Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

A Sneaker’s Carbon Footprint

Manufacturing—not materials—is biggest source of emissions.
August 21, 2013

A typical pair of running shoes accounts for 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to keeping a 100-watt light bulb on for a week, according to a new MIT-led life-cycle assessment. 

feet in sneakers walking

You might assume that the best way to shrink the carbon footprint of any consumer product would be to make it out of more sustainable materials. But more than two-thirds of the carbon dioxide emissions can come from manufacturing processes, with less than a third from acquiring or extracting raw materials.

A team led by Randolph Kirchain and Elsa Olivetti of the Materials Systems Laboratory examined the steps involved in making running shoes. They found that a typical pair comprises 65 discrete parts requiring more than 360 processing steps, from sewing and cutting to injection molding, foaming, and heating. For these small, light components, such processes are energy-intensive—and, therefore, carbon-intensive—compared with the production of shoe materials, such as polyester and polyurethane. The team also determined that much of a sneaker’s carbon impact comes from powering manufacturing plants: a significant portion of the world’s shoe manufacturers are located in China, where coal is the dominant source of electricity.

The group’s results, Kirchain says, will help shoe designers identify ways to improve designs and reduce shoes’ carbon footprint. They may also help industries assess the carbon impact of other consumer products more efficiently. 

“Material substitution strategies alone may not be sufficient in reducing the environmental impact of products,” says Vikas Khanna, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, who did not participate in the research. “For example, switching to renewable material sources alone may not be sufficient for products that involve high manufacturing energy requirements.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.