Ted Ed talk on the life cycle of a sneaker:
They’re known as sandshoes, plimsolls, trainers, and more… some are worth tens of thousands of dollars… and they have a pretty big impact on the environment. This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut to sneakers—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.
And I’m Bryce Corbett.
I hate to say it, Bryce, but the clock is ticking and it’s almost back-to-school time. And it’s highly likely that families are gearing up to buy school supplies, as well as uniforms and shoes… because kids do have a habit of growing. When my kids were in primary school, it felt like I was buying them a new pair of shoes every couple of months, their feet grew so quickly!
Today, we’ll take you through WHEN sneakers were first invented; WHAT a sneakerhead is; and HOW sneakers are contributing to climate change.
Listen carefully – there’s a Squiz at the end!
Bryce, I’ve fired up the Squiz Kids Time Machine because we are heading back to 1830s England, and specifically to the city of Liverpool. It’s here that we’ll find The Liverpool Rubber Company, which has been making tyres for years. But now, the company founder, John Boyd Dunlop, has figured out a way to get canvas fabric to bond, or stick, to a rubber sole. He’s made something he calls sandshoes, for people to wear on their trips to the beach. The new railroad would take them to the seaside for the day, they’d wear their sandshoes, and life was grand.
I always thought the English word for sneakers was plimsolls!
Ah yes, that comes a few years later. One of the problems with sandshoes was that the canvas separated from the rubber sole pretty easily, so in the 1870s some manufacturers started wrapping a thin rubber band around the place where the canvas met the sole, to hold it on more tightly. At the same time, a British politician called Samuel Plimsoll was fighting to have a line painted onto ships to show how much load they could safely carry. This line became known as the Plimsoll line… and it looked a bit like the line around the sandshoes… and so they became known as Plimsolls. Don’t you love the history of words and names?
Indeed I do! These rubber soled athletic shoes are also called runners and trainers – that’s pretty self explanatory. But … how did we get the name sneakers?
That comes from our American friends. In 1887, a newspaper called The Boston Journal said that young men were calling the new rubber-soled shoes, which they wore to play tennis, “sneakers”… because they were so quiet on the ground, you could sneak up on someone! Remember, standard shoes had hard leather soles, that made a lot of noise when you walked. Sneakers were stealthy!
So the rubber sole shoes were a big hit with tennis players …
And in 1917, an American rubber company introduced its “non-skid” rubber-soled shoe for basketball. In 1921, a salesman called Chuck Taylor joined the Converse company, and made some suggestions to improve the shoe… including a star logo on the ankle. These shoes became known as Chuck Taylor All Stars, and they are still in production! When Chuck’s signature was added, they actually became the first “celebrity endorsed” shoe…
And there I was thinking it was Air Jordans…
That was a good 60 years later, in 1985, when basketball superstar Michael Jordan teamed up with Nike. The Air Jordans that they launched together also created a new kind of person… the sneakerhead.
Now WHAT, Amanda, is that?
A sneakerhead is a sneaker collector. And I’m not talking here about someone like me, who has one pair of trainers for netball, another for running, and a cute coloured pair for wearing out. These are people who together spend more than $10 billion a year buying collectible sneakers from other people… what’s known as a “resale” market. Someone buys the sneakers—and instead of wearing them, they keep them until they’re worth more, and then sell them again.
Sounds like someone who invests in a piece of art, or even in a company, hoping to make money off it later, when it’s more valuable.
That is exactly right. Sneakerheads will queue for days to get pairs of limited-edition sneakers when they’re released… and they’ll stay up all night to make sure they don’t miss online sales. They go to sneaker swapmeets and parties, they’ve got Nike’s SNKRS app on their phones, and they are constantly on the hunt for rare, vintage, or something called “deadstock” sneakers.
Deadstock? What does that mean?
There’s a whole language associated with sneaker collecting! “Deadstock” is a pair of sneakers that has never been worn, tried on or re-laced. That makes them more valuable than “B-grades”, which are, apparently, shoes that have been tried on in shops, but never worn outside. Js are Jordans; “Red October” are very rare red sneakers by Nike and rapper Kanye West; and if someone says your sneaks are “steezy”, that means they’re stylish. Which also explains why Kanye West, who sometimes calls himself “Ye”, has named his new Adidas line “Yeezy”.
Every subculture has its language, I guess! Amanda, when you say that sneakerheads are after “valuable” kicks, what are we talking? How much are they prepared to pay to add to their collections?
Well, I spent a little time on a sneaker trading site called StockX, and those Red Octobers I mentioned? Sellers are asking about $35,000 for a pair in my size. Then there’s a sneaker called the Air Jordan 1 retro, which came out in 2022 but is modelled on the original 1985 Jordans… I can pick up a pair for about $500.
$500 for a pair of sneakers that you’re not going to wear… fascinating… Now Amanda, I read somewhere that 23 billion pairs of sneakers are made each year. There are only 8 billion people on the planet… that’s almost three pairs of sneakers per person, per year… which seems a lot, even when you take growing kids into account.
Yeah, and just like with every industry, people are looking at the environmental impact of so many sneakers/trainers/runners/plimsolls being made.
So HOW are sneakers contributing to climate change?
Bryce, I’ve just watched a really great Ted-Ed video that I’ll stick in the episode notes… it’s all about what it takes to make a sneaker. And I learned that making sneakers generates 313 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, which is equivalent to the emissions of 66 million cars.
Well, more than two thirds of the emissions are caused by transporting sneaker parts all over the world. A sneaker is made up of more than 60 different parts, and it’s cheaper for companies to make those parts in specialised factories, instead of having them all made under one roof. But then they have to transport them to one place to be assembled. The rest of the carbon footprint comes from mining and manufacturing the materials that the sneakers are made from, and powering the factories.
So what are manufacturers doing to reduce their impact on the environment?
Starting with the simple stuff, many sneakers now come in recycled packaging. There are also sneakers made with fully recycled materials… or with materials that are sustainable, like eucalyptus tree fibres and wool. Adidas has actually released a sneaker made using mushroom leather, instead of synthetic materials. Not only does the mushroom leather have a much lower carbon footprint than making synthetic materials… it also biodegrades much faster. I’ll put a couple of lists in your episode notes of sustainable sneaker brands.
Of course, there’s also a push for people to reduce their environmental impact by simply buying fewer pairs of sneakers.
And there are new companies emerging that will repair your sneakers, so you can wear them for longer instead of buying new ones.
Of course, that doesn’t address the environmental impact of sneakerheads, who keep buying – and not wearing – sneakers.
That’s true! It could be hard convincing them to take up another hobby,
This is the part of the podcast where you get to test how well you’ve been listening…
1.Who is the American basketball star whose Nike collaboration kicked off the sneakerhead phenomenon? ”
2. Where did people in Victorian England wear their “sandshoes”, as they were first called?
3. Why did these rubber-soled shoes get the nickname “sneakers”?