The curious case of recycled fibres for sneakers


The curious case of recycled fibres for sneakers

In recent years, the global fashion industry has witnessed a momentous shift towards sustainability, and the realm of athletic footwear is no exception. With a growing concern for the environmental impact of fashion, brands and consumers alike are embracing eco-conscious choices. Among these choices, the utilization of recycled fibres in sneaker production has emerged as a promising solution.

The footwear industry and sustainability

The footwear industry, a cornerstone of global fashion, has long captured the essence of style and functionality. However, there are problems beneath its fashionable façade. For example, the main cause of deforestation in the Amazon is cattle farming. This information might not sound like a big deal until you consider the fact that ****almost 50% of all leather products made today are shoes.

The connection between our choice of footwear and the destruction of vital ecosystems becomes starkly evident when examining the intricate supply chain behind leather production. The demand for leather drives the expansion of grazing land, which, in turn, leads to widespread deforestation, habitat loss, and biodiversity decline. With each pair of shoes, we inadvertently contribute to a cycle of environmental degradation, raising important questions about the ethical and environmental implications of our consumer choices.

Apart from the inescapable animal welfare and ethical problems associated with the collection of leather, the leather industry is one of the most toxic in the world due to the chemicals ‘required’ to produce leather hides in tanneries. The chemicals have devastating impacts on the health of workers and also bleed into water bodies that polluted wastewater from the industry is released into. Apart from the large swathes of shoes that are discarded in landfills, never to be used again, materials like ethylene vinyl acetate that are often used as shock-absorbant materials can stay in landfills for as long as a 1000 years. Some estimates even suggest that nearly 22 billion pairs of shoes are thrown into landfills a year.

The rise of recycled fibres in sneakers

It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that the use of recycled fibres in sneakers has witnessed a notable surge in recent years, largely propelled by growing consumer awareness of environmental issues and the fashion industry's culpability in them. As concerns over carbon emissions, resource depletion, and waste have intensified, both consumers and brands have sought ways to tackle some of these issues and take responsibility for the decisions they make.

Recycled fibres, derived from post-consumer materials like plastic bottles and discarded textiles, provide an interesting alternative. Not only do they mitigate the demand for virgin resources, but they can also contribute to waste reduction and the closure of the production loop. This shift is further bolstered by advancements in technology, enabling the creation of high-quality recycled materials that meet performance and aesthetic standards.

Types of recycled fibres used to make sneakers

The diverse array of recycled materials utilized in sneaker production reflects a commitment to sustainability and resource conservation. Among these materials, PET plastic, sourced from discarded plastic bottles, takes centre stage. By repurposing this plastic into shoe components, brands reduce plastic waste while maintaining durability and performance.

Converse is known to use fibres from recycled PET plastic to make its sneakers. Also, Adidas, in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, makes sneakers from plastic recovered from the ocean.

An Adidas shoe prototype made using marine plastic litter. (Source: Parley)An Adidas shoe prototype made using marine plastic litter. (Source: Parley)

Similarly, discarded textiles find new life as recycled fibres, minimizing landfill contributions and reducing the need for new fabric production. NIKE’s Space Hippie sneakers are made from recycled waste material, including textile scraps and plastic water bottles. This "upcycling" approach preserves the value of existing materials, lessening the environmental burden.

Additionally, reclaimed rubber from old tires can be used to make shoe soles, thereby diverting large quantities of rubber waste sitting idle in landfills leaching harmful toxins into the ground and the atmosphere. The strategic integration of these recycled materials underscores the industry's shift towards a more responsible and eco-friendly approach to sneaker manufacturing.

Do recycled fibres really save energy and resources?

Making sneakers from recycled fibres, such as PET plastic and textiles, presents a more energy-efficient alternative to traditional methods. Firstly, by utilizing recycled PET plastic, the energy-intensive processes of extracting and refining raw petroleum are bypassed, leading to significant energy savings. Similarly, repurposing discarded textiles into fibres demands less energy than producing new virgin textile fibres.

“Managing waste is a really bad goal. Only an inefficient system would aim to manage waste. A better goal is making waste non-existent by designing the system itself, through it's participants, to continually upcycle resources.” -- Hendrith Vanlon Smith Jr

Furthermore, the logistics and transportation of locally sourced recycled materials diminish energy consumption, as shorter transportation distances reduce associated energy expenditure. Manufacturing processes benefit from using recycled fibres, as they generally require less energy compared to creating new materials. These advantages extend beyond energy efficiency, reducing waste accumulation, emissions, and the overall ecological footprint of sneaker production.

While the energy efficiency of using recycled fibres can fluctuate due to various factors, this approach aligns with the overarching goals of sustainability by minimizing resource consumption, waste, and environmental impact. Incorporating recycled materials into sneaker production is a tangible step towards a more eco-conscious and resource-responsible footwear industry.

The challenges, limitations, and future of recycled fibres

The need to maintain a consistent overall quality is one of the major challenges with using recycled fibres. Variations in the composition of source materials can impact the strength, appearance, and performance of the final product, necessitating stringent quality control measures throughout the production process. The limited availability of high-quality recycled materials and the need for specialized processing equipment can also pose obstacles.

Although, there are concerns about the long-term viability of recycled fibres. Admittedly, repurposing materials keeps them away from the oceans and landfills. But for how long? This is especially true for plastic which may ultimately end up in landfills and oceans, exacerbating the microplastic problem. In this regard, the most appropriate long-term solution will be a collective shift towards more regenerative materials.

💡 Discover the top suppliers of regenerative materials on tocco’s marketplace here!


A remedy to our microplastic epidemic? | tocco. (n.d.). Bengsten , P. (2017, November 17). Toxic chemicals used for leather production poisoning India’s tannery workers. The Ecologist.

Compton, N. (2019, June 26). New Converse Renew trainers are made from 11 plastic bottles per pair. WIRED UK.

Hoskins, T. E. (2020, March 21). “some soles last 1,000 years in landfill”: The truth about the Sneaker Mountain. The Guardian.

Our Leather Products Are Contributing to Deforestation & Displacement. (n.d.).

Port, S. (2020). adidas x Parley: 5 Years of Sustainable Fashion. Adidas GamePlan A.

Snowden, S. (2020, August 24). Green Gear: Nike Space Hippie Sneakers Made From Leftover Bits Found On Factory Floors. Forbes.

Surpassing sustainability: adopt low-carbon and regenerative materials | tocco. (n.d.).

Written by Anh N. on 22/08/2023

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