Article by Katie Burnett, Photos Supplied by Vans South Africa
On the 27 May 1990, five shipping containers were swept off the Hansa Carrier freighter in a violent storm somewhere in the North Pacific. One of the containers sank straight to the bottom of the ocean while the other four were broken open and all their contents spilled into the ocean. Amongst the lost goods, were more than 80 000 Nike basketball sneakers being
transported from Korea to the United States.
Not only did this event suddenly spark unprecedented interest in nautical currents and tides as sneaker heads across the globe waited on beaches for their new shoes, but major environmental concern. Suddenly the ethics of the shoe industry were face-to-face with one of their greatest exploits, the environment. The materials that make up the sneakers we wear today are choking the environment and more literally in this case, sea life. Nylon, polyester, polyurethane, EVA, TPU, synthetic rubber, and textile dyes, to name a few, form the basis of the sneaker industry. What later became known as The Great Shoe Spill of 1990, has become something of an urban legend.
As people collected shoes off the beaches of North America, Vans was on the rise. After opening it’s doors in 1966, the skate-shoe company was sponsoring major events, releasing new silhouettes and partnering with major fashion houses by 1995. What started as the Van Doren Rubber Company developed into the brand we know today, Vans. As the shoe industry grew and street culture found it’s new niche shoe brand, Vans became iconic.
According to The Washington Post, global shoe production sits at around 20 billion pairs
annually. Shoe companies, including Vans, are contributing to this number in a way that is concerning for it’s effects on global warming and the environment. The World Wildlife Fund has said that the manufacture of synthetic rubber results in the release of more waste than the volume of rubber produced. That waste includes several forms of volatile organic compounds, some of which are suspected carcinogens. Historically, there has been very little effort from the industry to change it’s practices.
With the rise in environmental awareness around the globe and, most of all, the increased trendiness of lifestyles rooted in more sustainable practices: the sneaker brands have started
listening. It seems that the tides are changing, and with the common practices resulting in
volume of production waste being greater than volume produced, it’s a welcome
There is still a massive length for the industry to go. At it’s core, it is based on
consumerism and fast fashion. The existence and success of the entire industry rests on our impulsive desires for the new and the shiny – it’s what drives it. We are creating the demand, sneaker producers are providing the supply. It’s a partnership that has created a problem we must take collective responsibility for. There is a reason why the numbers are so staggering, and this is where we need to look back on ourselves.
Although, here might be a start, it certainly is for Vans. Today, we see the release of the latest model from Vans Surf collection: Circle Vee. As a part of their “Every Little Bit Helps”
campaign, Vans has looked at every single aspect of this shoe with an earth-centered
perspective. The shoe has a one-piece knitted natural upper, an EcoCush™ biofoam drop-in midsole and the full-length EcoWaffle™ rubber outsole. Let’s break that down.
The knitted upper is made of 47% organic cotton, 47% hemp, and 6% nylon. The EcoCush™ is made from 70% biobased foam, derived from plant-based oils and the EcoWaffle™ is an all-new eco rubber compound made from responsibly sourced natural rubber instead of petroleum-derived synthetic rubber. The design of the shoe uses as little glue and excess material as possible. The shoe is beautiful. With it’s soft, understated design, it looks the way it feels: easy on the planet. Vans have partnered with the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit organisation – from
February 2022 through December 2023, Vans is donating $1 for every Circle Vee product sold, with a minimum donation of $25,000 donated to the Tides Foundation in support of Ocean Conservancy. Circle Vee’s renewable materials regrow as we use them.
In accordance with what Vans describes as “making changes to the way we do things, even small ones, can add up to a big impact”, the Circle Vee is a small step in the right direction. A step away from the destruction of the environment, a step away from production waste, a step away from excessive CO2 emissions and a step away from synthetic rubber. So, perhaps it’s a bigger step than they even realise.