Why do shoes get forgotten about when talking about sustainable fashion?

Words by Jasmine Wallis

Forgotten footwear.

After four years, three countries, many summers and countless adventures, my trusty Birkenstock sandals are falling apart.

I’ve been ducking to my local cafe in the comfortable cork shoes with my heel almost touching the ground. The materials disintegrating under the weight of the many days and nights spent in them.

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Disappointed but grateful for the times we had together, I was mentally preparing to throw the sandals out. That was until I discovered that Birkenstocks can be repaired.

Like many people who came of age in the era of fast fashion, the cognitive dissonance between my wardrobe and repairing things when they fall apart is huge.

And while I’ve been trying to work on buying second-hand, not impulse shopping and investing in sustainable clothing brands, when it comes to shoes I push down the guilt as they’re chucked in the garbage bin. Shutting the lid quickly, eyes closed knowing they’re headed straight for landfill.

While conversations around sustainable clothing, single-use plastics and even clean beauty are being had, why are the items we wear on our feet almost all day treated as an afterthought when it comes to the sustainable fashion movement?

To investigate, I headed to the Birkenstock HQ in Melbourne. Managing director Marcel Goerke has spent nearly three decades working with the German shoe brand and explains to me that many people either don’t realise Birkenstock can do repairs or they’re not willing to pay for the privilege when there are cheaper alternatives.

Speaking outside of the repair workshop where talented shoe cobblers spend their days tending to worn-out sandals like mine, Marcel tells me, “There’s a cost associated with this. The shoe repairers live in the Western world so they need to be paid accordingly. There are hourly wage rates, and if you add it all up and we quote on the repair, it may be close to the price of a new pair.”

Because of this, Marcel says that in-store staff are aiming to educate customers around changing this mindset to one of recycling and repairing rather than always buying new.

“Retail staff need to explain that it’s worthwhile doing because it would be wasteful otherwise. But it’s something that you as a consumer have to wrap your head around. Would you love to have a new pair? Or is it a feel-good story for you to pay the $100 for the repair and continue soldiering on in these?”

Marcel holds up my crumbling sandals and I’m almost tempted by a newer, shinier pair. This changes when we head into the workshop.

Shoe-repairers Lisa Edwards and Phong Chi Lai explain that they repair anywhere from 80-100 pairs of shoes per week.

“It’s quite joyful bringing back a despicable pair of shoes into something of beauty again,” smiles Lisa.

Marcel says that they’ve saved roughly 180,000 shoes from Australian landfills, a solid dent considering that over 25 million pairs of sports shoes are discarded every year.

“When you take a before and after shot, there’s a sense of achievement. It’s something you’ve kept out of landfill and have doubled the life span of, and it’s a smaller contribution to bigger problems that we have in this world right now. We can’t address all problems but we can make an effort within our own perimeters,” says Marcel.

I leave my “despicable” old shoes in the trusty hands of Lisa and Phong, knowing I’ll see them with a new lease of life in a couple of days.

Repairs, whether Birkenstock sandals or otherwise, are one option for making your shoe rack more sustainable. But what if you’re in the market for a new pair?

Founded in 2016 by former fashion bloggers, sisters Jess and Stef Dadon, Twoobs is an ethical shoe label producing funky designs from recycled materials. But the sisters never meant for sustainability to be their sole focus.

Beginning as animal lovers wanting an alternative to the uncomfortable platform heels they stomped around fashion weeks in, the vegan shoes turned into something more when the pandemic began.

“At the beginning of COVID when our sales took a massive hit, we really had time to sit back and reassess what we wanted to put out into the world. We realised the environment had to be at the forefront of what we’re doing because, as we all know, the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change. We want to be part of the solution, not the problem,” Stef says over the phone.

With orders coming in from big retailers including David Jones and The Iconic, Stef and Jess knew they had to be the ones to make the change and focus on shoe sustainability.

“We cancelled our 23-piece collection that was going to be launching at the end of 2020 and completely re-did everything from there. We turned our whole brand upside down.”

The recycled shoes are now designed in Australia, 100 per cent carbon neutral and still vegan. And while the founders hope that when you’re finished with the sandals you’ll give them to a new loving home, if they’re completely worn out, Twoobs has an incentive program to promote recycling. Simply send or drop off your old shoes and you’ll receive a $10 store credit towards your next purchase as well as the knowledge your shoes aren’t clogging up landfill.

“When they’re not able to be worn anymore we take them back and recycle them. At the moment we’re in development trying to recycle Twoobs into yoga mats,” Jess tells me.

While both Birkenstock and Twoobs do great things for Australian shoe sustainability, why isn’t this the norm for most companies and consumers?

“When we’re talking about sustainability I think the number one goal needs to be longevity in products, and there is this ability to maintain longevity in footwear even if you’re buying it at a high street retailer,” Jess says.

“You might have a pair of shoes that you can keep for six years as opposed to a shirt that you might have bought and worn three times and now it’s got a hole in it. So I definitely think in terms of that, footwear is not as ‘fast’.”

“Footwear has so many components, you’re talking ten to twenty different materials just within that one shoe. You need to take it apart and each component needs to be recycled in a different way. It’s really hard and the big retailers aren’t going for the really hard things – they’re going for the little wins and a little win is one material, not twenty.”

It’s clear that being a responsible shoe owner takes time, energy and sometimes money. They’re still very much a part of the fashion industry, though, and in the same way we’re learning about sustainable cotton and mindful shopping when it comes to our t-shirts, that same mindset should be applied when thinking about what we wear on our feet every day.

While I’ve owned my trusty Birkenstocks for four years, Marcel tells me that once repaired I’ll be able to get at least another four out of them. And that, essentially, I could keep going back and have the same pair not just for my early twenties, but for my whole adult life.

Leaving the Birkenstock workshop, a poster on the wall reads:

“Shoe repair is among the oldest forms of recycling. Each year, shoe repairers keep 62 million pairs of shoes out of landfill and on consumers’ feet.”

It feels good to think that in just a few days I’ll be wearing my favourite sandals again as well as contributing to one of the original iterations of the sustainable fashion movement.

To find more sustainable Australian footwear brands, head here.

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