Sneakers are the shoe of our time, ergonomically designed to fit our feet, and engineered to get us through our busiest days. They’ve become the ultimate aesthetic statement for increasingly casual modern workplaces.
Unfortunately, sneakers have a big environmental footprint. This is partly because they are very complex to make, containing an average of 30 components–and some shoes have as many as 80 components. In practice, that means tiny scraps of plastic, leather, rubber, and cotton are shipped around the world to make a shoe, generating carbon emissions in the process.
The component materials aren’t particularly sustainable either. Most sneakers contain plastic in the sole and the footbed, which is not biodegradable, so it could sit in landfills for hundreds of years. And because these parts are attached to the shoe with glue, the plastic is currently impossible to recycle because current recycling systems do not accommodate materials that have been adulterated with chemicals. Many sneakers are also made of leather, which increases their carbon footprint further; raising cattle accounts for a whopping 14.5% of total manmade greenhouse emissions.
All of these individual problems are bad, but they are compounded by the fact sneakers tend to be trend-driven and consumers often treat them like fast-fashion items. They might buy a color or silhouette that is currently in vogue, and throw it out at the end of the season. In 2017, the global athletic shoe market was valued at $63.4 billion, and it is expected to grow by 5% annually over the next seven years to hit $95.1 billion by 2025. Grand View Research forecasts that nearly one billion sneakers will be sold that year.
However, brands–and consumers–are increasingly aware that sneakers are polluting the planet. A couple of startups have developed innovative solutions to making sneakers more eco-friendly, and even sneaker giants like Nike and Adidas are developing techniques to improve the sustainability of their sneakers.
If you’re in the market for a new pair of kicks–but want to limit their environmental impact–here’s a list of sneakers for you to explore. While none of these shoes are perfect, they’re probably better than the average sneaker you might get from a fast-fashion brand without any environmental practices in place. We’ve vetted these brands to ensure they are moving the needle when it comes to sustainability. Importantly, we’ve also tested them to make sure they are comfortable and perform well.
Five-year-old Allbirds has made a name for itself creating shoes out of renewable materials that nobody previously thought could go into a sneaker. The company launched with a $95 runner and a loafer made out of merino wool from New Zealand sheep. They then came out with a summer version of the sneaker made from breathable eucalyptus fibers that are the first shoes certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The company has also pioneered a foam sole made from sustainably sourced sugar, rather than fossil fuels, and has made the formula for this foam open-source so that other shoe brands can use it.
All of this addresses the sourcing of the materials but does not address the brand’s overall carbon footprint. So this year, Allbirds made a commitment to becoming a carbon-neutral organization. Allbirds has calculated the company’s entire carbon footprint–including everything from raising sheep to the greenhouse gases emitted when an employee takes the bus to work. The company essentially taxes itself for every kilogram of carbon emitted, putting this money into its own Carbon Fund that invests in tree planting, air purification that extracts greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and clean energy projects.
Everlane Tread Trainer
Everlane just got in the sneaker game last month. The company spent two years developing a $98 sneaker that would have a low impact on the planet. Unlike Allbirds, Everlane has created a shoe out of conventional sneaker materials, including leather. But the brand was careful about sourcing, using recycled materials such as plastic and rubber. The company also found a leather that received the highest marks from the Leather Working Group, an organization that analyzes the sustainability of leather sourcing. Everlane found a tannery in Saigon that uses solar energy to power the facility and less fresh water than comparable tanneries. Then, the company calculated the entire carbon footprint of the shoe, and offset it by investing in tree planting initiatives.
Everlane also thought about the silhouette and aesthetic of the shoe as its designers worked through questions of sustainability. The company’s goal was to create shoes that were classic and durable, to encourage consumers to wear the shoes as long as possible. The final shoe has the kind of normcore look for which Everlane is famous.
Price: $125 for adult, $55 for kids
Rothy’s is known for its women’s ballet flats whose upper and sole is made from fibers derived from recycled water bottles. Last year, the company made its first foray into a slide-on sneaker, which it now makes for both women ($125) and children ($55). Rothy’s stands out for its eco-friendly manufacturing techniques. Since the company launched in 2016, it has repurposed 30 million water bottles to create the fabric upper. And the company owns its own factories and manufacturing equipment, which 3D-knits the fabric, cutting the material to fit each individual sneaker so that no material is wasted.
Many women have flocked to the shoes because they are comfortable and practical. The stretchy fabric exterior hugs the foot, and the shoes are machine-washable. One note: The brand’s aesthetic is more feminine than many other gender-neutral brands on this list. It comes in a slimmer silhouette, and in a more feminine colors and patterns, from pinks to snakeskins.
Veja Esplar Tilapia
Two decades ago, two idealistic young men in France launched the brand Veja to create sneakers that were more ethical than those that existed at the time. They were concerned about impact on the workers around the world who create the raw materials that go into sneakers. In their twenties they backpacked around the world on an extended sourcing trip. They found an organic cotton farm in Brazil and a rubber plantation in the Amazon, where workers are well compensated and use traditional methods to farm these materials. They company also hires formerly incarcerated people who have trouble finding work elsewhere to work in their warehouse in France.
Throughout these experiences, they found that sustainability and human rights tend to go hand in hand: Farms that treat workers well also tend to yield raw materials with lower environmental impacts. But over the past few years, Veja has doubled down on finding even more innovative eco-friendly materials for their shoes. For instance, they have used the skin of the tilapia fish, which would otherwise be discarded, to create a leather that has a snakeskin-like aesthetic. They’ve developed a leather-like material made from curdled milk. And most recently, they’ve developed a technique to give their cotton canvas a sheen that makes it look like leather, but with a lower carbon footprint than real leather shoes. The brand has only recently come to the United States, but is now carried by Madewell, Amour Vert, Net-A-Porter, and Saks Fifth Avenue. They cost between $95 and $160 depending on the model.
Adidas x Parley Capsule
Cost: $80 to $180 depending on the model
Last year, Adidas made a major commitment to reducing its reliance on virgin plastic, which is a core component in the millions of shoes it manufactures every year. The company pledged to transition fully to recycled plastic by 2024. Right now, the company has a capsule collection of sneakers and clothing made in partnership with Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit organization that draws attention to the destructive impact of plastic on the environment. Parley creates its own material called Ocean Plastic, which is made from plastic that has been intercepted from oceans around the world. Adidas currently makes 45 models of its shoes out of this recycled plastic for men, women, and children (priced between $80 and $180). It expects to sell about 10 million of them this year.
The company is also embarking on an exciting new effort to build recyclability into sneakers from the start. Right now, the components of sneakers cannot be taken apart and recycled because they are glued together, and this glue contaminates the materials. Adidas is working on a new system that will attach pieces together with heat. None of these shoes are currently on the market, but stay tuned.
Reebok Cotton and Corn
Last year, Reebok’s innovation lab launched a $95 vegan sneaker called Cotton + Corn made from renewable materials that took five years to develop. The upper is made from cotton and the insole is made from castor bean oil. Corn is milled and fermented into a material that is molded into the shoe sole. The USDA certified that the shoe contains 75% bio-based content.
Right now, the shoe is not yet fully biodegradable, since some of the processed corn material mimics plastic polymers, which do not decompose. But Reebok is currently working on a second iteration of the shoe that will be compostable. This one model makes up a small proportion of all the shoes that Reebok makes, but it’s a start for the brand, and the company hopes to incorporate findings from the development of the shoe into the rest of its line. For now, if you’re looking for a more sustainable version of Reebok’s classic Superstar silhouette, this line will do the trick.
Nike has been working to become more sustainable throughout its entire supply chain. Last year, the company said that it would be moving to entirely renewable energy by the middle of this year through a major contract with a Texas wind farm. The company says that 75% of all Nike products–including shoes and clothes–now contain some recycled materials, including recycled plastics. For the last six years, it has been the industry’s biggest consumer of recycled polyester, which shows that it is reducing its reliance on virgin plastic.
However, if you’re looking for a specific sneaker that uses a particularly innovative approach to sustainability, Flyleather is a good one to consider. The company developed a new material that uses scraps of leather that fall on the floor of shoemaking factories. Nike has developed a way to fuse these scraps with synthetic fibers, creating a roll of material that carries all the same qualities of leather–the durability, look, feel, and even the smell. Since the company uses materials that would otherwise be wasted, the approach uses less water and carbon than traditional leather production. And creating a roll of material–rather than using a cow hide–is a more efficient approach to production, which results in less waste (but also means it cannot be recycled at the end of its life). Nike now makes several iconic shoe silhouettes using Flyleather, including the Air Force One and the Tennis Classic. For Earth Day this year, Nike created a $90 version of its Cortez shoe in collaboration with Steven Harrington using Flyleather.