The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Allbirds #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by Allbirds
The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Merrell #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by Merrell
The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Vivobarefoot #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by Vivobarefoot

7 Ethical & Sustainable Running Shoes – Run Like The World Depends on It


How can we work on our 5K PR without sending our planet straight to the finish line?

It’s a feat (or feet, rather), to be sure, and likely one that won’t be solved as fast as you can run around the block.

The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it, hence our recent ethical shoe brand kick into eco friendly sneakers

Now we’re shifting focus and covering some serious ground on sustainable running shoes.

The most ethical running shoes are those able to achieve foot-healthy cushioning with sustainable (and ideally) plant-based materials. And because this is an Olympic-level challenge, we really admire shoes crossing both those ribbons.

With brands like Hylo Athletics, we can say “hi” to shoes that are actually carbon negative. Allbirds are certified Carbon neutral and possibly the most comfortable shoes we’ve ever worn.

Vivobarefoot cares so much about our footwear choices that they have a documentary for how we can make improvements! 

If you’re interested in the fast track, sprint to the end to see how we found this track team of sustainable running shoe brands.

*This post contains affiliate links

QUICK LINKS FOR SUSTAINABLE RUNNING SHOE BRANDS


1. ALLBIRDS

The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Allbirds #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by Allbirds
About Allbirds

Your feet will feel like flying when you lace up a pair from Allbirds

New Zealander Tim Brown was inspired by one of his country’s biggest agricultural treasures: merino wool.

Realizing that this natural material was left out of footwear, Tim put two and two together and made simple, comfortable shoes using wool. 

They also have vegan running shoes made out of innovative tree pulp fiber if you’d really rather not take any chances with stepping on the animal kingdom.

Their three different versions of eco friendly running shoes are what we’re here for, but they also make ethical slippers, everyday sneakers, boat shoes, high tops, and water repellent shoes.

For the serious runners out there who want to know whether these shoes will actually perform, Runner’s World is giving an early thumbs up, suggesting the Tree Dashers are even suitable for road racers (especially for easy runs). 

As runner’s ourselves who have battled to find ethical options over the years, this will be the first shoe we try when our current running shoes wear out. 

Allbirds’ Ethical and Sustainability Practices

Materials:

Merino wool is Allbirds’ main muse, for two of the runners. A ZQ ethical wool certification ensures sustainable farming and animal welfare. 

The third is composed of a tree pulp fiber we know and love: TENCEL lyocell. It’s FSC certified and sustainably grown in South Africa in a way that uses 95% less water than cotton. 

Other materials include responsibly sourced sugarcane SweetFoam™ recycled bottles, and castor bean oil which go into their midsoles, laces, and insoles, respectively.  

Supply chain & labor practices:

Special care is taken to ensure the sustainable men’s and women’s running shoes are sourced and manufactured responsibly in facilities that employ water/energy saving initiatives. 

The running shoes are made in factories in Shenzhen, China (WRAP-certified) and Hai Phong, Vietnam (LEED-certified).

All suppliers adhere to this Certified B Corp’s Code of Conduct, which prohibits forced labor, child labor, and insane working hours—among other things. 

Green business practices:

These shoes are machine washable, which prevents you from having to throw away a pair of running shoes with life left simply because they’re stinking up your whole house.

They come shipped in an all-in-one bag, box, and mailer made from 90% post-consumer recycled cardboard that is also recyclable itself. 

They’re Carbon Neutral, partly because wool has 60% fewer energy requirements than synthetic materials.

Community & charitable giving:

If you don’t fall head over heels for your ethical running shoes from Allbirds in 30 days, you can return them—without worrying about the consequences of your return. 

Through their partnership with Soles4Souls, all lightly used and returned shoes are donated to help global communities thrive. 

Available: Allbirds

2. VIVOBAREFOOT

The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Vivobarefoot #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by Vivobarefoot
About Vivobarefoot

Did you know rigid, cushioned, and narrow shoes can diminish the natural strength and functionality of our feet?!

Before watching this next brand’s Shoespiracy documentary, we didn’t either. 

Vivobarefoot knows two things to be true: 1) our sedentary and cushioned lifestyles are hurting us and our planet, and 2) barefoot footwear is sustainable footwear. 

The Certified B Corporation makes some of the most sustainable running shoes that also happen to be the most minimalist. Barefoot shoes may sound like an oxymoron, but they’re actually the closest thing to nature we can get while still providing full foot protection.

They have pairs for kids and adults, and those designed for both trail running and road running. 

If you aren’t sure if you’re going to like barefoot shoes, you can try a pair for 100 days and return them at no cost if unsatisfied. 

Vivobarefoot’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices

Materials:

Vivobarefoot’s material archive isn’t entirely what we could consider sustainable (like leather and virgin polyester) however they are innovating and making progress. 

All virgin oil-based materials will be phased out and replaced with three types of materials: natural, recycled, and biosynthetic (i.e. plant-based). 

Currently, a third of their shoes are made with PET recycled components (made from plastic bottles). They’ve also incorporated corn-based materials and algae bloom in a few pairs. 

Their natural material range is huge, too, including hemp, cotton, wool, natural rubber, and leather. 

Yes, leather is one of our least favorite materials, but most of theirs is ethically sourced as a byproduct from small-scale Ethiopian farmers. They also use camel hide, which takes 25-50 years to biodegrade (less than standard leather). 

For anyone concerned by all of the animal-based materials, they launched a vegan sustainable running shoes line in 2019, but know these might not be as durable and breathable.

Supply chain & labor practices:

As a sustainable and socially responsible running shoes brand and Certified B-Corp, Vivobarefoot runs the extra mile when it comes to ethical manufacturing. 

Their Wild Hide byproduct leather prevents material from ending up in landfills. This sourcing partner, Pittards PLC, adheres to ISO 14001 standards. 

Production takes place in either a Vietnamese, Portuguese, or Ethiopian factory that adheres to a code of conduct and internationally-accepted standards. 

The Soul of Africa range is made to support and empower the local community—and has received several social impact awards as a result.  

Green business practices:

Simply put, less shoe = less materials = less bad for the planet. Add in the fact that they’ve partnered with a foundation to create 3D printed shoes custom fit to feet, we’re talking even less manufacturing waste.

“Circular” and “regenerative” are two more words that pop up a lot for this footwear brand.

Through their Revivo program, they will offer repairs of old footwear either for reuse or resale in refurbished form (which makes them more accessible for those on a budget). While this program is not yet available to customers, they hope it will be by the end of 2021.

Everything—performance, product life, materials, and efficiency—has been optimized to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Eventually, their shoes will be made in an entirely closed-loop system.  

Community & charitable giving:

Less cushioning, more caring! In 2020, the shoe brand launched Livebarefoot Foundation, an in-house impact hub for social and environmental projects. 

It’s committed to finding and creating regenerative solutions that bring people closer to nature. 

It does this by providing loans and opportunities for projects like Soul of Africa (their social enterprise in Ethiopia), as well as Fashion for:

Good, Proudly Made in Africa, Future Footwear Foundation, Devon Environment Foundation, Biome Algae LTD, Beaver Trust, Wild Human, Hatch Enterprise, Small Steps Project, Culture Declares, Business for Nature, and several university partnerships. 

Read more about it in their Mission Progress Report.

Available: Vivobarefoot

3. MERRELL

The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Merrell #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by Merrell
About Merrell

Performance, comfort, and fit were Merrell’s main priorities, but now this 40-year-old shoe brand has added another one: sustainability. 

While not all of their shoes are planet-friendly, they’ve begun incorporating sustainable materials into many of them. 

Eco-shoes aren’t typically as durable as those designed to last and Merrell shoes are made for years of puddle splashing, hill ascending, and hundreds of miles of rough terrain. 

They make trail-ready running shoes for men, women, and kids to match all your eco friendly outdoor clothing.

Merrell’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices

Materials:

The natural materials in Merrell’s sustainable trail running shoes largely include leather, and Merrell is a proud member of the Leather Working Group.

They also incorporate recycled materials, including post-consumer recycled rubber in the soles and their own recycled EVA (from making midsoles in other shoes) in the midsoles and insoles. 

Unfortunately, they don’t make it easy to find shoes made with sustainable materials, as the majority are still made with virgin, petroleum-based materials. 

After a few laps around their website, we found their minimalist men’s and women’s Trail Glove shoes, made with a 65% recycled mesh upper, 100% recycled laces, recycled TPU enforcements, 40% recycled lining, and a BLOOM midsole made from 10% algae biomass. 

Note the kid’s Trail Glove shoes are NOT made with the same eco materials. 

The Moab Flight is another sustainable style. Both of these are new releases, so hopefully, this trend towards Earth-friendly materials continues!

Supply chain & labor practices:

Merrell works with global supply chain partners who are committed to humane, safe, and ethical working conditions. 

They comply with international labor standards and the brand’s Code of Conduct (note Merrell is owned by Wolverine Worldwide) 

Green business practices:

Merrell is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and their approach to sustainability is three-tiered: they make durable products designed to last, conserve water, and reduce their landfill waste. 

Inclusivity:

To celebrate four decades in the business, Merrell is launching #Future40, a program to make the outdoors more welcoming, sustainable, and inclusive. 

They’ve partnered with a range of organizations to help get more people outside. These include Big Brothers Big Sisters, National Recreation and Park Association, Unlikely Hikers, and more. 

Community & charitable giving:

Merrell is a member of The Conservation Alliance, which works to deliver equitable and inclusive opportunities to organizations protecting our natural spaces.

Their team members also regularly participate in trail cleanups. 

Available: Merrell

4. HYLO ATHLETICS

The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Hylo Athletics #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by Hylo Athletics
About Hylo Athletics

Carbon negative

You don’t hear that too often in the world of shoes, but this is what you get with a pair from Hylo Athletics

They’re a movement of Athletes for Planet, seeking to use sport to inspire positive change and enable their community to run like the world depends on it.

Aside from using natural and recyclable materials, they assess each and every stage of their shoes’ life cycle and are on a journey towards perfection.

They aren’t quite there yet, but we’re happy to help them out along the way.

And you can, too!

Check out the brand for running shoes that are extremely lightweight (for tired legs and a tired planet). They keep it super simple with one pair for both women and men, available in four colors.

Hylo Athletics’ Ethical and Sustainability Practices

Materials:

As some of the most ethical and sustainable running shoes, expect to see only the following in their shoes (in order of % content):

Corn Spring® (their proprietary midsole technology), corn fiber, natural rubber, Algae Bloom™, water-based glue, organic cotton, castor bean oil, and a tiny bit of polyester for the ring holding the laces in place. 

Each pair prevents 300g of plastic from being created! 

Supply chain & labor practices:

One of Hylo’s mottos is, “Be honest, always”. They’re passionate about transparency (we’ll be reaching out to find out more).

Their manufacturing partner is SEMS in Putian, China whom they regularly audit to ensure that working conditions and pay are fair. 

Green business practices:

Here’s where Hylo really stands out: their shoes are recyclable! Just send them back to the brand to feel good, and get a £10 credit. 

They’ll break them down and use the materials to make new products. 

They also prioritize local supply chains (sourcing six out of nine materials within 100km of the factory), minimize packaging, and offset their already tiny (7.83kg CO2e) carbon footprint. 

Their offset installs biogas digesters to decompose organic waste to replace coal or wood as fuel.

Available: Hylo Athletics

5. VEJA

The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by VEJA #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by VEJA
About VEJA

VEJA is the creator of the Condor, their first post-petroleum running shoe—well, their first step towards one anyway!

The word “Veja” is Brazilian for “look,” inspired by the desire to truly look into what it takes to make a pair of shoes. They want to preserve running optimization, while sourcing recycled and organic materials. 

Both are indeed possible with a line of men’s and women’s sustainable running shoes in several styles that accommodate different types of runners, surfaces, rides, weight, cushioning, and flexibility.

Much like Allbirds, VEJA is relatively new to the running shoe so for the serious runners out there, here’s a review from the Sports Edit who say “It’s a solid option for new runners and runners cruising on routes around 5km-10km”.

VEJA’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices

Materials:

Hit the pavement with materials like recycled water bottles, leather, castor seed oil, rPET, sugar cane, latex, rice waste, rubber, synthetic rubber, organic cotton, and banana oil. 

Most pairs are made with around 53-57% bio-based and recycled materials and NEVER PVC. 

For those who are leery of leather, they offer some 100% vegan shoes, too. 

Many materials are sourced from organic or ecologically sensitive farms, while others are waste products of the food industry. 

Supply chain & labor practices:

Each pair of shoes shares where they were made, mostly in the Fortaleza region of Brazil.  

Workers and farmers are treated with respect and work in dignified conditions as per their impressive Code of Conduct

For instance, the Certified B corp pays twice the price for their Amazonian wild-grown rubber, protecting producer families/cooperatives and the forest by increasing its value. 

Their fair trade and organic cotton is also sourced through direct-trade partnerships from farmers in Brazil and Peru, who receive twice the market price for their cotton.  

Oh, and did you know 70% of a conventional sneaker brand is related to advertising. Because VEJA doesn’t use ads, they keep prices low for customers and fair for farmers and factory workers. 

Green business practices:

VEJA conducted their own study to determine their CO2 emissions. 71% of their emissions are associated with raw materials, and 97% of those are from leather. 

They’re searching for better alternatives, but leather is one of the best materials for long-lasting sneakers. So, TBC…

In their shops in France and New York, they collect old sneakers to be cleaned, recycled, or repaired. 

Available: Nordstrom

6. ON RUNNING CYCLON

The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by On Running #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by On Running
About On Running

On Running’s Cyclon’s shoes aren’t for you to own.

Wait, what?

On Running  wants their shoes back because they’re 100% recyclable. And made out of beans. And “borrowed” using a subscription service. 

Weird, but totally cool. 

For $29.99/month, you pay to rent the “materials” (aka the shoe), then return them at the end of their usability (after about six months) for a fresh new pair. 

As innovative as this concept is, it’s unfortunately not ready quite yet. Keep your eyes on the finish line though, because come fall 2021, they’ll be some of the best eco friendly running shoes for men and women.

Cyclon’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices

Materials:

Their undyed, vegan shoes are made from PA11, a bio-based plastic that’s engineered from the beans of a castor plant. 

Castor plants can grow in pretty abysmal conditions, making them pretty bada** beans. 

This doesn’t steal land away from agriculture-dependent communities and instead provides them with opportunities to grow something valuable on otherwise unusable land.

Supply chain & labor practices:

As these zero waste kicks are still in the idea stage, we’re not sure of supply chain practices. We’ll reach out to find out more details and update before the launch. 

Green business practices:

These shoes are a fully zero waste product. The materials are 100% recyclable and don’t need to be separated to create a new shoe (read: no high-energy machines required). 

To keep shipping emissions as minimal as possible, the launch in your respective area will only happen when there’s enough demand, so tell your friends! 

Available: On Running

7. REEBOK

The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Reebok #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle
Image by Reebok
About Reebok

This footwear giant is changing its ways.

Granted, they still have a LONG way to go, though Reebok’s journey towards sustainability is worth mentioning if only because supporting it *might* mean more high performance ethical running shoes from the brand (and fewer unethical ones). 

Obviously, we run away from greenwashing and should be wary of any big brand’s “eco” efforts. But after some digging, it appears that Reebok’s are genuine, at least with regard to their limited eco offerings.

Currently, they’ve got just one pair that’s worthy of a share: the Forever Floatride Grow Shoes in their [REE]grow line, available for men and women

Reebok’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices

Materials:

USDA-certified to contain 59% bio-based content, these ethical running shoes are made with some of the same materials used by other brands. 

BLOOM algae and castor bean foam provide cushion, TENCEL lyocell makes the flexible upper, and natural rubber gives the outsole durability. 

They have a [REE]cycled line, too, made with at least 30% recycled materials. We likely won’t be sprinting towards those until they begin to incorporate more eco-materials or higher recycled percentages, though. 

Supply chain & labor practices:

Reebok, currently owned by adidas until later in 2021, is a member of the Fair Labor Association and has standards in place to protect its workers. 

They prohibit forced labor, child labor (under 15 years old), and enforce pay that is above or equal to minimum wage. 

For the “best sports company in the world”, they could probably do a little better—especially with regard to wages. 

Green business practices:

Aside from the sustainable materials, it’s unclear if Reebok is doing anything else to improve its sustainability. 

They’ve mentioned microplastics and working to reduce their impact, along with their operations greenhouse gas emissions (but not from the supply chain, where most of their impact is from…), but they don’t provide any details.  

You can be sure we’ll be inquiring about all that.

Their website is quick to provide recommendations for how we can reduce our impact though.

Available: Reebok

WHY BUY ECO FRIENDLY RUNNING SHOES?

The footwear industry is running laps around our planet—in all the bad ways. 

It turns out that lacing up is destroying our home, and in fact, the sneaker industry would be the 17th largest polluter, if it were a country. To put it a different way, Italians, Australians, and Canadians, our shoes emit as much as your home country. 

The materials in running shoes have traditionally been not been sustainable fabrics: virgin leather, virgin synthetic fabrics, and PVC (we shudder at the thought). 

And because running shoes have so many components (uppers, laces, insoles, midsoles, and outsoles, to name just the main ones), there’s a lot of room for a LOT of unsustainable components. 

Even if some are natural, good luck separating them to properly dispose of each.

To really get our laces in a knot, it isn’t actually the materials themselves that are the biggest problem. 

It’s the fact that we buy a lot of shoes. 

Consider how many running shoes you go through every couple of years versus how many pairs of jeans. It’s a lot more, right?

Now imagine that on a global scale. 

23 billion pairs of sneakers are manufactured every year, and because less than 5% of them get recycled, 300 million pairs instead make it to the landfill.

For all those shoes we buy, someone (or some factory) has to produce them. The manufacturing stage accounts for the vast majority of the carbon footprint, more than double the materials (which is unusual for fashion). 

All of this is important to consider because if a shoe brand uses algae foam, but also uses energy-intensive coal manufacturing and ads telling you to “buy, buy, buy,” you’re going to stomp all over our planet with supposedly “eco-friendly running shoes”. 

While you absolutely should buy something eco friendly over something not, you still shouldn’t over-buy. 

What’s that they say about too much of a good thing?


HOW WE FOUND THE MOST ETHICAL & SUSTAINABLE RUNNING SHOES

Make sure you stretch before you consider the sustainable and ethical fashion aspects of your running shoes.

There’s quite a lot to trip over, so we made it easier by breaking down all our considerations:

Materials:

An average shoe is made up of four to five mentioned parts, but really there are about 65 distinct elements. This means A LOT of different materials. 

Vegan ethical running shoes (much like vegan sandals and some brands creating ethical heels) typically include: TENCEL lyocell, recycled bottles, castor bean oil, corn, algae bloom, hemp fabric, organic cotton, rubber, sugarcane, rice waste, and banana oil (byproducts of the food industry).

If you’re not sheepish about animal products, natural and ethical wool, leather (as long as it’s a byproduct), and silk may also be found. 

Supply chain and labor practices:

Transparency is the first lap (with things like supply chain details and a comprehensive code of conduct).  

We really start to feel that runner’s high when we run into brands with fair trade or direct trade partnerships and third-party certifications.   

Green business practices:

As we said before, doing more than sourcing recycled plastic bottles is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for a pair of eco friendly running shoes. 

We liked the snug fit of carbon offsets, careful packaging, efficient manufacturing practices, local supply chains, plans to adopt closed-loop systems, and, most importantly, initiatives to reuse, repair, or resell refurbished shoes! 

The best thing though? Shoes that are designed to last. 

Inclusivity:

Not too much to report here in the world of footwear, but did give extra snaps to brands working to make the world of athletics a bit more diverse and inclusive.

Community & charitable giving:

Return programs that donate old shoes to global communities and initiatives to support social and environmental projects make for the best ethical running shoes.


FINAL THOUGHTS ON ETHICAL AND SUSTAINABLE RUNNING SHOES

If you’re out of breath, don’t worry; we are too. 

The world of ethical running shoe brands aren’t as established as, say, sustainable clothing brands. Which is a let down to say the least, given the sneaker industry’s enormous environmental impact.

But things are changing. 

These brands clearly state that sustainability is a journey, and one they’re on for the long-haul. 

Because of all this room for improvement, it’s an exciting space to keep an eye on. Just know we’ll be updating this article to keep you in the shoelace loop.

As for you, remember that the manufacturing aspect is the biggest charlie horse for our planet. Do what you can to keep your shoes roadworthy for longer, then consider this list when you need a new pair.

If you’ve got any 5am runners—or once a year runners—in your life, feel free to help them find the perfect, planet-friendly fit by sharing this article with them. 


The footwear industry as a whole has some pretty dirty practices en-tread-ed in it. It’s time to shift that focus into high gear and cover some serious ground on ethical and sustainable running shoes. Image by Allbirds #sustainablerunningshoes #ethicalrunning shoes #sustainablejungle

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