Footwear manufacturers worldwide produced an estimated 23.3-plus billion pairs of shoes in 2018. And according a MIT-led life-cycle assessment, each pair of traditional trainers accounts for 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of keeping a light on for a week straight or burning a gallon and a half of gasoline. The bulk of those emissions come from the manufacturing process, but many are also released during the acquiring and extracting of raw materials, such as the crude oil that’s used to make synthetic fabrics.
A few companies, however, are rethinking their supply chains—and seeking sustainable and innovative materials that make shoe production greener from the get-go.
Just a few months ago, we reported on Canadian shoe company Native Shoes and their entirely biodegradable Plant Shoe. The attractive (and shockingly durable) design is concocted of completely biodegradable pineapple husk, olive oil, corn, and cotton that can begin to break down after only 45 days in a compost bin. But Native, like several other brands, hasn’t focused its sustainability efforts on a single shoe design. The brand is currently partnering with the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT to develop a unique method of 3D printing for the Jefferson Slip-On ($45) and the Audrey pointed toe flat (starting at $31). Other versions of the company’s shoes are produced with EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), plastic foam that can be ground up through the company’s Remix Project recycling program and repurposed as flooring or insulation in building construction. You can recycle your worn Native shoes through a variety of partner locations as well as the Zappos for Good free return program.
Allbirds—a Certified B Corporation—has pushed its mission to create entire collections from eco-friendly materials. The company continues to offer its signature wool runners but is expanding into biodegradable materials and now makes shoes from eucalyptus and sugarcane fibers, such as the new Tree Runner ($95).
San Francisco-based Rothy’s creates sensible flats (such as The Point, $145) out of recycled plastic water bottles. The company claims to have recycled more than 32 million water bottles, and the brand is a favorite of several CEOs and founders we have interviewed for the Recommender, including Anna Blue, co-executive director of the United Nations platform Girl Up. “Rothy’s are the most comfortable shoes that also happen to be made from recycled single-use plastic bottles, ” she says. “Plus, they are are machine washable. Stylish, comfortable, and good for the planet? Yes, please.”
Vivobarefoot recently launched the world’s first plant-based performance shoes—the Primus Lite II Bio ($160)—which is built out of yellow dent field corn, natural rubber, and harvested algae (minimizing the reliance on single-use petroleum-based materials). The shoe is designed to withstand the rigors of your workouts. Along with an entire Bio line, which features shoes only made from plant-based polymers, Vivobarefoot also launched a Recycled line of shoes—including the Primus Lite, Primus Trail, Magna Trail, and Stealth—which are made with 50 % recycled plastic bottles.
Ecoalf, the first fashion brand in Spain to become a B-Corp, stamps nearly all of its shoe designs with a line that reads, “Because There Is No Planet B.” The company uses recycled plastic and nylon in almost all of its designs, but the Shao sneaker ($180) goes even further: the shoe is constructed using only recycled waste gathered from the ocean and rivers near the Mediterranean Sea. Five recycled water bottles are spun into the yarn that creates the sleek knitted upper, while the outsoles are constructed from algae.
Designer Sydney Brown incorporates biodegradable and recycled materials in all of her designs—from sneakers made of fennel ($65) to sleek stiletto heels made of cork and raffia ($385). Brown has been also working on a completely biodegradable heel for more than four years, and counts actor Natalie Portman as a fan.
Saola Shoes, a member of 1% Percent for the Planet (an organization whose members contribute 1% of annual sales to environmental causes), has based its entire design method around sustainable materials. The Niseko sneaker boot for men ($120) and the Tahoe ($110) model for women are made with recycled polyester uppers, algae-foam outsoles (made by BLOOM foam), and natural cork insoles.
Hip French shoe brand Veja sources a vegan and bio-sourced material called C.W.L. as an alternative to leather. After five years of an extensive R&D process, the company rolled out sneakers (starting at $94) constructed with the corn-based material. Additionally, Veja was the first footwear brand to use B-mesh—a fabric made entirely out of recycled polyester.
Leather is a traditionally unfriendly material and market for the planet. The 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, published by the Global Fashion Agenda & The Boston Consulting Group, found that cow leather has the most damaging cradle-to-grave lifespan of 14 commonly used apparel materials (including rayon and polyester). But there are brands working to change that, while still producing exceptionally high quality leather. Canadian B-Corp Poppy Barley offers shoes, like the sharply designed Two Point Five Ankle Boot ($365), that are made of leather sourced from small-scale ranchers and constructed in family-owned factories in Mexico and Brazil. To offset the impact caused by leather production, Poppy Barley ships its products in 100% recycled paper and dust bags instead of plastic. Additionally, all leftover product is donated or recycled to partners like Soles4Souls, Suit Herself, and shoe drives, kick-starting the upcycling process.
Other brands are finding unique ways to reduce their (and your) carbon impact by using nontraditional materials that pick up where companies like Poppy Barley leave off in the upcycling process. Argentine brand Xinca makes use of the 100,00-plus tons of rubber disposed of every year in Argentina to create its stylish and durable shoes out of discarded tire scraps. Its Uxu Coco ($41) model is reminiscent of a low-top classic Vans skate shoe but dressed up—and better for the planet.
Fast Company may receive revenue for some links to products on our site.