What’s the Biodiversity Impact of a pair of shoes?

We rely on our environment to provide us with essential services and resources, including food, water filtration, weather defence, and many others. Our natural ecosystems need diversity of plant and animal life to offer these services. 

Unfortunately biodiversity is in decline, reducing the overall resilience and health of the natural world around us. Worldwide, the WWF found that there was an average decline of 68% in populations tracked over 46 years. A similar story can be found in Britain, where 56% of species have declined in population in recent decades and many face risk of extinction. This depletion in biodiversity puts the health of our land at risk.

What Causes Biodiversity Loss?

All businesses rely on natural systems, either directly or further “upstream” through their supply chains. From natural fibres in clothes, to mining metals from deep underground to build microchips, to growing fruit and vegetables, there is a cost to natural resources in everything we produce. 

As the world is constantly ploughed, dug and adapted to keep up with our consumption, natural systems are under increased strain. Our damage to natural habitats around the world displaces nature and on occasion pushes species to extinction.

Let’s imagine a simple design of shoes now, with a rubber sole, canvas (cotton) body and cotton shoelaces. We’ll ignore the plastics used to bond and protect the materials for this example and just thread all the pieces together. Yes they may fall apart with our poor sewing skills, but at least they are plastic free!

Cotton: What’s the Biodiversity impact?

Let’s assume we’re using organic cotton so we only need to worry about the indirect impact of the pollution against the land we’re using. We’re also importing the cotton from India (where 51% of organic cotton was produced last year, (2)).

India is an amazingly diverse country, where tens of thousands of species of all variety make their home. There are several especially rich regions for biodiversity, including the Western Ghats, which is both an organic cotton production region, and biodiversity hotspot – inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012.

There are hundreds of local reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians and plants which are endemic (only found in the region), such as the Lion-tailed macaque. Cotton can be grown alongside or in rotation with other crops, but it is still likely that almost all species will be displaced by agricultural expansion.

The impact of cotton has a potential catastrophic impact on biodiversity. Our growing consumption of cotton means more land, and therefore more habitat lost for native wildlife, from plants to amphibians and birds.

The Lion Tailed Macaque, India

Rubber: What’s the Biodiversity impact?

Let’s assume we’re purchasing our natural rubber from Thailand, which produces the most rubber worldwide. Rubber is grown in plantations that would have replaced diverse lowland forest, displacing the majority of wildlife in the process.

In Southern Thailand, you could expect lowland forests to be a habitat for Woodpeckers, Broadbills, Warblers and many more rare or threatened birds. Furthermore, a variety of vegetation and plantlife would have been cleared, which would also serve as habitat for thousands of insects, frogs and lizards.

Bird species richness (the variety of species in a given space) has been found to drop 60% when forest is converted to rubber plantation (4), and arguably similar or greater drops would be found for other species too. 

In addition, large continuous Monoculture plantations can also lead to loss of soil quality, which reduce land resilience and can lead to disastrous events such as landslides, damaging vast swathes of land in the process and impact wildlife beyond the boundaries of the plantation.

Silber Breasted Broadbill, Thailand

Can we be Nature Positive?

Unfortunately it’s clear that many of our purchases have a far-reaching impact on global biodiversity. The process of growing the building blocks of your shoes will have affected countless species in the countries it is produced.

We’ve used international examples here, but the same story can be told in Britain. There are no cotton or rubber plantations, but much of our land is still a mosaic of agricultural spaces which is pushing native species to the fringes of our landscapes and to the edge of existence.

The worrying losses in biodiversity that we are witnessing, which is connected and exacerbated by climate change, mean that we can no longer continue with business as usual and we must take action now.

Regenerative agriculture and agroforestry are practices that can make the growing of cotton and rubber more sustainable and nature-friendly. However, all agriculture has an impact on local wildlife, and ultimately there needs to be space where plant and animal life are not interfered with.

Nature is not just a pleasant sight to witness on weekend walks, but a network of life that we fundamentally rely on. We can no longer ignore the biodiversity crisis that we are witnessing. I am hopeful that as awareness is raised for these issues we can build a new relationship with the natural world, with mutual respect for the services that all wildlife provides us, from the largest rivers to the smallest fungi.