Let’s put some sustainability in your step… and move toward eco friendly and ethical sneaker brands.
So much progress has been made in the last few years. We now have a healthy selection of sustainable sneakers so you can put your best eco foot forward.
Of course, these eco-friendly sneaker brands still have some strides to make towards true sustainability. Because, to be frank, the traditional footwear industry stinks worse than feet that have been in rubber boots all day.
If you want to read more about why sustainable and ethical sneakers are necessary and how the brands on this list made the cut, keep reading or click here.
A few standouts we must mention. From personal experience, Allbirds have got to be one of the most comfortable sustainable shoes on the market. Then there’s Ethletic who offer subsidized repairs so you don’t have to buy new. And when your sustainable kicks are finally dead to the world, Etiko will recycle them for you.
No sense in standing still! Let’s get moving toward the best sustainable sneaker brands!
Allbirds are everywhere.
This San Francisco based B-Corp makes some of the most eco-friendly sneakers for women, men, and kids (or “smallbirds”). We both recently bought a pair of these and we LOVE them. They’re probably one of the most comfortable shoes we’ve ever worn. No wonder this sustainable sneaker brand has reached cult status in less than 10 years of operation.
Their selection is huge. Besides runners and mizzles (a higher rise running shoe), they make loungers, breezers, skippers, and toppers (plus those names!). The colors are soft and easily matchable like feminine mauve ethical sneakers.
Allbirds was founded by New Zealander Tim Brown and American renewables expert Joey Zwillinger. Fun fact: sheep outnumber people 6 to 1 in New Zealand hence the use of merino wool in their sneaker range.
Allbird’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: Allbirds eco-friendly wool sneakers are made using superfine ZQ Merino (which adheres to the most stringent ethical wool and most animal welfare standards) which demands 60% less energy to make than synthetic shoes. Their Tree lines are made of eucalyptus pulp TENCEL Lyocell grown with 95% less water and produced in a clean, closed-loop process.
The laces are made of recycled plastic bottles (about one bottle per pair) and threaded through bio-based TPU eyelets.
They use partial castor bean oil in their midsole to minimize synthetic content (though there is still some EVA here). For the outsoles, they are transitioning to using a new material called SweetFoam, made from Brazillian sugarcane certified by Proforest. Since its byproducts are used to power the mill and fertilize the field, it’s the world’s first carbon-negative EVA.
Read the full details on materials here.
- Supply chain & labor practices: Allbirds openly states where their products are made. Their merino is sourced from New Zealand and spun in Milan, Italy in Europe’s only wool mill sustainably certified by the European Commission. The Tree collection is made with FSC-certified eucalyptus from South African farms that are then made by the Austrian company Lenzing.
Finished fabrics get assembled at WRAP-certified factories in South Korea and China.
They also use 90% recycled cardboard packaging “because every box deserves a second chance”. In 2019 they even went Carbon Neutral by fully offsetting business operations.
- Community & charitable giving: Through their partnership with Soles4Souls, they donate lightly used, returned shoes to communities in need (while simultaneously reducing waste).
Ethletic is the German creator of ethical skate shoes. They’re made in solid or bi-color designs with contrasting soles. Simple yet bold.
Ethletic started with a ball in 2004, the first ethical soccer ball, to be exact. They didn’t start making sneakers until 2010 when they became the first brand to make organic cotton and fair trade sneakers.
In 2016, they even won Germany’s TransFair “Fair Trade Manufacturer” of the year and are a German Association of Workshops “accredited supplier”.
Over the years, they’ve proudly collaborated with artists and design students around the world.
High and low top canvas as well as more heavily padded Hiro high tops for ankle support
Ethletic’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: These PETA-approved sustainable vegan sneakers have partially padded organic cotton uppers (from certified Fairtrade producers). The footbeds are made of antibacterial coconut fiber. All soles are FSC-certified natural rubber, bonded through vulcanization to the rest of the shoe with latex milk.
There are even ventilation holes to reduce foot-smells.
- Supply chain & labor practices: Ethletic produces through a Fair Trade-certified factory in Sialkot, Pakistan. They actually pay 2% of the purchase price to FLO-CERT to maintain these consistent Fairtrade inspections. More questions? See their excellent brand transparency on this page.
They also encourage repairing over replacing by offering subsidized repairs for their customers at home in Germany. And you know how we love the circular economy! Hopefully, this repair program will flourish.
They also take “slow fashion” quite literally, which is why they only ship globally by sea, not by air: “Better 30 days by ship than one day by air freight.”
- Community & charitable giving: For every sneaker sold, they donate a $1 premium to the Talon Fairtrade Worker’s Welfare Society which provides independently administered services for their Pakistani employees like education for their children, healthcare, microloans, and pensions. In 2018, they gave $37,599.
Etiko (Greek for ethical) is a family-owned Australian company that makes men’s, women’s, and children’s ethical activewear and sports balls. It was founded by Nick Savaidis in 2005 to fill what was a huge ethical gap in the market.
Their unisex sneakers are similar to Converse, with the same classic high-top look that never goes out of style… but made with a sustainable twist.
Etiko’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: Etiko’s vegan sneakers are made with GOTS certified 100% organic cotton uppers, certified organic cotton laces, and FSC-certified natural rubber soles. Everything comes together with hand-stitching, non-toxic dyes, and vegan glues. The finished products are REACH compliant, meaning there are no harmful chemicals.
Technically, the only part of these that is not biodegradable is the metal eyelets and plastic tips on the laces (which you can easily cut off). Etiko is currently working with RMIT University to determine the exact biodegradability specs of their sneakers.
Until they know more, they’ll recycle their used sneakers for you!
- Supply chain & labor practices: Etiko sources their organic cotton from Fairtrade farms and mills in India. These cotton mills are regularly audited and reuse 50% of their water. They also provide all employees with education and skills training opportunities, on-site eye examinations, free transportation, 2 weeks of festival leave, and a 10% annual bonus. The sneakers are completed at one of two Fairtrade International factories in Pakistan.
Etiko became a certified B-Corp in 2017 and received an A+ ethical production rating by the Australia Fashion Reports in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017. They’re also on track to have net-zero carbon emissions upcoming in 2020, earning them “toward carbon neutrality” certification by Carbon Social.
Read their full impact report, which includes a case study of their cotton mill in Rajlakshmi, India.
- Community & charitable giving: Going above and beyond Fairtrade, Etiko opts into a Fairtrade Premium program, through which they make additional investments to provide comprehensive medical care to employees at their two factories in Sialkot, Pakistan. In 2018, over 3,000 people received medical attention through the program.
Pronounced SOW-la (after an endangered animal), Saola makes “kickass” kicks designed to get outside.
Founded in 2016 by biker, skier, and trail runner Guillaume when the birth of his daughter inspired him to start taking responsibility in every aspect of his life.
There’s an impressive line of affordable, durable ethical sneakers to choose from. They even have ethical slip on sneakers. Reviews say they are super comfortable and each design looks a bit earthy to match whatever outdoor activity you wear them for.
They’re also reportedly some of the most supportive eco-friendly sneakers.
Saola’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: For the uppers, Soala mostly uses a synthetic leather made from a 40/60 ratio of Recycled Gold Standard certified PET (about 4-5 plastic bottles per pair) and PU. Their Samnoz shoe is different and is also the most sustainable option with an upper made with a blend of 100% recycled canvas knit with 90% recycled PET.
All shoes have organic cotton laces and cushioned bi-layer insoles with an upper layer of cork and a lower outsole made of recycled algae foam sourced from Bloom Foam, which removes harmful algae from natural water systems and converts it into a powder that gets mixed with EVA.
Some shoes instead use a partially recycled EVA for the outsoles, which makes them light and springy. EVA is not a perfectly sustainable material, but the increased use of recycled EVA among shoe companies is greatly reducing the need for virgin materials.
- Supply chain & labor practices: Soala manufacture through a factory in southern China. One of the founders is permanently stationed in Asia to monitor its ethical standards. They chose to do this because many materials end up coming from China anyway, so it keeps shipping to a minimum.
They also know they’re still young and have hopes of improving the supply chain. The goal for now is to “[f]ocus our efforts on minimizing the carbon footprint of the shoe via construction and materials, the other 30-40% will come later”.
- Community & charitable giving: Saola is named after one of the rarest animals on earth, only discovered in 1992 and with about 300 remaining. Needless to say, wildlife conservation is a top priority for Saola.
As a member of 1% for the Planet, 1% of proceeds go to the Mwalua Wildlife Trust, a grassroots conservation organization founded by their friend and Kenya native Patrick Kilonzo. This organization works to promote wildlife conservation and protect biodiversity in Kenya by supplying sustainable water systems to wildlife communities.
Portugal-based DopeKicks make the world’s “first waterproof cannabis sneaker.” We know what you’re thinking: No, you can’t smoke the shoe (it has less than 0.3% THC) and no, TSA won’t detain you if you wear these on your next flight. Finished cannabis products are 100% legal around the world.
The only kind of high these sustainable workout sneakers will give you is a runner’s high.
The company started after founder Bernardo quit his job in 2018 hoping to make something revolutionary. He states, “If we can’t show everyone we can make better products with natural materials, then how are we supposed to win the war on plastics? How are we supposed to make this planet better?”
They currently focus on just one design: the DopeKicks Explorer – a versatile and eco friendly sneaker for men and women. It’s come in either beige or black. They’re breathable, light, and suitable for either casual or activewear.
DopeKicks’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: Each shoe upper is made from responsibly sourced cannabis hemp fiber, which is not only strong and durable (as proven by their torture tests) but waterproof. This makes them easy to clean and dust-resistant, too.
The hemp fibers are first separated from the bark, then allowed to “rest” for 4-6 weeks before being carded into strands and finally “steam explosion” (a non-chemical process) is applied rendering them into the final weavable fiber. See more about the process here.
The insoles are cork, which is an ideal material because it’s sustainable to harvest (see the end of the article for more on this), it retains its shape, and is antimicrobial and antifungal.
The upcycled composite rubber outsoles are made from “our competitor’s old sneakers”. Each pair of shoes contains about 100 grams of recycled shoes rather than virgin rubber or plastic.
- Supply chain & labor practices: Compared to average traditional sneakers, each pair of DopeKicks requires 72% less CO2 and 70% less water to manufacture. Shipping emissions are reduced by sourcing close to Portugal.
Both their cork and recycled outsole materials are sourced and made in Portugal in a factory that provides free health care and education to its employees. Then the final products are shipped from the UK, just a skip across the pond,
The hemp is the only material sourced from China. We reached out to them directly to ask why and they explained it’s because “the best hemp in the world comes from there. We had French, Romanian, Nepalese, and Indian hemp, but none has the quality […] we refuse to make shoes with second quality hemp.”
Currently, they ship from the UK but they are working with new local partners to reduce worldwide shipping.
- Community & charitable giving: No charitable endeavors as of yet, but DopeKicks is barely over a year old. They’re currently using funds to ensure they themselves can operate as low impact as possible.
Ecoalf lives by the slogan, “Because there is no Planet B.” It’s even printed on the soles of their huge range of PETA-approved vegan ethical sneakers. They also make a wide range of award-winning apparel and accessories for men, women, and kids out of innovative, recycled fabric technology.
As a company, they’ve removed over 500 tons of waste from the ocean, including upcycling 200 million plastic bottles and 100 tons of ghost fishing nets.
Ecoalf is based in Spain (the first fashion brand in Spain to become a certified B-Corp) and was founded by Javier Goyeneche in 2009 after the birth of his son Alfredo.
Ecoalf’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: Ecoalf has lots of different designs for those looking to buy ethical sneakers. The fabric depends on the design. Their Mustique, Ohio, and Because lines are made from 100% recycled polyester made from plastic bottles, while their Dallas, Land, Yale, and Sandford lines are 100% recycled nylon made from discarded fishing nets.
The Felders High Top Trainers, which are made of Pinatex, a vegan leather made from pineapple leaves. Their athletic Oreson Sneakers boast their most recent fabric innovation, a blend of 59% recycled polyester and 41% sorona, a corn-starch based biopolymer.
Every design meets non-toxic REACH standards.
- Supply chain & labor practices: Aside from the basic BSCI or SA8000 certifications, all entities of the Ecoalf supply chain have at least one Bluesign® certification or OEKO-TEX 100 certification.
To close the loop, they also use zero waste packaging, namely recycled cardboard boxes made right at home in Spain (which reduced their carbon footprint by 13%). They also replaced all plastic filler with dye-free recycled paper.
- Community & charitable giving: In 2015, they started the ECOALF Foundation through which they coordinate the Spain branch of Upcycling the Oceans to clean up the Mediterranean (these plastics get woven into fibers for their products). They donate 10% of all profits to this foundation, which also participates in other waste management and environmental education initiatives.
7. NATIVE SHOES
About Native Shoes
Native Shoes is based in Vancouver, Canada and since 2009, they’ve been making future forward shoes in classic designs to help the whole family “Live Lightly”. Their array of fun, bright-colored options, and gradient patterns are especially great for the kiddos.
Most styles are under $100, so they’re some of the most affordable ethical sneakers out there.
About Native Shoe’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: As a PETA-certified “beast free” brand, Native has always been making shoes from microfiber vegan leather. All their shoes have a zero waste 3D knit upper made of recycled threads that are stretchy, breathable, and washable – so have no fear of rocking even their all-white eco-friendly sneakers.
Most of their range still has an EVA mid and outsole. Great for active use and running, but not so much from a sustainability point of view. Be sure to dispose of them correctly.
Native’s latest “future fiber” can be seen in the Jefferson Bloom line. It is the first shoe ever to be made completely of harvested algae biomass. This process actually restores 80 liters of filtered water back into the environment for each pair of shoes, which helps keep marine ecosystems healthy.
- Supply chain & labor practices: Native Shoes are made in factories in China and Vietnam, which claim to have “stringent ethical practices in place” to monitor fair wages and working hours. Aside from having constant connections on the ground to these factories, they visit several times a year.
Their packaging is recyclable.
- Community & charitable giving: In 2019, Native Shoes initiated The Remix Project by partnering with Zappos for Good to better manage the life cycle of their shoes, by offering a free return and recycle program. The goal is to be totally circular by 2023. As of the end of 2019, they’ve successfully recycled nearly 30,000 shoes. Return shoes either online or at a physical drop-off location.
All shoes go into community projects, like building playgrounds from recycled materials.
The name Po-Zu stems from the Japanese word “to pause”. Which is exactly what mainstream footwear needs to do (followed by some serious reforms). This London-based ethical shoe company has been ranked the #1 shoe brand by The Good Shopping Guide for 11 years running.
They’re also one of Positive Luxury’s Brands to Trust.
Despite the sustainable street cred, they’ve only recently become well known after partnering with Lucas Films to create a Star Wars-themed sneaker collection. Shop hightops and other ethical canvas sneakers with your favorite sassy robot, whether that’s R2-D2 or BB-8.
Po-Zu’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: Our top picks based on materials are their FRUMAT apple skin upper Sneak line, GOTS-certified organic cotton canvas (grown in Turkey) X Wing and Beaut lines. These designs along with a few others are entirely biodegradable.
Other shoe materials include Piñatex (made in Spain), OEKO-TEX certified eco microfiber, linen (grown in Europe), unbleached wool, recycled polyester, cork (sourced from Portugal), and Biocalce certified chrome-free leather (tanned in Portugal using an eco-friendly non-toxic method). They never use bleach or toxic dyes.
The UK-made removable footbeds are a totally biobased material called coir – a combination of coconut husk and FDA certified natural latex. The sole is non-chemical vulcanized Fair Trade rubber certified by the Fair Rubber Association.
As per their Cradle to Cradle certification, most shoes are solvent-free and designed for disassembly to make recycling and composting easier. They are temporarily bonded together using natural latex then stitched for a permanent hold. A few shoes contain water-based glues only.
- Supply chain & labor practices: They make most of the shoes in Sri Lanka and Portugal, and you can watch various videos on their website about how these factories run and make shoes. Their factories recycle nearly all waste, including fabric trimmings and water.
The transparency with Po-Zu is pretty refreshing. They state where every material is sourced, spun, and manufactured.
All suppliers must adhere to their Environmental and Ethical Conduct Charter for Suppliers. This includes essential and obvious bans against things like harassment, discrimination, child labor, and unsafe work environments as well as less obvious things like requiring education about safe work practices (i.e. proper lifting techniques), proper waste management, and community engagement.
- Community & charitable giving: Part of their Sole to Soul promise means donating 10% of net profits to three environmental charities: The Resurgence Trust, Pesticide Action Network UK, and Environmental Justice Foundation. Read more about each here.
In 2016, they also launched The Better Shoes Foundation which hopes to provide a “blueprint for a whole new footwear industry”. Here they raise awareness about the damaging industry as it currently exists and provides alternative resources.
9. NOTHING NEW
About Nothing New
After learning about the horrifying statistics behind footwear, Nothing New decided to make a vow using sneakers made out of just that: absolutely nothing new. Their sustainable canvas sneakers are made with either all natural or 100% recycled materials.
Bearing ultra classic, solid color designs, these are simple eco-friendly sneakers for women and men.
Nothing New’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: The uppers are made of Better Canvas™, a 100% post-consumer Global Recycle Standard certified plastic (5-6 bottles worth) material, lined with cotton canvas sourced in partnership with the Better Cotton Index. The heel counters come from 100% recycled fishing nets and the outsoles are a blend of recycled rubber, recycled cork, and natural rubber (for high impact areas).
The shoes are finished with post-consumer plastic labels and laces, certified conflict-free copper and zinc alloy eyelets, and fully stitched construction (no glues or vulcanization).
- Supply chain & labor practices: They source plastic for upcycling from Vietnam, Haiti, and Thailand, all collected by people employed under a supplier that runs in accordance with the ten U.N. Global Compact principles and International Labor Organization (ILO). The trash is processed into thread, dyed, and woven in ethical factories in China.
Because they recognize the impact of offering worldwide shipping, they work with several carbon offset partners to be completely carbon neutral.
Their Virtuous Circle Program means that you can send your worn out Nothing New shoes back for free and get $20 off a new pair. They’ll make sure your old ones get put back into use somewhere.
- Community & charitable giving: No mention as to charitable partnerships at this time.
10. FLAMINGOS LIFE
About Flamingos Life
For retro sustainable sneakers with an iconic chunky sole and classic primary color schemes, Flamingos Life has got your back, er… feet.
Based on Gran Alacant, Spain, this totally vegan sneaker company only ships (in recycled cardboard of course) throughout Europe because they haven’t found a sufficiently sustainable way to ship worldwide yet.
Flamingos Life’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: The outer textile, heel pad, and lace toe caps are all made from recycled polyester, specifically from post-consumer plastic bottles, reducing their water footprint by about 40%. Each shoe also has an organic cotton liner, chrome-free metal lace eyelets, and a natural rubber sole sustainably tapped from the Hevea Brasiliensis tree.
The insole is made of recycled shoe industry plastics (i.e. the PET from other shoes). This not only puts waste materials to use, but also taps into one of Greenpeace’s most easily recycled plastics.
All shoes end up being GOTS-certified, OEKO-TEX 100-certified, Global Recycle Standard-certified, and PETA approved vegan.
- Supply chain & labor practices: In 2018, they launched the Transparency and Fabrication Project by becoming a more ethical company with a fully transparent supply chain. They moved all operations from Asia to Spain. Now, they manufacture exclusively in Elche, at family-owned factories with 40+ years of shoemaking experience.
- Community & charitable giving: For every pair sold, they either plant five trees through the Eden Reforestation Projects in Madagascar and Mozambique, or recycle two plastic bottles from the ocean through Waste Free Oceans (depending on which collection the purchase is from). So far that adds up to 121,128 planted trees and 17,779 recycled bottles.
11. NO SAINTS
About No Saints
Style, meet ethics, they say. Australian-based No Saints is an edgy, no-nonsense vegan footwear company that wants to do something about the horribly polluting leather industry. They hope people will join them in “helping unf*ck the world” because “caring is the new sexy.”
Like many companies on the list, No Saints is really new – founded in 2018 by Caroline and Johan. They make one unisex casual sneaker design out of different materials. Each is a different color and named after a celebrity. Our favorite is the gold foil looking Pamela (after Pamela Anderson, of course) of Piñatex.
No Saints’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: No Saints uses recycled fruit for their ethical fashion sneakers. You’ll find both Piñatex (shop Pamela, Joaquin, and Liam) and apple leather, which uses apple peels and cores discarded by the juicing industry that would otherwise go to landfill (shop Ruby). They also use a microfiber lining that’s super breathable and absorbent but doesn’t look biodegradable.
Their least sustainable fabrics (they’re not recycled or biodegradable) are their microfiber vegan leather, so above the Macca design for that reason. They make no mention of the shoelace material.
- Supply chain & labor practices: The apple leather comes from a reputable Italian factory and the Piñatex comes from Spain (though the pineapple leaves come from the Philippines, where the farmers would otherwise incinerate them).
Final shoe production happens in Portugal, chosen for their long-time tradition in cobbling and high-quality craftsmanship. Having a factory in a developed European country also gives them peace of mind that their laborers are paid fair wages and work in good conditions.
- Community & charitable giving: No charitable endeavors to mention yet, but they’re still finding their feet.
AKS, formerly known as FUSESneakers by Purple Impression, means “reflection” URDU, which represents their company values (hence the rebranding).
The Fair trade embroidered accessory company originally called Purple Impression was founded by Sisters Afshan and Drakshan Khan in 2013 in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy.
AKS now focuses specifically on crafting Peta-certified vegan low top and ethical high top sneakers. Choose between plain or one-of-a-kind hand embroidered designs. Classic design with a little embellishment.
AKS’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
- Material: AKS bear certified organic cotton uppers and laces and FSC certified natural rubber soles. This rubber also provides the arch support of the shoe so there’s no cushy PU midsole. Sustainable, yes but that makes these more of a casual sneaker than an active one.
These parts are bonded together with non-toxic latex milk through vulcanization. These environmentally friendly sneakers contain no plastic, no man-made synthetics, and no toxic chemicals.
- Supply chain & labor practices: AKS is Fair Trade USA certified from “seed to the final stitch”. All sneakers are designed in San Francisco and hand-embroidered in an ethical factory in Pakistan (the first in the country to sign a “no child labor” policy). This handcrafting also wards against mass production.
In the name of transparency, they try to provide faces for the makers behind their products.
Their core business model integrates 4 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality, climate action, sustainable production and consumption, and no poverty (they pay an additional 10% premium of product cost directly into funds which provide healthcare and education opportunities to their workers).
Lastly, to reduce company waste, they hand trim all fabric then reuse the salvaged edges to incorporate into future designs.
- Community & charitable giving: AKS believes in “trade not aid”. In other words, by providing dignified work held to fair trade standards, they make a bigger impact than just donating money. They aim to “lift artisan communities around the world” by preserving traditions and providing much needed employment, particularly for women.
They choose Pakistani artisans not only for rich artisan traditions but because it’s among the top 4 countries lagging in gender equality. Women’s empowerment is one of their core motivators.
WHY BUY ETHICAL SUSTAINABLE SNEAKERS?
More than 23 billion pairs of sneakers are made every year. Nike alone sells about 25 pairs per second. And because shoes have inherently limited lifespans, this leads to over 300 million pairs getting thrown out each year.
Less than 5% of trainers and tennis shoes get recycled.
This is especially sad when you consider traditional sneakers are made with materials that hardly break down, if at all.
And that’s not even considering footwear’s most common criminal: leather in it’s classic form. While there does seem to be some leather options that are arguable ethical (like upcycled or recycled leather), almost all leather we would consider unethical.
Animal rights aside, the leather industry feeds heavily on the livestock industry, one for the world’s greatest producers of greenhouse gases. Then there’s the tanning process. One of the most dangerously polluting practices in the world. The use of arsenic and cyanide are amongst 250 other chemicals used.
On the ethical side of things, tannery workers get exposed to these chemicals, which research has shown leads to respiratory problems and cancer. Plus, leather isn’t just a by-product of the meat industry; the leather industry needlessly kills over 1 billion animals per year.
Between the rate of consumption and poor fabric choices, traditional sneakers just aren’t sustainable.
HOW WE FOUND THE BEST ETHICAL SNEAKERS FOR YOU
Lots of companies these days are toying with eco-friendly footwear lines (way more than just three years ago).
Even industry monolith Adidas has eco-friendly sneakers made of recycled ocean plastic gathered through a partnership with Parley for the Oceans. This includes specialized performance athletic shoes like cleats and volleyball shoes. They’re also behind the Reebok Corn + Cotton shoes.
Real steps toward sustainability or just a marketing ploy? The jury is still out.
So how did we determine which brands are the real deal and which ones are just blowing smoke?
We used our sustainable and ethical fashion criteria, which we’ve developed after extensive research and consideration. You can read about it here. The gist of the four main things we consider are:
- Materials: We want materials with as low impact as possible, both from the raw production side and from the product’s end-of-life. Just below, we’ll dive into sustainable materials specific to sneakers.
- Supply chain & labor practices: This means both consideration for human rights across the supply chain and environmental impact. Companies should treat workers fairly, reduce their carbon footprint (and offset what they can’t), offer recycling programs if their products can’t be composted, and use low waste packaging. Third party certifications (like B-Corp and Fairtrade) really help to provide reassurance that they’re not just greenwashing. Read more about these many certifications here.
- Charitable endeavors: We prioritize companies that give back and demonstrate they care about more than just their own profit. Because much of this technology is so recent, many of these sneaker startups haven’t quite found the footing to be fully charitable quite yet. Which is fine! We would rather they get a proper handle on their own practices before branching out.
Fabrics for Sustainable Sneakers
The best options are those that make totally natural sustainable sneakers (meaning they’ll biodegrade). Recycled synthetics (like recycled plastics such as Econyl and old sneakers) may not be biodegradable, but for now, they’re still considered more sustainable than options that source virgin materials and promote petroleum mining.
This all gets pretty complicated because sneakers can’t just be made of one thing. There are essentially five main components to consider: uppers, laces, insoles, midsoles, and outsoles. Let’s look at some sustainable materials for each.
- Uppers: This is where most of the innovation lies. Companies are not only making sneakers from the usual suspects like organic cotton, hemp, and Lyocell, but out of really interesting upcycled fabrics harvested from the waste of other industries.
Take Piñatex: This is made by taking the wasted leaves from pineapple farmers (which normally just get burned) and turning them into fabric.
- Laces: Currently, organic cotton is pretty much the best option here. Hopefully, they’ll leave out the plastic tip covers, too.\
- Insoles: Cork is the best insole alternative at the moment. It provides a healthy and comfortable environment for your feet due to its antimicrobial properties and foot molding capabilities. This relieves joint pressure, provides cushion, and wards against foot odor.
Cork is also really sustainable because it’s sourced by shaving the bark of cork trees. This is a healthy process and can be repeated every 9 years during the tree’s 300 year lifespan.
- Midsoles: This component still presents the largest problem for sustainability. Most still incorporate non-biodegradable, plastic-based materials in the midsole due to their performance properties. EVA foam, for example, can almost always be found in the soles of running shoes to give them supportive, light cushioning.
However, many are at least starting to use a blend of partially recycled EVA. We’re excited to see more and more substitution of virgin synthetic threads with recycled synthetics.
Equally exciting is experimentation with biodegradable, low-impact fibers such as certified wool instead. Again, we’re all about celebrating progress over perfection, so yay to the above sneakers!
- Outsoles: Natural rubber is ideal here. It provides the most durability while still being bio-based and biodegradable. It’s also renewable and is sourced by harmlessly tapping the natural latex of the tree (just as one taps for maple syrup).
As always, we’ll be confirming with each brand their policies listed above and will update if anything changes.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON ECO-FRIENDLY SNEAKERS
The footwear industry is definitely taking a step in the right direction.
A pair of any of these would complete your ethical activewear getup, so you’re all set to have a sustainable sweat fest.
Or just a casual stroll in the park. Whatever works.
And this is just the beginning. There are even more great innovations, many of which are still in the Kickstarter phase (like Rens totally waterproof eco-friendly sneakers made from coffee).
Let us know in the comments what your favorite eco-friendly shoe companies are, and how you like any of these brands if you’ve tried them. If you found this list helpful, consider sharing with a fellow active junky or shoe addict.