “many chemical adhesives and tanning chemicals” (ResearchGate) result in hazardous chemicals entering water systems.


“The footwear industry is at least a decade behind the rest of the fashion industry in terms of workers’ rights, environmental practices and transparency, because it hasn’t had a Rana Plaza moment”

– Author Tansy Hoskins speaking to Vogue Business

Helen Kirkum

Helen Kirkum: Thought-provoking Upcycled Sneakers

Stepping foot inside the London Fashion Week presentation of sneaker designer Helen Kirkum earlier this month felt more like a sculpture exhibition than entering a traditional fashion week event, a demonstration of Kirkum’s desire to disrupt the status quo. After being led into a dark, cavernous space we were greeted with jagged white blocks placed down the centre of the room and videos projected on the surrounding walls (the presentation was aptly named Dystopia/Utopia). On each plinth-like structure stood Kirkum’s works of art: upcycled sneakers. In collaboration with the clothing charity Traid, Kirkum manifested her practice of saving individual shoes in order to deconstruct them and create thought-provoking designs. The collection relaunches Kirkum’s made to order service in which customers can send in their trainers to be reconstructed in Kirkum’s signature aesthetic. The viewing was gently paused by the poet Phoebe Wagner who performed her piece “Birthmarks”, influenced by the stories behind the salvaged sneakers.


how my feet have been wedded to dancefloors

how dark my feet became inside my own soles

how I’ve pushed a car up the old kent road

Birthmarks by Phoebe Wagner (an extract) 


Through her presentation Kirkum artfully address the issues embedded within sneaker culture and, with the help of Wagner’s piece, reminds us of an emotional attachment to shoes that has been lost after recent practices of rapid production and sneaker conventions exclusively based on monetary value. 


“Inspired by the constant state of flux surrounding commerce and the environment, Dystopia/ Utopia confronts the contrasting feelings of helplessness and fear with hope and optimism. It analyses the personality and human agency we as individuals in-still inside products.”

Helen Kirkum: Dystopia/ Utopia, London Fashion Week  Presentation 21st September


With the upcycling movement booming let’s hope the sneaker industry can transform its supply chains and reconsider the unsustainable nature of one-hit wonder shoes.  


by Eliza Edwards

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