Sneakers… They Sneak into your Wardrobe

Sneakers… They Sneak into your Wardrobe

Over the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled, but the average number of times we wear something has dropped by almost 40%. Estimates show that we own around 150 clothing items on average, but this may still be a bit on the low side and in reality, this number is probably a lot higher. On average, only 20% of the clothes in a wardrobe are actually used, and not only in ‘consumer societies’ such as America, but also in countries like Belgium, Norway or Switzerland. At the same time, less than 1% of the material used to produce clothes is recycled back into new clothes.

We still live fully in a linear economy and society: we buy things that are only worn a few times (or sometimes not at all!), these are thrown away, and often not yet recycled. After a product like a shoe or garment, has probably been made in a fairly complex way and has travelled all over the world to end up in your closet, it goes back into the closet or is discarded after just a few wears. So a lot of wasted energy and effort.

Recycling, not as new as you think

Reuse and recycling actually dates back to the Greeks and Romans who were already recycling, or even the Bronze Age where broken ceramic pots were reused as jewellery, decoration or weapons. And we all know more recent stories from (grand)parents or other family members about washing machines and electronics that used to last much longer, but whose average product lifespan has actually gone down in recent years.

The impact of consuming

The fact that a growing world population wants to consume more and more means that there is pressure on our planet. Of discarded clothes, 73% end up in a landfill or are burnt and 12% are used for less high-value purposes such as mattress padding or insulation. And only 1% of discarded clothes are made into new clothes. All this consumption results in unnecessary CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. Biodiversity is eroding, partly because we use land for production and agriculture – needed to feed our consumption. If we are to have any chance of preventing further dramatic temperature rises, we need to halve our CO2 emissions by 2030. And this is certainly possible, with commitment from government, business and ourselves.

The circular economy

To achieve this goal, we need to move fairly quickly towards a circular economy, in which, first of all, we buy fewer products that last longer. This should also be technically possible, and, as with clothing, products will have to be made of sustainable materials. In addition, the design can be more timeless so we want it to last longer. Outdoor clothing brands like Patagonia already ask you to buy less, or else second-hand, and offer lifetime warranty and repair assistance.

These products also need to be produced efficiently, with energy-efficient processes and materials. After many uses, upgrades and repairs, these products should be recyclable. This is possible because the product or materials can be easily taken apart, and that it is as clear and easy as possible for the customer to recycle. Dutch brand MUD Jeans makes it possible to reuse jeans materials, among other things, through its lease-a-jeans concept.

Finally, there is a final strategy of regeneration: can companies also ensure that nature and the environment are even better off? IKEA, for example, is planting additional forests in places where they did not grow before, and companies like Unilever and Nestlé are exploring how to do their bit for biodiversity and bee populations, as they depend on them in their own production processes.

“Don’t buy” promise

So the first step in the circular economy makes perfect sense: don’t buy, buy less and of better quality. September is the month when we as consumers are urged to buy nothing. On social media, you can publicly pledge this with hashtags like: #buyniksnieuws #slowfashion or #slowfashionpledge. The collaboration in the Netherlands between Zero Waste Netherlands and MaatschapWij says:

“Together, we try not to buy anything new for a year and also consume as much as possible second-hand. Because: a life with less stuff is clearer, cheaper, freer, and more sustainable.”

This is quite a contrast to ‘influencers’ like Kim Kardashian who proudly showed off her storage space with 30,000 clothing items during her reality show. Influencers should actually be making it cool to consume less. Fortunately, more and more ‘green influencers’ are also trying to do so.


So, what about sneakers? A fun fact is that sneakers derive their name from the English ‘sneaky’ or ‘sneaking up on someone’, because the rubber soles made it possible to walk around gently. They are also meant for playing sports. Secretly, they entered our lives and our shoe closet. This was further fuelled by the corona pandemic, in which we had to stay indoors en masse and the neat work clothes and leather shoes and heeled shoes could stay in the closet. The sneaker market is only growing and is likely to be worth $30 billion by 2030. In addition, the pandemic has also fuelled a second-hand market, not only for regular sneakers, but also of more rare items: the sneaker as an investment object.

Less is more

Fortunately, there are also all kinds of positive developments: European policies are already focusing on the circular economy. These policies focus not only on recycling, but also on the right to repair, keeping spare parts available, and perhaps even starting to ban products that break down prematurely, a law already in force in France. America is also focusing on the right to repair, and China already has a number of 5-year plans in place for the circular economy.

Several brands offer an unconditional lifetime guarantee on shoes and even socks. The business model is that these may be a bit more expensive to buy, but you need to buy and replace less.

There are also many other examples, with a more social impact. Tom’s Shoes focused for years on its social business model: the buy-one-give-one model, where for every pair of shoes bought, another pair was donated to a less fortunate person in countries where it was badly needed. Brands like Veja focus on sustainable and fair-trade rubber where a fair price is paid to farmers, and whose production is also not at the expense of the rainforest. Timberland has invented the Timberloop, where new shoes are made from your old turned-in shoes. Netherlands-based EMMA Safety Footwear, among others, tested ‘shoes as a service’ to better ensure maintenance and longer life of its safety shoes.

Veja sneakers
Veja sneakers and raw materials. Foto credits: Peter Tijhuis.

What can we do ourselves?

Fortunately, there is plenty we can do ourselves to make the circular economy a reality. Buy according to the ‘waste hierarchy’, where prevention is better than cure:

Shop in your own wardrobe (and so don’t buy!).
Often, it already helps to make an overview of what you have and how much you wear it. This awareness can help you avoid buying another pair of sneakers or jeans if you already own too many. So, replace only what is needed.

Repair and upgrade what you have.
A good cleaning once, going to the shoemaker, or a pair of new laces is sometimes enough to make your shoes new and fresh again. Search on ‘clothing upcycling’ online and you’ll find plenty of creative tips.

Swap or borrow.
If you really want something new, swap items with friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, or borrow them temporarily. Don’t happen to know people with the same taste or size; swap or borrow via an online platform (Vinted, for example, has an option to swap clothes; with Peerby, you borrow stuff from people in your neighbourhood).

Buy second-hand.
If you do want to buy something new, buy something already in circulation, in a second-hand shop or online (Marktplaats or Ebay is a good place to start).

Buy sustainably.
Several manufacturers use sustainable or recycled materials. If you really want to buy something or really need something new, choose sustainable.

Finally, a tip from Bhawana Pingali – founder of REVASTRA, the Indian Spiritual Fashion Lab – during a recent slow fashion workshop: Celebrate the stuff you have and be happy with it. You don’t have to ‘de-clutter’ immediately and get rid of everything (after all, you usually fill that space again), but be happy with what you have and enjoy it too.

Want to know more?

In our research at Maastricht University, we investigate how companies can experiment with business models that see focus on ‘consuminderen’ (a Dutch wordplay saying ‘consume less instead of more’). Several cases of companies experimenting in the circular economy can be found here.

From our research, we have also developed a ‘Business for Sufficiency’ database of companies focusing on sustainable consumption, in different sectors. All of these will hopefully offer inspiration.

This is an adapted version of a Dutch article that was published on the website of Design Museum Den Bosch on 28 October 2022.

Related expert(s)

Nancy Bocken
Professor in Sustainable Business at the Maastricht Sustainability Institute (MSI)

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