What happens to our old shoes after we dispose of them? Can we trust the sustainability promises of manufacturers and retailers? What consequences does our shoe consumption have for the environment, our health and the rest of the world?

To answer these questions, we concealed GPS transmitters in the soles of old sneakers worn by eleven celebrities, fed them into various disposal channels, and tracked them around the world for more than five months and many thousands of miles. It was a hunt in which our team did not know in advance where it would lead us.

We disposed of the GPS sneakers in different ways. We threw them into textile collection bins and we returned them to major retailers and manufacturers. At a Nike store, we threw them into a brown box that said “Recycle your old shoes.” A similar box at textile giant Zara said, “Give the clothes you no longer wear a new life.” These are prompts that suggest to customers: You can still do something good with your old shoes. But is that really true?

It’s a big question that little was known about until our investigation. Every year, around 1.4 billion pairs of sneakers are sold, twice as many as in 2012, and corporations make around $70 billion in revenue from them. More and more shoes are produced – and eventually discarded because they are worn out, don’t look so chic after all, or the shelf is already full to bursting. In Germany alone, over 380 million pairs of shoes are thrown away every year, almost five pairs per person.

For the first time, “Sneakerjagd” has shown in detail what happens to our old shoes. Among other things, we uncovered that Zara took donated, well-preserved shoes directly to a waste disposal company. We were able to prove that Nike was destroying brand-new shoes under the disguise of its widely promoted “Nike Grind” recycling program, potentially violating German law, according to the German government. And we were able to document the export of our old sneakers to African countries where they cause huge environmental problems. In Kenya, for example, we followed our sneakers to apocalyptic and illegal waste sites full of old textiles.

Because “Sneakerjagd” tells many stories, we have published this major investigation as a cross-media serial over several weeks. NDR contributed various films and podcasts/radio, and ZEIT larger texts. FLIP took care of GPS tracking, social media strategy and newsletter. FLIP also developed the central project website www.sneakerjagd.de, an interactive world map where you can follow the route of each sneaker. In the end, “Sneakerjagd” has reached around 10 Million people – ranging from celebrity Insta stories to Germany’s main news show “Tagesschau”.

Read the signature publication “Dirty Footprint” in English below.

The idea and concept stem from Flip Co-founders Felix Rohrbeck and Christian Salewski. Salewski was also in charge of the overall project. With all participants, the team finally comprised 20 people in the following roles:

Idea & Concept: Felix Rohrbeck, Christian Salewski

Head of Project: Christian Salewski

Editors: Felix Rohrbeck (FLIP), Dietmar Schiffermüller (Strg_F / NDR Fernsehen), Jürgen Webermann (NDR Info), Karsten Polke-Majewski (DIE ZEIT / ZEIT Online)

Reporters: Manuel Daubenberger, Benedikt Dietsch, Johannes Edelhoff, Willem Konrad, Anne Kunze, Felix Rohrbeck, Christian Salewski

GPS-Technology: Felix Rohrbeck, Christian Salewski, Christoph Scholl, Oliver Strecke

Development Project Website: Christian Sothmann (Lead), Moritz Klack, Fabian Dinklage, Lorenz Jeric, Christian Salewski, Simon Wörpel, Sascha Venohr

Social Media Strategy: Lorenz Jeric

Camera: Manuel Daubenberger, Willem Konrad, Andrzej Krol

Film Dramaturgy / Editing: Willem Konrad

Podcast: Melanie Böff, Felix Rohrbeck, Christian Salewski

Dirty Footprint

Sports apparel manufacturer Nike pledges to recycle used trainers. We traced a few pairs and were in for a nasty surprise.

Heaps of garbage, that we would have been prepared for. And for classic greenwashing. But none of us could have imagined the dark secret waiting for us when we set out on our sneaker hunt. Our aim was to find out what happens to the 1.4 billion trainers that are produced worldwide per year, which are not supposed to end up in household rubbish bins but rather become a part of recycling schemes that are promoted by the industry.

The fashion industry is responsible for more CO2 emissions than air traffic and the shipping industry combined. Greenpeace’s Viola Wohlgemuth calls it a “climate killer.” There are few items of clothing that illustrate the exponential growth of Fast Fashion as well as trainers do. Sneaker sales have doubled since 2012 and the annual turnover stands at 70 billion US Dollars.

Supported by rappers and influencers, the big manufacturers create their coveted prototypes. People who refer to themselves as Sneakerheads will spend the night before a release queuing outside the shops. The shoes sell out within minutes and, soon thereafter, are offered online for many times the original price. As such, sneakers have long become objects of speculation. In April, US rapper Kanye West auctioned off a pair that he had created in cooperation with Nike. He sold them for 1.8 million dollars.

On 16 June, we push a pair of used grey Nikes belonging to comedian Carolin Kebekus into a brown cardboard box at the Hamburg Nike branch. Inside the soles, we have concealed GPS trackers. The writing on the box encourages us to “Recycle your old trainers” and says “Why keep your old shoes piling up at home? Donate them. We’ll turn them into Nike Grind, a base material for new Performance Products: shoes, apparel or performance surface materials. Help the next generation of athletes and donate your shoes today.” The box is nearly full.

Since 2002, the Nike group has increased its turnover almost every year. Its turnover now stands at around 45 billion US Dollars, a fourfold increase in less than 20 years. The largest factor contributing to this success is footwear.

Just under two weeks after we have dropped the trainers into the box the trackers inform us that Kebekus’ shoes are in Belgium. For three weeks, they log on each morning at 8 a.m. to a radio transmitter east of Antwerp. We were expecting the trainers to travel to Meerhout, the site of a recycling plant, as had been stated in an old Nike press release. Instead, the shoes send their signal from a location 25 Kilometres further to the east, from a small town called Herenthout. This is puzzling. What is the connection of this town with Nike? Where is the recycling plant actually located? We ask the Nike press office. No reply.

We follow the signal to Herenthout. At the end of a nondescript cul-de-sac, we find our destination, a white warehouse made of corrugated metal. In front of it, a sign in Dutch identifies it as a “Pre-treatment plant for clothes recycling.” This is where Kebekus’ trainers have arrived.

We see a number of names on letterboxes, none of which say Nike. We drive around the warehouse. The weather is warm on this summer’s day, some back doors are open. Without getting out of the car we can see workers inside, handling shoes. In the background, we can make out a machine that is rattling away. We park the car, get out and approach a door that is wedged open with a white Nike shoe.

Behind the door, there are some tables where workers are tipping out the shoes. With one movement of their hands, they remove something from inside. One of the workers notices us and walks over. We explain that we are doing research on sneaker recycling and ask if this place recycles Nike trainers. The worker goes to fetch his colleague. She goes to fetch her boss. As we wait by the open door, the work inside continues. 

We can hardly believe our eyes. The shoes that are being tipped onto the table here out of large boxes all look brand new. We watch as one worker uses a small spatula to pull out the paper stuffing that is used to bolster new shoes. Almost all of the trainers on the table are Nike designs. And they all look new. The preparation plant turns out to be a shredder with new Nikes travelling towards it on a conveyer belt.

How is this possible? Why is Nike destroying new shoes?

A little earlier, we had been watching a video by CEO John Donahoe on the Nike website. He says: “Sustainability remains one of the top priorities at Nike. In the race against climate change, we do not just wait for solutions. We create them.*” His words are spoken against the backdrop of the Grinder: the shredding machine.

At the Belgian warehouse, we are approached by the supervisor. We ask him if he and his colleagues only shred Nike shoes. He says: “Nearly all of them are Nike, it’s rather rare that we see other brands.” He and his colleagues are not Nike employees, he says. At the moment, he adds, most of the shoes are still new. In the future, the plan is to have more used ones. We ask him if the shoes are taken apart into their components for the presumed recycling process. He says only the paper stuffing gets removed. Then the shoes are shredded whole.

Back in Germany, we try to find out more about the grinding process via the German, Belgian and US Nike press offices. We ask if we could talk to someone and visit the plant. In each case, we are fobbed off with a few words referring us to the sustainability report.

In the meantime, Nike has added a new “Recycle + Donate” web page that features prominently on the German homepage. On the page, the company asserts: “If you drop discarded trainers and sports apparel at a participating Nike store we will recycle and donate them on your behalf (…) Your donation is a simple way of ensuring that your stuff will not end on a landfill.” But at the Herenthout warehouse, we saw mostly new trainers, hardly any “discarded” ones. Can it be that Nike, of all companies the one that puts perhaps the most emphasis on highlighting its sustainability efforts, is shredding new goods under the guise of a recycling scheme?

For years, the warehouses of textile manufacturers have been bursting at the seams as ever-new designs are pushed onto the market. The pandemic has only exacerbated this problem: people buy fewer clothes and are de-cluttering their wardrobes. The warehouses get fuller and fuller. Already at the beginning of the pandemic, environmental groups voiced concerns that much of the new stock would be destroyed immediately, not in the least because manufacturers often have no incentive to lower prices. Their worry is that down marking the stock might damage the brand.

In their sustainability report, Nike states that “Nike Grind” also includes the shredding of so-called Unsellables, e.g. trainers with defects. On the site, we could not identify any defects or quality issues whatsoever. But we wanted to make sure, so we ordered a brand new pair of Nikes online.

Our choice is a basketball shoe, size 47.5, roomy enough for our GPS trackers. After we have glued them into the soles, the shoes look like new. There are no defects whatsoever visible from the outside. We send them back to Nike as returned merchandise. The concealed trackers send us signals from the DHL shop, a Duisburg logistics hub, and then from the Nike logistics centre in Belgium, until at last, they connect with us from the familiar nondescript white corrugated warehouse in Herenthout. To us, this is proof: the shoes that are shredded there are not just defective ones. The warehouse also shreds perfectly intact returns. 

We return to the warehouse, this time posing as prospective buyers who are interested in the Nike Grind material. A member of staff shows us around the whole shop floor where thousands of shoes in large sacks and towering rows of cardboard boxes are awaiting their destruction. We pick up a number of Nike sneakers. “But these are all new,” we say. “Yes, they often are,” says the staff member. One Nike shoe even has a returns slip underneath it.

One shelf boasts a display of designs that the workers have collected because they liked them best. They did not want to throw them into the jaws of the shredder. As before, the conveyor belt is slowly advancing into the machine. A worker throws pair after pair of new Nikes onto it, almost casually. 

We present our findings to a spokesperson of the German Ministry for the Environment. He references possible “infringements against the Waste Hierarchy regulations, as stipulated by the Circular Economy Act.” What does that mean? “According to the Waste Hierarchy, the avoidance of waste takes top priority and outranks all other waste disposal measures, such as recycling.” He says this is a case for the competent state government agency to intervene and that such infringements carry fines of up to 100,000 Euros.

During last week’s World Climate Conference in Glasgow, we intercepted Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer. As we told him about the results of our research he displays surprise. “That is not part of what we are trying to do” he says. He promises to look into it.

A little later, confronted with all details in writing, a spokesperson replies that, in addition to used shoes, “we also send worn samples, defective products, counterfeit products, sales samples and other shoes (…) to Nike Grind.” She admits that the recycled shoes may also include “returns showing signs of possible damage or use.” By referring only to “signs,” the company creates a wide scope for interpretation. The spokesperson continues: “Unworn and immaculate items will be restocked in the shops for re-sale.” Hence, the company denies the destruction of new spotless shoes – which is exactly what we witnessed at the warehouse. 

We tell Carolin Kebekus that not only her sneakers ended up in a shredder, but hundreds of new shoes. She can hardly believe it. “That is disgusting, guys!” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t think of a reason why it should be a good thing to destroy brand new shoes rather than to give them away.” 

The tracker from our returned shoe sends its last signal from a waste disposal plant a few kilometres from the shredder warehouse. Presumably, it has been removed from the rest of the material – and thrown away.