Making a typical pair of sneakers might generate around 30 pounds of CO2 emissions—both from the shoes’ materials and from the energy used to make dozens of separate components in an average of 360 processing steps. A new pair of shoes from a brand called Cariuma shrinks that footprint by switching materials and simplifying the design. Then the company offsets the remaining footprint, making the sneakers carbon neutral.
Other brands “are mostly huge corporations with massive production that are not really focused on caring about the environment as a whole or even best practices for people involved . . . in mass production,” says Fernando Porto, Cariuma’s Brazil-based cofounder and chief creative officer, who decided to leave a job at a larger company two years ago to explore the idea of making shoes differently. “For us, it became clear that our angle would be trying to bring the only sneaker brand that would be good-looking, crazy comfortable, and consciously made.”
The new shoe is called the Ibi and retails for $98. Its upper part is knitted from a blend of bamboo and recycled plastic. The company developed a new way to work with bamboo, which is typically turned into fiber through a harsh process that involves dissolving the treelike material with a toxic chemical that can endanger workers and pollute the environment near the factory. Cariuma’s process instead heats up the bamboo to turn it into powdered charcoal; mixing that powder with recycled PET plastic makes it possible to create a yarn that can be used to make the shoes. (Some other shoe companies use recycled plastic alone to knit their products.) As the bamboo grows, it sequesters carbon, making it carbon neutral as a material. When bamboo is harvested, it doesn’t kill the plant, which continues to grow and sequester more carbon.
The foam in the sole, which would typically be made from petrochemicals, is made from sugarcane, which sequesters enough carbon as it grows that even with the manufacturing required to turn it into foam, it’s carbon negative. Every ton of standard EVA, the foam used in shoes, emits about two tons of carbon dioxide during its production. For a ton of the “green EVA” made from sugarcane, those emissions are avoided, and another two tons of carbon dioxide are sequestered. “It’s not only carbon negative, but a lot negative,” says Porto. The insoles in the shoe are made from cork.
As with other shoes that are knit—like the Flyknit sneakers that Nike pioneered in 2012—using yarn instead of larger pieces of fabric reduces waste. The shoe’s upper is made from only three pieces, making the manufacturing process simpler than a traditional shoe and saving energy. “Two-thirds of the carbon emissions in the [traditional] shoe process come from manufacturing,” says Porto. “So if you don’t think about this in the design process while you’re developing the product, you won’t be able to fix it later.” Any remaining emissions, including the emissions from shipping the product to customers, are offset through projects including protecting part of the Amazon rainforest.
Since a large part of the environmental impact of fashion stems from the fact that apparel and accessories are often thrown out after only a few uses, the company wanted to make shoes that would last as long as possible. Elements of the design, including the way the sole is stitched to the rest of the shoe, make it more durable. Using a classic aesthetic instead of chasing trends also means that consumers are more likely to keep wearing the shoes. “Something we ask in our sustainable design ethos is, ‘Is this aesthetic still going to be pleasant to your eyes 20, 30 years later?'” says Porto. “If it’s not, we shouldn’t go for it.”
The shoes are also made in a Chinese factory that it says adheres to a strict code of conduct for worker well-being; when the company discovered that its first manufacturing partner was scheduling workers for 12-hour days, it pulled out of its contract and found another factory, pushing back the launch date for the shoes, which will now go on sale tomorrow.