Shoe Thrifting: 6 Tips for Healthy Feet
The demand for footwear has increased substantially over the past half century. In 1950, each person in the world consumed one new pair of shoes per year; this figure rose to 2.6 new pairs of shoes per year in 2005. In 2018, 24.2 billion pairs of shoes were produced, equating to approximately 3 pairs of shoes per person per year. However, footwear consumption is unequally distributed across the world. In high income countries such as the US, there is a higher per capita consumption of 6.9 pairs per year, whereas low-middle-income countries exhibit a significantly smaller consumption rate. For example, Brazil has a per capita footwear consumption of 2.6 pairs annually, and Indian has an even smaller consumption of 0.6 pairs per year.
The fast fashion model encourages consumers to perceive footwear as accessories and therefore as disposable and easily replaceable.
This exponential industry growth, a distinct marker of fast fashion, is the result of the rapid turnover of footwear products. The fast fashion model encourages consumers to perceive footwear as accessories and therefore as disposable and easily replaceable. The everchanging footwear landscape, built on the rapid succession of short-term fashion trends, means that the perceived useful lifespan of shoes is decreasing. This aspect, coupled with the use of low-quality materials to cater to higher manufacturing demands, results in a growing footwear wastestream.
Environmental and Social Impact of Fast Fashion Footwear
The fast-fashion business model presents challenges for sustainability and waste management within the footwear sector. Shoes comprise of a mix of chemicals, glues, rubbers and leather. These all have significant environmental and health impacts. Chemical compounds from footwear have been shown to leach into the soil, generate greenhouse gas emissions and impact surrounding ecology. Incineration of polyvinyl chloride, a commonly used material in the footwear industry, releases carbon dioxide and dioxins. These toxins are persistent and bioaccumulative endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with our reproductive systems.
Recently, the footwear industry has been heavily criticized for the exploitation of impoverished female workforces. Investigation in shoe factories in Eastern Europe revealed that intense workloads are the norm rather than the exception. Failure to comply with these extra hours often generated tensions with managers. Additionally, the workers work in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. With no access to protective equipment to shield them from exposure to toxic chemicals, workers often suffer from stomach and headaches, back and neck pains, damaged eye sight and skin and respiratory problems due to the degrading working conditions. Not to mention, their meagre wages are insufficient to subsist on. Workers often find themselves dependent on financial support from relatives and free agricultural goods.
Doctor's Thoughts on Shoe Thrifting
In light of these ethical violations, many consumers are preaching a ‘slow fashion’ lifestyle which aims to reduce overall consumption of fashion items and the redistribution of consumer purchases towards sustainable ventures. Particularly promising, secondhand shopping (aka shoe thrifting) has become the go-to shopping destination for the new converts who want to reduce their environmental impact while conserving the affordability granted by the fast fashion industry. When looking at the rows of donated shoes in charity or thrift shops, we can’t help but hear the distant voices of our parents cautioning us against wearing someone’s shoes. Is there any truth behind these health warnings? We’ve reached out to Dr Casey Pidich for some clarifications.
According to Casey, there is some minor truth to these parental warnings but this shouldn't be cause for alarm. "I personally have been shoe thrifting for over a decade and never once encountered any foot issues from thrifted shoes! Nor has any patient of mine in my twelve years of experience as a foot doctor," she says. She offers tips on the best habits to adopt when shoe thrifting and is quick to remind us that we shouldn't be discouraged from purchasing secondhand hand. "What I'm about to discuss is only precautionary. It's important to use common sense when shoe thrifting."
Casey's 6 Tips to Shoe Thrifting
WEAR SOCKS - Before you leave home, wear socks or bring light stocking foot covers with you in your purse or pockets to the Thrift store. This will help prevent spread of any athletes’ foot that may be lurking in the shoes you'll try on at the store.
SMELL THE SHOES - They might be gorgeous Fendi pumps but if they smell bad, HARD PASS. Any shoe that has a strong or pungent odor has either bacteria or fungus causing the smell.
LOOK INSIDES - So you found a cool vintage pair of Doc Martens. First look at the insides of the shoes for anything sticking out - sharp staples, tears in the seams, rips or holes in the soles.
FEEL AROUND INSIDE THE SHOE - If everything appears O.K. upon inspection, slide your hand into the shoe and feel around for any bumps or sharp objects. (If you are a diabetic be very cautious of this or have someone else do it for you.) Once everything feels good and smooth inside the shoes, then try them on with your socks on.
CHECK FOR BROKEN PARTS - Make sure to lace up the shoes, buckle all buckles, pull up the tongue of the shoes, and inspect the heels. Do the heels look slanted? Do the bottom soles look too worn? Certain shoe parts can be repaired and replaced. If it's a broken shoelace, that’s an easy replacement. If there's a hole or a broken strap, that make take money to repair. Are the shoes worth the investment? (More on professional shoe repair in a future post).
WALK AROUND - As if you're in a shoe store, walk around in the shoes for a few minutes. Ask yourself: how do they feel? Do the toes pinch? Do they feel good? Is the sole worn out? Just because a pair of pre-worn shoes are “cheap,” doesn't necessarily equate to comfort for your feet. We've all fallen into this trap. There's no point in owning a closet full of unworn designer thrifted shoes. A 'thrifted shoe score' should not only be an AMAZING STEAL but also FEEL GREAT on our feet!
Now that you've found a perfect pair of thrifted shoes, it's time for some TLC. There's a reason Casey mentions the need to wear socks when thrifting. "Before wearing my thrifted shoes, I clean them, warns Casey, Not to alarm you, but there are 'things' you can potentially catch on your feet from infected surfaces. Those include fungus a.k.a. athletes foot, warts (verrucae), and/or bacteria. However, the likelihood of catching any of these from pre-worn shoes is very low.
"Athlete's foot is a fungus that lives on our skin. It's known as a saprophyte. In order to survive, it needs our skin to exist. Cleaning your thrifted shoes with a disinfectant such as Lysol will kill any potential spores still in the shoe. Fungal spores can live up to 20 months in an old shoe. Therefore, we want to eliminate them before they have a chance to multiply. The same technique also works for viral warts and bacteria."
Casey's Cleaning Technique
Casey shares with us her cleaning technique, a mandatory step to ensure proper shoe hygiene (you never know what those shoes have seen?!). "The best way to clean the inside of a shoe is by first cleaning it with a Lysol wipe then Lysol spray. I do not recommend bleach. Bleach is great for killing surface germs, but it can destroy your new shoes. Lysol wipes will not damage the shoe's integrity or color. Once you wipe clean the inside soles and toe-box I recommend lightly spraying the shoes with Lysol spray. This will both deodorize the shoes and kill any germs you may have missed while wiping them. Afterward, 'air out' your shoes for at least a day, preferably outside in a sunny warm area. The sun acts as a natural desiccator of germs.
"Canvas or cloth shoes can go into the washing machine and left to air-dry after. If you are unsure how to clean something, a professional shoe repair or garment cleaner is your best option. With any cleaning technique, there are no guarantees your thrifted shoes will be 100% germ free. That is next to impossible–but let's just say they are probably safe enough to use and wear."
The Best/Worst Shoes To Thrift
According to Casey, not all shoes are created equal - at least not in the world of thrifting. Some materials lend themselves better to secondhand wear like suede and leather. "Suede and leather naturally stretch over our foot bones. They are treated to be durable and long-lasting on our feet and the subsequent owner's feet."
"I usually pass on thrifted athletic wear. Sweat and bacteria build up in sneakers and therefore have a higher chance of harboring bacteria or sweat. If sneakers are something you enjoy thrifting, I'd recommend using something stronger than just Lysol to disinfect them. Here is evidence that UV shoe sanitizers kill fungus in shoes (JAPMA 2012)."
All in all, you should not be discouraged from buying secondhand footwear. It's a great way to save money and the environment. Remember that the rules of fast fashion also apply to thrifting: be a conscious consumer, not a hoarder. Buy pre-loved shoes that you know you will wear again and again - the benefits of shopping secondhand are lost if you buy items that you will donate or throw away.
Are you a shoe-thrifter? Please share your tips!
- Dr Casey Ann Pidich is a podiatrician who practices at Park Avenue Podiatric Care clinic in New York City. In her free time, she enjoys sharing her expertise and love of footwear fashion with fellow womxn. Catch her on instagram for some styling tips and shoe reviews.