Sneakers are the shoe of our time, as comfortable as they are stylish, with countless variations possible. “Sneakers have become part of the American uniform,” says Alison Melville, Everlane’s general manager of footwear and accessories. “We think of them as a closet staple, along with jeans and T-shirts.”
But sneakers also have a very large environmental footprint. Today, Everlane is unveiling an eco-friendly sneaker, dubbed the Trainer, that has been designed with as little virgin plastic as possible, and is also carbon neutral. In keeping with Everlane’s normcore aesthetic, the shoe is basic and monochromatic, with a classic running shoe silhouette. It costs $98, and comes in a range of colors from navy to pink to yellow.
According to Francois Souchet, the fashion lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is working toward a circular economy, sneakers are problematic for the environment because they are made of so many different components that are glued together. “The challenge with sneakers is the complexity of the assembly and materials,” he says. “A sneaker may have up to 80 different components.”
This means that to make a single pair of shoes, a company must ship leather, rubber, plastic-based foam, and other tiny pieces from around the world, which are then glued and sewn together. According to a life-cycle assessment made by MIT’s material systems labs, a pair of sneakers generates 13.6 pounds of CO2 emissions, which is the same as leaving a 100-watt light bulb on for an entire week. All of this adds up when you consider the sheer number of sneakers that are produced every year. The global athletic footwear market is valued at $64.3 billion, and is expected to grow by 5% between 2018 and 2025. By some estimates, Nike alone makes 25 shoes every second.
The good news is that there’s awareness among consumers that sneakers are contributing to the destruction of our planet, and many small brands have responded by attempting to create eco-friendly sneakers. Veja, a French brand, has been experimenting with alternatives to carbon-intensive materials, such as tilapia skin and organic cotton. Allbirds focuses on creating sneakers from renewable materials, like wool, eucalyptus, and sugar. Rothy’s creates women’s flats and sneakers from recycled plastic bottles. Even big brands are jumping into the fray. Adidas has vowed to only use recycled plastic in its supply chain by 2024, and just announced that it is developing a shoe that is designed to be recycled.
Five years in the making
Michael Preysman, Everlane’s CEO, says that customers have been requesting that Everlane make a sneaker for five years, but he has been hesitant to create them because of their terrible environmental impact. “Of everything we wear, sneakers have one of the heaviest footprints,” he writes in a letter to customers. “They require a ton of energy to produce, are made largely from virgin plastic, and never break down. So when we buy and replace them often, billions end up in landfills around the world.”
But two years ago, Preysman and Melville began exploring exactly what it would take to create a more sustainable sneaker. Melville explains that there are plenty of trade-offs to consider, particularly when you need to balance plastic pollution with carbon emissions, both of which Everlane has worked to curb in its own products. Take leather. Though it’s biodegradable and durable, it has a significant carbon footprint. When Everlane did a complete life-cycle assessment of a prototype of the Trainer using a third-party firm, it calculated the emissions created by cattle farming. (Many other brands that calculate their carbon footprint don’t include the impact of raising cows.) Everlane discovered that the total emissions generated by the shoe was a whopping 51.5 kg. That’s about the same as driving a car for 1.94 hours nonstop, or keeping a 13-watt light bulb on for 160 days continuously. The third-party report found that the biggest part of the emissions came from the production of leather.
The final product is an exercise in trade-offs. Forty-five percent of the Trainer is made from recycled materials, with a further 30% made from leather and rubber, which are biodegradable. Only 5.8% of the sole is made from virgin plastic (many non-leather sneakers on the market are made entirely of virgin plastic). “When it comes to sustainability, there is never a silver bullet,” she says. “You need to consider all the trade-offs, and make the best choice at every stage of the process. Then you have to keep improving the product as new technologies enter the market.”
The shoe is made using leather from a tannery that receives top marks from the Leather Working Group, an organization that pushes for sustainability in the leather industry. Saigon TanTec, the supplier Everlane chose, uses solar energy in the tanning process, which uses 42% less electricity and 56% less fresh water than comparable tanneries, and also emits 20% less greenhouse gas. Everlane created the sole largely out of rubber, and used recycled plastic for the laces, insoles, and lining. As a final step, Everlane is completely offsetting the carbon emissions by partnering with NativeEnergy, which is working with ranchers to improve American grasslands by growing plants that will pull carbon from the atmosphere.
Since creating the shoe was so complicated, Everlane decided to launch the Trainer under a new brand, Tread, to better explain the design process. “Tread gives us a separate channel for storytelling without getting lost in the main Everlane brand,” she says. The Tread by Everlane Instagram handle already has more than 15,000 followers, even before the launch of the first shoe, so part of the strategy here is to create some hype and excitement around the new sneaker line.
Of course, as I’ve argued before, none of these kinds of incremental improvements is worth much if brands are constantly churning out clothes that we don’t need, or that fall apart after a short time. “The most eco-friendly sneaker is one that is durable,” says Souchet. “Many sneakers on the market aren’t well-made, which means that consumers keep coming back and buying more.
Preysman says that the goal with Tread was to create a sneaker that the customer will wear for a long time. That is in part why Everlane has focused on using leather, which generally stands up to plenty of use. That’s also why Melville’s team wanted to design the sneaker to look classic. “Flashy, hype-driven, disposable sneakers have become the ultimate trend piece,” he writes in his letter. “Most people want a timeless sneaker they can wear for years. Not something they’ll have to replace next month.” To be fair, Everlane helped popularize the normcore asethetic, and this look itself may be a trend. Will it still be in style a decade from now? No one can say.
But this won’t be Everlane’s last shoe within the Tread brand. The goal is to stay on top of the latest technologies to continue developing sneakers that have a gentle footprint on the environment. Companies have a long way to go toward making sneakers truly sustainable. No matter how responsibly made they are, most sneakers will end up in a landfill, joining billions of others. And sneaker recycling is still in its infancy. That’s largely because you need to incorporate circularity into the design of the sneaker when you make it, like eliminating glue from the manufacturing process. “Even if you were able to take apart the different components, they would each be contaminated by the chemicals in the glue,” he says.
But we’re beginning to see new approaches to sneaker recycling. As my colleague Mark Wilson reported earlier this week, Adidas is pioneering a method of shoemaking that would bind components together by pressure and heat, primarily to make it easier to recycle them. Souchet dreams of the day when we’ll wear our sneakers for a long time, then send them to a recycling facility where they will be taken apart and turned into new shoes. That reality may be closer than we think.