„Some Comments on Sneaker Lifecycles“


The sneaker industry gets fueled by newness and nostalgia. Today, sneaker assortments or „walls“ are composed of almost exclusively two components. On the one hand, we have the „innovations“ – technologically or design-wise – on the other hand, we get retro versions of old models or contemporary colorways applied to them. Some of those older silhouettes have an endless lifecycle concerning cultural stance. Others might not even get fifteen seconds of fame. To reach the highly coveted icon status, shoes seemingly have to combine two essential traits. A kind of nostalgically glorified history or legend attached to it and a clean silhouette with clear paneling so that it can be treated as a canvas for color blocking in a way. Prime examples would be Nike’s Air Force 1s or the Dunks, of course. The latter was the subject of an extensive infomercial YouTube video series that Nike rolled out over the last few months – just in case you’re interested in a well-produced, sponsored history lesson that details a sneaker’s lifecycle of almost four decades. Of course, it is difficult to establish a product to that extend. Many sneakers don’t land with their target audience. Their lifespan has no chance to transform circularly or to extend beyond a dot even. Either a new silhouette proves itself to be a hit quite instantly and establishes itself as „classic“ or it gets lost in sales rack purgatory.

Besides idolizing 80s Basketball shoes, sneaker culture is also obsessed with digging for old models one might have missed in previous years and re-discovering a hidden gem for a little increased individuality. Surely brands have caught wind of these „sneaker archaeologists“ and started to bring back some extremely limited edition shoes which are next to impossible to find in a wearable condition today. If this trajectory continues, we will find ourselves in an even more delirious loop of constant re-releases. Don’t get me wrong – I also like the idea of having a slight chance to obtain Hiroshi Fujiwara’s mismatched Fragment Design x Nike Dunks once they release in a few months (if rumors are correct). Still, this most lucrative coin has a slightly negative side to it. For once, it will be more of the same for years to come. That makes it also difficult for any newer shoe to stand out among the colorway flood of retros and make a comparable impact at the time of release – both sales-wise and culturally – as well as a solid lasting impression. I simply wonder whether a 16-year-old sneaker enthusiast will discover something like an adidas NMD or a Nike Vapormax in 2027 and be similarly enthusiastic to me finding Nike Prestos a good decade after they released. That’s all.

Approaching the term lifecycle concerning sneakers in a more literal sense, it quickly becomes clear, that the footwear industry as a whole can be very problematic in terms of waste. According to World Footwear, 24.2 billion pairs of shoes have been produced in 2018 alone. With 90% of shoes ending up in landfills while often being mainly constructed out of different plastics, one can easily imagine the effect a short product lifecycle has in the sneaker world. Of course, only a small fraction of those sells to „sneakerheads“ or consumers with a more symbolic interest in shoes beyond their actual utilitarian intent. Nonetheless, that number can give an idea about the global scale of footwear waste and illustrate why companies like Nike and adidas should consider tackling those issues with their lauded „problem-solving“ approach. To be fair: some already are to a certain extend. For example, initiatives like adidas‘ FUTURECRAFT.LOOP aim to holistically close the product lifecycle. While the attempt is genuinely commendable, these projects still need to be applied on a much larger scale.

To give an anecdotal example for a shoe that seemed like a very progressive concept when it was released some time ago, but with today’s point of view could be considered in principle a wasteful idea at first glance, take the Nike Mayfly. The 2003 running shoe was promoted with the claim that it „dies after 100k“. The idea was to be executed in Nike founder Bill Bowerman’s tradition of cutting away every little milligram of material that was not absolutely needed to create a featherweight performance running shoe for race days. That means disregarding all other variables in building a shoe, such as longevity or durability. In this case, you have to give Nike some credit, though. Apparently, they were aware of the slightly skewed proposition to discard a running shoe after only 100km of running (two decades ago even). The packaging included a mail form to ship the „dead“ Mayflys back to Beaverton where they would be shredded up and re-purposed as a surface material for outdoor basketball courts and running tracks. In terms of sneaker lifecycles, that would be an honorable final point I think – if truly circular models might be too much to ask. But then again, I wonder how many pairs even make it to the mark of 100km today, before being thrown out or put in the back of some closet to make space for the new hot purchase of the week.