Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sustainable Shoes?

The other day Min and I had a great visit to the Minpaku (National Museum of Ethnology) in the 1970 Expo commemorative park on the outskirts of Osaka. The museum is enormous. Since we only had a couple of hours we bee-lined for the Ainu and Traditional Japan sections. These two pairs of shoes, made in Mie prefecture in the 1930's, were on display and seemed like a great kick off (pun intended) to a blog post on 'sustainability'.


Sustainability is all the rage. Plenty of cool sounding but actually incomprehensible buzz words are proliferating in UN speak. Green procurement. Circular economy. And of course the big daddy of buzz itself 'sustainability'. Unfortunately for the diligent and well meaning technocrats spouting them, these phrases don't connect with most people(*). Not as well as "make America great again" anyway. When you start to dig into the details of what 'sustainability' really is, there is, as always, a bit of the devil in there.

Looking at my indoor slippers a few days ago, and feeling in a slightly Proustian mood, this blog idea came to mind.  They aren't all that different from the pair on the museum wall actually:



These slippers were hand made by an ancient artisan in Tokyo. I saw him squatting in the rear workshop hard at work at just such a pair while I purchased these directly from his wife, who manages the front end of the business. They cost me $20. They felt a bit tight at first, but she correctly warned me to expect them to stretch out over the first few weeks of wear. I love these slippers. The feel of tatami on the bottom of my sweaty feet is perfectly cool and comfortable. The nice dragonfly motif cloth on the straps is aesthetically nonpareil. What she didn't warn me about though, is that they shortly after they finish stretching to comfort, they rapidly begin to disintegrate. Note the heel abrasion and the folded ridge at the toe line.  At this rate - and the disintegration is speeding up actually - I suspect they will need to be discarded in a year or two. Assuming the long end of this estimated range suggests a price of 20 dollars, averaged over two years (ignoring inflation) of ten dollars per year.

Here are my wife Min's slippers:


She claims they too are supremely comfortable. She has already had them for 30 years (this is not an exaggeration, now you know my wife is over 30 years old). No trace of any heel abrasions whatsoever. The miniscule little dots on the right slipper are tooth marks from when our golden retriever puppy whisked it out of sight for a few hours and did her utmost to destroy it. These slippers cost $5. They will last for at least 100 years, probably longer. This indicates an average cost of five cents per year, at least two hundred times cheaper than mine.

So, which slipper was the 'sustainable' purchase. It is tempting to argue that the price of mine is worth it because they will not add plastic to the ocean. However on close inspection, they in fact do have what looks like a plasticy foam layer under the tatami. So the 'traditional design' is not quite what is on the wall in the Minpaku, but has been modified for comfort. The trouble then, is that my supposedly sustainable tatami shoes have almost as much plastic in them, as Min's 100% petroleum product shoes!  The only truly sustainable shoes are on the wall in the museum!  A hard nosed cost benefit analysis suggests you are better off buying the 100% foam/plastic shoe and simply discarding it properly at the the end of its century long lifespan. That is the sustainable, environmental option AND the cheapest one.

Plastic flip flops are portrayed by the green crowd as the epitome of planet destroying garbage - filling the pacific gyre with plastic that ingenious dutch teenager is going to clean up with floating booms (NOT, but that is another blog post). Nope, plastic flip flops are probably the most sustainable footwear you can buy - just make sure to incinerate them and generate electricity with the energy when, if ever, they reach the end of their lifespan.  Of course, if you really want to achieve the smallest possible environmental footprint, you should make some like those on the wall in the Minpaku. 

(*) Another important unfortunate fact is that the UN itself does not actually employ sustainable practices such as green procurement or circular economics, we just talk about how important they are. 

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