The paradox of sustainability and socks

Yesterday I bought a pair of socks in a fast-fashion outlet. They caught my eye, and as a teen of the formative years of computing, it was hard to resist the lure of the Pac-Man design. The original school of video games, all innovation in graphics and gameplay, eeking every cycle of computing power out of the chips and the groovy 8-bit soundtrack beeping along in the background. And yes, I do know that I shouldn’t be buying, and hence supporting, a shop like this. After all, I’ve preached this exact message countless times before myself. If there were sound effects on this page though, you’d hear me taking a tire-squealing U-turn at this point, pointing out a paradox when it comes to sustainability and socks.

Usually, I’m a loud supporter of all-natural fibres. There are many reasons for this, not least that they contain no plastics. This means that they can be recycled, and shed no microplastics, and the supply chain is fathomable. Wool socks are a natural stroke of genius, being warm even when wet. Pure cotton socks are cheap and can be easily patterned, but really don’t wear too well and feel clammy and cold if damp or wet.

The bane of socks though is that they need to be able to sustain wear. And herein lies the paradox: Natural fibres really don’t wear well as socks. I’ve had the loveliest, and expensive, fine wool socks wear through in 2 days of wearing. Sure, they might be repairable to extend the life span a little, but the image it brings to mind is the small Dutch boy trying to plug a dike with his fingers. You there will be no love you long time here.

Yet we have the know-how to make socks that last and it means using synthetic fibres. Add in som polyester, polyamide or elastane and that wool sock is set to keep on rocking for ages. All while retaining the great properties of the natural wool.

And this is the second half of the paradox: To make sustainable socks we need to use synthetic fibres. Which means contributing to the further spread of microplastics and fibres that are not recyclable.

So where does this leave us? Do we accept socks that last, yet are not environmentally friendly, or do we accept that we must keep repairing and buying new socks? I wish I had a clear answer, but fear that the problem is really so complex as to be almost impossible to resolve with any certainty. And, as is all too common when talking about sustainability, it depends very much on the motivation of those discussing it. For my part, I just want socks without holes. And one pair that displays my allegiance to classic video games of my youth…



  • Luke 01/08/2020 at 15:17

    I made the switch to bamboo socks a while back. And you can get them in crazy designs too. Yeah, like yours, my woollen ones disintegrate just by me breathing on them and also if I don’t sit by my chest of drawers with a gun and surrounded by barbed wire those damn cloth eating moths will try and get to them if it isn’t me just wearing them a few times that destroys the wool ones. Agree about cotton ones feeling clammy and unfortunately the bamboo ones aren’t much different but maybe slightly better. I am into non-synthetics not just for lifestyle reasons. My body has an allergic reaction to plastics discovered when my Mum bought me a watch for my 5th birthday with one of those faux racing driver straps with the holes in but was in fact plastic. The skin round my wrist came up red raw within a few hours of first wear. Probably because I am an ‘indigo child’ or something, literally my entire psyche and physiology were born to favour ecological sustainability. I bet you could get a bamboo sock maker 5to do a line of Pac man ones. Personally I was a Pong guy , then Space Invaders, then I was out of the computer game thing for a few decades then was lured back in with football manager games and GTA but lately it’s been online Pool. I don’t have any socks based on any of those.

    • nick 01/08/2020 at 17:30

      It’s kind of interesting how bamboo socks are marketed, and how they are seemingly allowed to market them as such. You’re kind of given the impression it’s the bamboo fibres that are used, while it’s really just the cellulose from the pulped bamboo, making it a viscose fabric. This process is usually very harsh on the environment, using a lot of strong chemicals. Oddly, this doesn’t stop companies claiming quite remarkable properties for these products… I agree on Space Invaders though! And Galaga! I have a setup in my cave that allows me to play all the old games off the original ROM-images. Magical times 🙂

      • Luke 01/08/2020 at 18:37

        I give up. No ventile. No bamboo socks. Think I will just start walking around naked.

        • nick 01/08/2020 at 18:42

          Oh no, that’s no good! Seriously though, it’s both hard and infuriating how difficult it is to «do the right thing», right? We try our best to be environmentally friendly, minimize our impact, make sustainable choices, and so forth, but it’s as if the industry is trying to con us at every step of the way. I totally sympathize with you!

          • Luke 01/08/2020 at 18:47

            Thanks. Yeah, it’s a minefield… but we have to keep trying and keep thinking about it because if humanity doesn’t even try even if you are at the end of the production chain, as a mere consumer and have no power over production, terrible consequences will be the result on this planet.

          • nick 01/08/2020 at 18:53

            This is what keeps me delving into it. It’s sad that so much of it is consumers vs companies, or more pointedly trying to save the environment vs trying to increase profits. It’s easy to claim sustainabllity, but a lot harder to actually make a difference. Natural fibres, quality garments, low production and ethical standards are a good starting point. Basically everything the massive fast fashion companies are not…

          • Luke 01/08/2020 at 19:05

            And it’s a really good thing that you do keep delving into it. Yeah I feel the same way about mass-produced food/drink packaging too, there are way too many products that use plastics when more ecological materials could be used.

  • Richard Mansell 01/08/2020 at 15:19

    I have some thick boot socks from Finisterre that seem to be wearing very well – pure wool. That said, bout socks and dress socks are different things.

    • nick 01/08/2020 at 17:31

      Thick wool tends to wear much better, yes. Nothing like a good, thick pair of wool socks for keeping the feet warm! 🙂

    • Luke 01/08/2020 at 18:40

      I think I got my last pairs of bamboo socks from Finisterre ironically. I hope they read Nick’s comment above.

      • Luke 01/08/2020 at 21:20

        Oh no. Sorry. I get mixed up with things. It wasn’t Finisterre I got the bamboo socks from it was Rapanui. Public apology to Finisterre here sorry. Rapanui do good stuff also though before I make it look like I am putting them down too. Maybe I should just refrain from commenting on anything generally.

        • nick 01/08/2020 at 21:32

          No worries! Rapanui was new to me.

  • WDW 02/08/2020 at 20:15

    I’m thinking that a garment (a pair of socks) that will see many months or perhaps years of wear and tear is better than the fancy pants virgin wool hand spun eco variety that will only allow you to thread gently upon clouds….twice…before they shrivel and die.

    Doing the maths of “right and wrong” choices is both depressing and impossible

  • Peter 02/08/2020 at 23:17

    I think that with socks it’s best to think them from the purpose first (keeping your feet comfortable), and then from the end (how they will be disposed of). Having delicate feet I discovered early on that some kind of clever wool-synthetics-mix with a bit of padding in the right spots is invaluable if I wanted to do anything remotely resembling hiking. A wool-heavy mix will simply work best at keeping my feet comfortable and dry even in summer temperatures.

    The other thing is disposal/recycling: When, after years and years of wear I decide it’s finally time not to mend anymore and throw them away, they will be burned in the end. All the world thinks Germans are the forerunners at separating their garbage, but whether they are or not, in most big cities everything that isn’t metal or paper will get burned (as we have those beautiful huge garbage burning plants that are always planned for double the amount of garbage that could ever be sensibly burned). If you live in Cologne, or Bonn, or any of the big German cities, you can rest assured that none of those yoghurt cups or sixpack-holders will ever end up constricting some dolphin’s snout. It will go up in smoke (probably very much like the majority of the paper you collected).

    I think I switched to expensive socks (Falke Walkie etc.) about ten years ago, and so far each single pair I own is still soldiering on admirably.

    • nick 03/08/2020 at 15:47

      I’m pretty shocked to hear that recycling is taken so lightly in Germany. Then again, there have been rumours about a lot of thrash being sent there to be “recycled” has gone to incineration. The official story is that plastics and paper are recycled. In some ways burning plastics and mixed fibre, textiles are the right thing to do, ensuring the energy is reclaimed and it’s made certain they’re not reused. I’m very concerned about the popularity of recycled polyester now. Yes, it does mean plastics are being reused, but it also means the continued spread of microplastics. I’m sure there are viable arguments for both viewpoints, though it’s hard to look upon it all with much optimism!

      I do have some Falke socks somewhere, maybe I should use them more?

      • Peter 03/08/2020 at 20:34

        [quote]I’m pretty shocked to hear that recycling is taken so lightly in Germany. Then again, there have been rumours about a lot of thrash being sent there to be “recycled” has gone to incineration. The official story is that plastics and paper are recycled.
        [rant]They call it ‘thermic’ or ‘energetic’ recycling. Apparently paper and metal _does_ often get recycled, but the problem with plastics is that there are so many different types of polymers, and no easy way to sort them, so burning it is one of the ways they deal with it. Not ideal, but better than exporting plastic waste to third-world countries labelled as ‘resources’ and have nothing more to do with it.[/rant]

        I found Falke socks to be comfortable and warm (Falke Walkie especially), and their Walkie light are even wearable in summer unless it’s 30°C. I found out that not subjecting them to the drier makes them last longer. Smartwool also make robust, warm, and comfortable wool/synthetics mix socks that have lasted as long as the Falkes so far.

        • nick 04/08/2020 at 08:08

          When it comes to this type of recycling, it’s not the fact that they are recycling the energy (aka burning it), and not truly recycling the raw materials, that infuriates me. It’s the deception involved, at least seen from Norway. About a year ago there was a big case where the usual recipients of Norwegian plastics would no longer take it (Sweden, I think, not China), so all the plastics were taken to Germany. Journalists tried to find out what would happen to them and were only told they were to be recycled. There was a suspicion that it would be burnt, but it was impossible to confirm this. And clearly this was due to PR and how this would be interpreted by the people that wash their yoghurt cups and sort their thrash with dedication. If there was an actual honesty around these matters, it would be easier to be on the same page.

          The same goes for waste from clothes, if the actual facts were on the table for all to see, and not greenwashed over, maybe there would be more willing to change? Or even if fast fashion companies stopped trying to lay the blame on consumers for all their ethical and environmental crimes? This quickly gets very dark…

          • Peter 04/08/2020 at 15:32

            I totally agree with you that it is greenwashing, and that labelling the burning of plastics ‘recycling’ of any kind is fraudulent. What’s at the heart of the problem is that the German ‘recycling’ system was never meant to be about recycling, but about some people making obscene amounts of money with it.

            What really infuriates me about this is that after nearly thirty years of fooling people into sorting their waste the whole idea of waste-sorting is pretty much discredited. I’m afraid this would make it very hard to introduce a proper recycling system that involves people sorting their waste.

  • BOBBY DAVIS 07/08/2020 at 18:53

    Just do the hemp socks or the wool/cotton mix socks. I have anonymous ism socks for the last 3 winters and theyre holding up swell. You’re either gonna buy socks that last or socks that you like. Hopefully you get best of both worlds

    • nick 07/08/2020 at 19:19

      I think the Anonymism socks I had were pure cotton. Quite thick, nice pattern. Lasted a week. Repaired them a coupe of times before giving them up. Are yours a mixed fibre variant?

  • Diane 09/08/2020 at 08:30

    Smart wool, man.

  • Barry 14/08/2020 at 01:15

    Same goes for underwear, i’ve tried switching to merino wool for everyday use based on there superior scent control, rather than just for hiking and camping, but they shrink like crazy, are expensive, and for us thicker thighed fellas they rub out holes in the crotch after not many wears, so i’m still looking for a good alternative. (on a side note, i’ve been looking for those exact shoes in the photo, can anyone point me towards them?)

    • nick 14/08/2020 at 08:29

      Definitely similar issues with underwear. Apart from the obvious concerns of flexibility and fit, the, shall we call them “issues of temperature and moisture control” are even more prevalent. If I’m walking a long way in the heat, the best I can use are Nike Combat Shorts (sadly, as I don’t think there is a single natural fibre in them). Otherwise it’s wide cotton shorts that work best. The shoes in the photo are the classic Wallabees from Clarks Originals. These are the “Cola” colour, as I recall. If we’re talking comfort, it’s hard to find anything more comfortable than suede Wallabees.

  • Sandra S Campbell 21/09/2021 at 01:12

    My solution to this–for the time being–is pure cotton or wool socks that I can compost in my own compost pile. I figured out that I just have to replace socks often–I do mend them, but I only expect a few more weeks after mending, or a few months. So they have to be compostable! Which means 100 percent cotton or wool, for the time being.

  • Jenny 08/09/2023 at 07:09

    Go proper old school – nålbind pure wool socks à la the vikings. If you wear do manage to wear a hole in the sock it does not fray due to the construction style of the material.


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