These 10 sustainable sneaker brands are doing things differently. From sustainable materials and ethical production to circular economies and stylish design. Shop consciously at one of these eco-friendly trainer brands next time you need a new pair.
Shoes are big business. In 2018, 24 billion pairs were made worldwide. In the same year, the global sneaker market was worth USD$58bn, with experts predicting an increase to USD$88bn by 2024. It’s a tad (*read really f***ing) concerning then that trainers are traditionally made using materials like plastic, nylon, and synthetic rubber. You don’t need us to tell you that ain’t particularly eco-friendly. Combine that with the chemical solvents used to bind them together, and you’ve got a product that’s nigh on impossible to recycle.
And that’s before we even get to production (which includes energy-intensive methods like injection moulding and foaming) and the impoverished working conditions for thousands of people. Thankfully, public awareness of unsafe and unethical working conditions is on the rise thanks to social media movements like #WhoMadeMyClothes. But Oxfam reports like this highlight there’s still a long way to go.
The better news is that in recent years we’ve seen sneaker behemoths like Nike and Adidas take a stride towards sustainability. Nike through its Move to Zero initiative, and Adidas through clearly reporting on future goals and progress to date. But if you need a new pair of sneakers and want to steer clear of mass-produced, commercial brands, there are some excellent humans out there who have taken it upon themselves to do things differently. Here are our favourite conscious kicks that are booting old school shoe dogs off their pedestal.
“The goal of our design studio is simple: create sneakers that will stand the test of time.” It’s a bold brand that chooses to rethink trainers so completely that it encourages consumers to buy fewer of its products. Designed to last 10 years, not 10 minutes, Veja’s philosophy is refreshing in a world of more is more fast-fashion. Not only are its sneakers consciously crafted from sustainable fabrics (like B-mesh, made from recycled polyester and ‘leather’ made from corn waste), but every step of the production process has been considered. Even down to logistics, which Veja has entrusted to Ateliers Sans Frontières since day one. Every year, this non-profit helps approximately 100 vulnerable individuals to find work and regain social stability. It keeps product affordable by ditching advertising (which early on it observed accounted for 70% of the cost of a regular big sneaker brand). Smart. And they look great too.
Natalie Chow, the founder of Lacess, puts the environment first and people above profits. At the heart of the brand is Chow’s compulsion to end human trafficking within her lifetime. Partnering with Compassion First, an NGO which fights against this very issue, Chow donates a percentage of every pair sold to help the cause. And when she’s not busy running the business, she actively advocates and volunteers to shift the needle. Back to the sneakers; it goes without saying that production leaves a minimal to positive impact on the environment. Its core materials include repurposed leather scraps and single-use plastic bottles, while its insoles are made from natural cork and recycled rubber. It also reuses 95% of the water used in the dying process and eliminates as many effluents as possible. Combine that with a simple, classic design, and you’ve got a winning pair of sneakers. You can read more about Lacess here.
If you’re looking for a brand that has nailed the details of ethical and sustainable production, look no further. We could write an entire article about the awesomeness of Ethletic, but in a nutshell: it subsidises repairs to its trainers to make them last longer. It donates $1 from every pair sold to the Workers Welfare Society (an organisation striving for better working conditions for factory workers in rural Pakistan). It’s a fairtrade award winner. It only uses sustainable and organic raw materials. It’s got a shiny vegan PETA-certification. It ships products rather than use air freight to reduce emissions. We could go on.. you get the gist.
France’s first vegan shoe company lives by the mantra Good Guys don’t wear leather. Since 2011 it’s been creating cruelty- and sweatshop-free sneakers (and boots, ballerina pumps, sandals, loafers, kids shoes, and more). Using only materials that are eco-friendly and sustainable from certified manufacturers, these kicks are as ethical as they are stylish. Since launching, the team has continually searched for new, innovative fabrics (like vegan leather made from apple skin) and is striving to become 100% recyclable by 2021.
Two friends plus one Kickstarter equals Vietnamese based shoe brand, N’go. We’re fans for multiple reasons. Firstly, the cute locally inspired designs. Secondly, thanks to its partnership with Zero Waste Shoes, once you’re done wearing a pair, simply return them (hey presto: a micro-circular economy!). They will either be scrubbed up and resold second-hand, or broken down and recycled. Thirdly, a percentage of profits go towards funding a non-profit that educates local Vietnamese kids. And finally, it looks after its traditional artisans. You can see exactly who made your sneakers right here.
A backpacking trip around Peru (obvs) was all the inspiration necessary for the three founders of Perus. Fast forward to now, and this burgeoning Inca-inspired sneaker line is one to watch. Hand-crafted by skilled artisans in Peru using canvas, simili-leather, and natural rubber, several of its lines are completely vegan. It also collaborates with NGO Warita which supports various educational projects in La Paz.
In building the brand, the team behind Cariuma questioned every single detail of sneaker production. Its motto? “What we’re doing isn’t special, it’s how it’s supposed to be done”. With shoes made from fairtrade cotton, raw natural rubber, and leather sourced from ethical tanneries (that aren’t from areas deforested by cattle), if you’re OK with leather products, this is a sustainable option. All of its packaging comes from 100% recyclable materials (and is, of course, recyclable itself). Plus the shipping and transportation of its products is carbon-neutral. Finally, it’s hot on fair wages and safe working conditions for its local craftsmen. And we haven’t even mentioned how natty its trainers are: they’re natty, FYI.
With accolades like ‘World’s most comfortable shoe’ and ‘Allbirds… is disrupting just about every convention in the sneaker world’, it’s no wonder these ethical sneakers have become a global hit. So what’s the magic behind the brand? In its own words, and in a nutshell, Allbirds “starts with better materials, continues with better design, and carries through to better factories and shipping methods”. It reincarnates plastic bottles into laces, recycled cardboard into packaging, and eucalyptus tree fibres into its very own patented fabric – Trino™. Allbirds is open about its sustainability journey, and in 2019 it went completely carbon neutral (and we’re talking its entire supply chain).
We’re all about consuming less as a general rule. Which is why the Tropic Feel concept totally speaks to us; why have four pairs of sneakers when you can have one? Each pair is multi-functional, meaning they provide the “benefits of an aqua-shoe (i.e. you can wear them while swimming), the comfort of a walking shoe, the outsole of a hiking shoe, and the look of an everyday sneaker”. But it’s not just this versatility that makes it sustainable. It uses recycled and eco-friendly materials to make its products (like Bloom foam; a flexible foam harvested from algae). It collaborates with organisations that protect wildlife by donating 1% of sales to protect the planet. And, it actively measures its impact with the help of an external agency and has a continual focus on improving every step of its supply chain to reduce impact. We approve.
It’s the brand that champions complete transparency. From who made your product in which ethical factory, to the exact cost breakdown of every single item. If there’s one thing Everlane does well, it’s BS-free consumption. And when it comes to shoes, they are on a mission to create the world’s lowest-impact sneakers. Now, they ain’t perfect… yet. But each pair is built to last, is 94.2% free of virgin plastic, and it makes its laces and linings from recycled bottles. Plus, it has also partnered with external agencies to track, monitor, and reduce its carbon footprint. We stand by the fact that sustainability is a journey, and while not perfect, Everlane is doggedly working towards zero impact; its current goals are to remove all virgin plastic from its sneakers and to close its production loop. We salute the effort.