Whether you’ve got a shoe collection that requires its own closet or your footwear serves only practical purposes, it has likely come to your attention that much of the world’s shoe production is extremely unsustainable.
Leather shoes are famous for their durability, but most leather production is tied to the environmentally-dubious cattle industry, and conventional methods of tanning leather often produce toxic by-products. The majority of synthetic options are made from petroleum-based plastic, which sticks around in the ground for centuries after the shoes have done their dash.
With 24.2 billion pairs of shoes created globally in 2018 alone, there’s an urgent need for the industry to start cleaning itself up. Here are five brands advancing the cause with sustainable sneakers that are high in trend and low on carbon.
In these colorful kicks, you might feel like you’re quite literally treading lighter on our Earth. Time magazine billed Allbirds “the most comfortable shoes on Earth,” which makes it no wonder that they’re the shoe of choice for the jean- and hoodie-clad elite of Silicon Valley. The lightweight, bouncy sole is made from sugarcane; the uppers are either merino sheep wool or tree fiber; and the laces are spun from recycled plastic bottles.
By selling their sustainable sneakers online, Allbirds avoids wholesalers’ markup that pushes shoe prices high, so more is able to be spent on materials and labor costs than most other similarly-priced shoes. “The wholesale model has very tight margins,” says an Allbirds spokesperson, “which discourages brands from investing in premium natural materials and sustainable solutions like we have.”
This year, Allbirds launched its own carbon fund, a “self-imposed carbon tax that funds 100 percent carbon neutrality,” says the spokesperson. “We know that any carbon footprint is too big… The Carbon Fund is the first step in our mission to minimize, and ultimately eliminate, any emissions we create as a business. Because we’re paying for each and every kilo of carbon we produce, we’re further incentivized to find new solutions that will lower our carbon output.”
These Brazilian-made shoes use wild rubber from the Amazon for their soles. Seringueiros (rubber-tappers) ‘bleed’ the rubber trees to obtain natural latex, which they transform into rubber sheets. The processing helps them get a better price for their rubber, meaning they’re less likely to turn to more damaging industries like timber harvesting and intensive cattle farming for additional income.
The shoes’ uppers are made from organic cotton canvas, recycled fabrics, mesh from recycled plastic bottles and corn waste, and synthetic suede. They also use some leather from zero-deforestation sources in southern Brazil, where they keep a keen eye on the tanning process to ensure chemicals are used and disposed of correctly. In a particularly surprising innovation, they’ve started making some of their shoes from fish leather, from the discarded hides of farmed tilapia fish. They also collaborate with a logistics partner, Ateliers Sans Frontières, which helps marginalized people reintegrate into the labor market.
These sustainable sneakers cost three times more than a conventional pair of similar sneakers to manufacture, but they’re sold in stores for approximately the same price. How does that work? Veja doesn’t advertise. The company owners say that 70 percent of a normal big sneaker brand’s overhead is related to advertising. With zero advertising budget, the company has managed to sell three million pairs in its 14-year lifespan.
Wado’s classic sneakers aim to fly in the face of fast fashion, with a strong focus on durability and timelessness. Co-founded by a trio of young entrepreneurs who took to Kickstarter to fund the fledgling brand, Wado’s aesthetic is reminiscent of the 1980s with thick soles and air hole–ventilated round toes, but its design couldn’t be more forward-thinking. Each pair of kicks is an intricate composition of organic cotton, recycled polyurethane foam from automotive factories, natural and synthetic rubber, recycled woodchips, recycled thermoplastic and – as vegan leather has come under scrutiny for being non-biodegradable – carefully-sourced European leather tanned without the use of Chromium, a chemical often used in tanneries and strongly linked to tuberculosis.
Rather than shipping its production off to Asia, where some 90 percent of the world’s footwear is produced by workers whose wages often fall well below living, Wado employs Portuguese artisans to piece together each pair. Its contribution to nations outside European borders is, instead, trees: for every pair purchased, the company plants two trees in collaboration with NGO WeForest either in India’s northeast state of Meghalaya, the site of the country’s first REDD+ project, or in Zambia’s Miombo woodlands.
In April this year, sneaker giant Adidas launched the Futurecraft.Loop shoe, a performance running shoe that is 100 percent recyclable. Recycling sneakers is traditionally difficult because they usually consist of a range of materials that are glued together; these shoes are made entirely from one type of plastic and put together in one piece so they don’t require any glue, with much of its material made from marine plastic waste. The company has committed to using only recycled polyester in every product by 2024.
The ‘loop’ in its name comes from the fact that each Futurecraft.Loop pair is intended to be returned to Adidas, which will pulverize the shoes back into raw materials that will then be used to create a new pair of sneakers – a completely circular manufacturing process. Beta models are currently being tested, while wider release is set to come in 2021.
From gray cardigans to the perfect white tee, Everlane has cultivated an immensely loyal global clientele by creating a full wardrobe of staple pieces with “radical transparency” on the sustainability of each garment. After building a footwear line of loafers, smoking slippers, oxfords and boots, the brand is finally adding in sustainable sneakers, with a nearly plastic-free recycled rubber sole; leather from a tannery that emits almost half as much carbon as the average; and plastic bottles refashioned into laces and linings.
While its material choices were made in large part for their relative lack of emissions, Everlane is going one step further to calculate the carbon dioxide inevitably still linked to each pair and offsetting it by partnering with NativeEnergy, which works to change livestock practices to sequester more carbon in American grasslands.