Is it possible to be a Sneakerhead as an Environmental Vegan?

Written by Alice Henderson.

Over the past couple of years, sneakers like Nike Jordans, Dunks and Air Max have moved from the streetwear niche of ‘Sneakerheads’ and into popular culture. In the same way, veganism has had a spike in popularity. Whilst the trends are simultaneously on the rise, particularly amongst young people, many wonder if the two can coexist – or even more so, can both be followed by any one person? In what follows, the compatibility of the two interests will be discussed.

Veganism in its simplest form is defined as ‘the practice of eating only food not derived from animals’ as well as ‘typically avoiding the use of other animal products’. ‘Environmental’ veganism specifically refers to an individual’s motivation for becoming vegan, where they wish to avoid the negative ecological impact of meat and dairy production. When applied to clothing products, this aligns with the concept of sustainable fashion and the rejection of animal materials like leather and suede.

A ‘sneakerhead’ is a sports shoe enthusiast, remaining up to date with the latest sneaker drops and collecting and trading sneakers they purchase as a kind of hobby. Many popular sneaker models are almost entirely constructed out of animal materials. The highly sought-after Jordan 1 Retro High OG Travis Scott, which is currently reselling for a minimum of £1180, uses both leather and suede on the upper and midsole. In fact, the shoe was marketed as ‘premium’ due to the materials used. Likewise, the Air Jordan 4 Retro x Olivia Kim – the women’s alternative for the acclaimed Jordan 4 Retro Black Cat – is composed of black suede and fur uppers. Bovine fur was what attracted attention leading up to the shoe’s release. Coming from animal hide, bovine fur is not mixed with any artificial elements, unlike other leathers which must undergo a long tanning process before use. It’s therefore praised for its versatility and durability. With the sneaker industry considering animal materials as ‘premium’, it would be difficult for a sneakerhead to invest frequently in the sneaker market whilst trying to avoid animal products.

However, some popular sneaker models are fully vegan. Sean Wotherspoon – American sneaker designer, collector, and store owner – was one of the first to utilise the sustainable trend. He designed the Air Max 1/97s, made from corduroy fabric as opposed to leather, that featured a removable Velcro tongue. They were released in 2018, and are still being resold today for over £900, more than £700 above the original retail price. Similarly, two years ago, Stüssy released a collaboration with Nike which used hemp as the basis of the shoe. The Stüssy X Nike Air Zoom Spiridon Cage 2 posited a stripped back, functional look, which is still in line with the recent Gorp-core aesthetic popular today. Adidas Yeezy Foam Runners are equally popular, and are made from algae, proving that sustainable and animal-friendly sneakers can still be on trend. 

Next to consider is the sneaker drop model. The drop model describes the way limited-edition products are released at a specific day and time, and are only available until original stock sells out. Nowadays, Nike releases sneakers regularly through the ‘SNKRS’ app, after advertising drops on social media to attract buyers to purchase the shoe. The result: sneakerheads end up competing against each other for each trainer before it sells out. Some use online bots to accelerate their chances, whilst others go straight to reselling sites like Stock X to purchase the shoe, knowing their chances are slim on the app. Sites like Footlocker also receive some of the original sneaker stock to release, but are equally competitive on the day of the drop.

Through the sneaker drop model, and limited stock releases often with little chance of product reruns, sneaker brands have manufactured false needs in buyers. Sneakerheads have become tirelessly hooked on buying the latest shoe. Hyper-consumption is in fact encouraged. Indeed, it could be argued that limited runs of sneakers mean products are being manufactured on a smaller scale, thus reducing a product’s lifespan. But what sneaker consumers are hooked on, not far from the likes of fast fashion buyers, is continuous newness. Shopping for sneakers has become a game. For a sneakerhead, buying a highly sought-after sneaker after a period of online hype and speculation gives a feeling of fulfilment like no other. Celebrity collaborations only reinforce this idea further. Collaborations like the aforementioned Jordan 1 Retro High OG Travis Scott are even shorter in supply. Therefore, the gratification a consumer feels should they succeed in purchasing the shoe is far higher. Such a model that encourages overconsumption lies far from the ethics of an environmental vegan.

However, some sneakerhead habits do in fact align with environmental values. Limited edition sneakers, being the most highly sought after, are the most commonly resold. This eliminates the possibility of any further product reruns, and therefore reduces overall production of the shoe. The product lifespan is extended. Alternatively, those who succeed in purchasing rarer sneakers during the first drop themselves, are more likely to keep them as opposed to discarding, due to their sentimental value. The same can be said for older styles of sneakers which collectors may have owned for a long time. Being viewed as collector’s items, means that even outdated styles are appreciated for the history and sentiment attached to the shoe. Sneakerheads view sneakers not only as fashion trends, but also as fashion artefacts. When value is attributed to a consumer item, they become less replaceable. Thus, the cycle of consumption is reduced.

Largely speaking, the practices and habits of sneakerheads are manipulated by the brands they consume. Today, the sneaker drop cycle is itself not entirely sustainable. For environmental vegans, it’s likely that buying into a fashion culture that is so heavily faulted in sustainability will not match up to their ethics. Although still viewed as a niche in the sneaker world, the release of some sustainable sneaker styles gives hope that sustainable and environmentally ethical sneaker consumption will be possible in the future. It should be considered that like environmental vegans, who likely all have a slightly different set of ethics they hold themselves to, sneakerheads consume in different ways. Even though it is popular to purchase sneakers frequently, it would certainly be possible to buy shoes at a slower pace, with careful attention given to the manufacturing materials of each pair.

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