A surge in the number of people getting walking shoes and sports trainers repaired as hundreds of thousands get out for the evening walk during lockdown is staving off near certain collapse for many of the State’s cobblers.
Isaac Jackman, who has been fixing footwear on Dublin's Charlemont Street for 30 years in a shop opened by his father Sean Jackman Snr in the 1950s, is swapping Manolos for Meindls, Barkers for Brashers and Loakes for Loewes.
“Most of my business was in fashion and formal footwear. That is basically gone, it’s just been wiped out,” he says. “People aren’t going to weddings, christenings, shows or other events. So all that all has a knock on effect on me.”
The one element of his business that is keeping him at his bench – albeit at drastically reduced hours – is a 25 per cent spike in requests for trail, walking and running shoe repairs: “If we didn’t have it, I’d say we’d be closed,” he says.
And they can be repaired, even Nike or other branded trainers that are often seen by their owners as unrepairable and get thrown out after the soles begin to wear down.
The environmental cost of not repairing shoes is staggering. Nearly 70 million pairs of shoes were made each day during 2018, according to Tansy Hoskins, author of Footwork – What Your Shoes Are Doing To The World.
Ninety per cent of everything made is never repaired and ends up in landfill: “We cannot afford to clog up the Earth with old shoes made from synthetic parts,” she says.
Globally, 300 million pairs of running shoes end up in landfill each year, and this is believed to be a conservative estimate, while the ethylene vinyl acetate mid-soles can last for as long as 1,000 years.
The State's environmental watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says it doesn't know how many shoes and boots end up in the five domestic waste landfill sites and two domestic waste incinerators that it licenses.
But research by Shahin Rahimifard, professor of sustainable engineering at Loughborough University, published in the Journal of Engineering Manufacture, says most shoes which are thrown out end up in landfill.
People traditionally thought these were disposable items and when they came to the end of their life, they should be thrown out
Generally, only 50 per cent are biodegradable and dumping in landfill sites “can result in serious environmental pollution of groundwater and rivers, caused by landfill leachate (the liquid produced from the decomposition of waste within the landfill),” according to the study.
About seven in every 10 pairs of shoes coming to Jackman now – mainly by post from all around the country as well as customers living within 5km who have to make an appointment – are walking or leisure footwear. In normal times, it would have been two in 10.
“People have more leisure time, more time to exercise, more people are out walking. And, yes, there is an increasing realisation that these footwear can be actually repaired,” Jackman tells The Irish Times.
Jackman uses Vibram products, the Italian rubber solemaker to give running shoes a new lease of life, often for little more than €55 a pair. Depending on the running shoe, there can be a slight reduction in flexibility, but few notice.
Meanwhile, hiking boots feature on his benches more frequently, too. Replacing rubber soles, putting in new laces and fixing hooks and eyelets can cost from €50. But this can rise to €100 depending on the type of shoe or boot.
“People traditionally thought these were disposable items and when they came to the end of their life, they should be thrown out,” Jackman tells The Irish Times.
“But most can be repaired, especially if they are hillwalking or trekking footwear, which can cost up to €150 or more. It makes sense too, especially when they become comfortable over the years, they mould into you,” says Jackman.
“If you can get another five or six years out of them with repair, it also makes economic sense to repair rather than replace,” he says.
Around 27 million pairs of shoes and boots were bought in Ireland last year, according to market data researchers Statista. Almost 3 million of them were sports footwear.
Ireland’s shoe waste mountain, for lack of a better phrase, is hard to quantify, but according to Mindy O’Brien, co-ordinator of Irish environmental charity Voice, it is “really problematic”.
Thirteen per cent of household waste is made up of textiles. O’Brien reckons about 377,000 tonnes of clothing go to landfill and incinerators in Ireland every year. She suggests shoes and boots account for a large amount of this.
“I think a lot of people just don’t think about repair, like it is something that your parents would have done. But I think, hopefully, that is coming round to repairing clothes and that will trickle down to shoes as well,” she says.
Economically, you save a lot of money by just repairing your boots, rather than buying a new pair
O'Brien mentions the online directory repairmystuff.ie which lists repair shops for shoes, appliances, furniture, sports equipment and electronics as well as other items.
“Economically, you save a lot of money by just repairing your boots, rather than buying a new pair,” she says, “For the planet, just think of all the resources that go into making your boots.
“Whether it is the leather or synthetic material, all the embedded energy and materials in your boots, plus the disposal costs of incinerating your boots or it rotting in landfill, there are big carbon impacts in each pair you buy.
“We need to look at what our parents did, what our grandparents did – they didn’t throw things away, they looked at ways of reusing them and that’s how we need to look at what we have.”
Oisín Coghlan, Ireland director for Friends of the Earth, agrees: “It’s shocking that we send 377,000 tonnes of textiles and footwear to landfill and incineration every year,” he says.
“That’s one eighth of everything households throw out. And every tonne we burn or bury produces more climate-changing pollution.”
Coghlan says there has been a real interest in the unsustainability of “fast fashion” in recent times. “It’s worth remembering that the most sustainable clothes and footwear are the ones we already have,” he says.
“So it’s always worth asking yourself before I ditch can I stitch? There are more and more businesses who specialise in repair and upcycling and they give us a real opportunity to extend the life of our clothing and footwear.”
Like Jackman, Martin Duggan, of Duggan Shoe Repairs in Cork City is seeing daily evidence of change: "The stilettos have gone. No one's going out partying but there are a lot of people going out walking," he says.
“I’m repairing a lot of walking shoes and hill walking boots. My father was a cobbler as well, and when I started off the type of trade I was doing is the kind of work I’m back doing again now.”