When you buy a pair of shoes, how long do you expect them to last? One year, three years or even longer? Do you clean and polish them regularly, repairing scuffs, or let them show all the wear and knocks? Do you take them for repair if the sole wears or starts to separate? Do you replace a worn insole? Are there price points that act as triggers in these decisions, or constructions of which you have different expectations?
Longevity in use
Given that longevity is a heavily promoted characteristic of leather, these question needs to be asked – and answered. U.S. consumption runs at about seven pairs per annum, Japan at six, while China lags at three and India is nearer two. Statistica data suggests that about 33% by value are leather and global annual production of all types fluctuates between 22 and 24 billion, having dropped during the pandemic. Other derived figures imply this to be closer to 15-19 billion. Whatever the exact numbers, they are only likely to grow over time and create a larger end-of-life problem than any other area in which leather is used.
While LCAs in the leather industry are still battling over the cattle end of the chain, LCAs that include lifetime use, maintenance, repair, refurbishment and end-of-life have not yet been addressed. This is disappointing as it is vital in circular economy thinking. Billions of pairs of shoes being thrown into landfill is not appropriate.
So, we must consider the journey the shoe makes on the way to its final destination. How come sad-looking plastic shoes such as Crocs are washed up on every remote beach around the world?
I grew up in a world where choice and cash were limited. Plimsolls, or textile gym shoes, were the only “sneakers” and soccer, rugby and cricket were played in leather boots that had to be kept clean. There was a weekly family polishing session and any shoes with worn heels or toes were put on our shoe tree and an appropriately sized stud was hammered in. Leather soles showing wear might get a rubber patch to delay them being sent for a new sole to be put on. The concept of relentless disposal of unwanted items was an unknown concept.
Recently, when Covid hit and we were stopped from leaving our homes other than for a daily walk, I decided to get out my small inventory of footwear and put them to use. I had quite a few pairs over 10 or 15 years old that had been rarely used, often because we had moved country and our lifestyle had changed.
The first I got out was a Goretex-lined pair of largely unworn city shoes which I had found too warm to wear for a full working day, but I thought would be excellent for heading off around our country village. After only two miles, I was in trouble as the synthetic sole had started to disintegrate and were totally gone by the time I got home.
A beautiful pair of sandals given to me in 2008 in Pakistan came out in the warm weather, but their plastic welt fell apart as I put them on. And so it went on, with only a few styles such as my aged Rockport Dresports still being perfectly usable. Plastic in particular struggles to survive frequent use and, untouched, will soon self-destruct. If you want to conserve a plastic article, keep it cold and in the dark – best in a refrigerator, I learned on a course for conservators.
The current Chair of Leather Naturally, Debbie Burton, who has a day job at the tanning group Pittards, writes about a customer who found an old unused pair of golf shoes. They had a Pittards hangtag, so wrote to ask if they would still be okay to use. Details from the hangtag identified them to be from 1995, so he was told the leather would be fine. But on first wear, the soles immediately failed. Luckily, he found someone who could resole them and he has been able to carry on playing happily in them.
For those who fanatically collect sneakers, often with collections running into the hundreds of pairs, I hear they too have been finding that 90s models disintegrate (unless they had found space in their refrigerator for them, I suppose) so that leather has returned as the preferred material in that sizeable collectible category.
Leather wins hands down
Back in 2011, Pete Lankford, Design Director for Earthkeepers and Timberland Boot company, noted that “while there are plenty of things to be concerned about in the leathermaking process, from the resources that go into raising the cows to the industrial processes at tanneries, the products stand the test of time”.
“Leather wins hands down over anything you can think of,” said Lankford. “If you can buy a pair of boots that last twice as long as a synthetic alternative, you’ll end up with half the environmental impact in the long run.”
Instead, the relentless growth of non-leather footwear has continued, aided by the wild and erratic rises and falls in hide prices, and not helped by some thoughtless long-term predictions that seem to have been used as marketing threats.
China found it hard to train and retain good leather cutters while synthetics were cheaper and far more cost-efficient in footwear production at a time when rising costs were starting to make them non-competitive, despite their huge scale and logistic advantages. Quite a lot of leather footwear moved away to the benefit of manufacturing places such as India and Portugal.
For a time, we heard that leather shoes costing the consumer over €80 should be repairable. Perhaps now the industry requires more ambitious targets and should seek designs that allow repair for all leather footwear. Quite a statement to make.
End-of-life will eventually arrive with fewer options to repurpose than other items where leather is used. It looks like recovering the used footwear and some form of disassembly will be required. Both are easier said than done and particularly so if you look beyond mature retail markets.
Matters would be simplified if the whole shoe could be made biodegradable to a good standard (e.g. the conversion of >90% of the original material into CO2, water and minerals by biological processes within six months or less). At this stage, questions have to be asked about the suitability of chrome-tanned leather to ever fit into the various circular concepts. A big question, given how slowly the tanning industry has been at adopting the chrome-free tannages available: and the more you look, the more it is clear that the cost excuse is not the reason at all.
So, the question of how long a pair of shoes should last is answered with more questions, and they are all difficult. But they need to be discussed and answered as they will be asked again and again in the coming months and years.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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