The climate crisis is real. The statistics are grim. The hurdles are high. But if we learned anything from the recent vaccine development it should be that big things can happen when we all put our heads together, attack a common problem, and commit to making meaningful change.
One easy change you can pledge to make is to walk the sustainable walk when shopping for shoes. Many titans of the footwear industry have probably earned a long walk of shame as shoe production accounts for a fifth of the fashion industry’s environmental impact and generates 1.4 percent of global carbon emissions annually. But nowadays, there are players like Allbirds and Rothy’s, as well as established giants like Adidas and Converse, who are thinking outside of the shoebox and making it easy to be green.
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A whole new world of vegan leather, bamboo uppers, upcycled ocean plastic, and soles made of algae and sugarcane is on the shelves and pioneering low-water, minimal-waste, carbon-neutralizing techniques and business plans are developed regularly. And the convenient truth is that no one is asking you to sacrifice style for sustainability. Even sneakerheads will be impressed with the following 10 brands trying to make the world a better, safer, cleaner place one step at a time.
What Are the Best Sustainable Shoe Brands?
Looking for the best sustainable shoe brands online? We’ve rounded up some of our favorites, from casual kicks for festivals or brunch, to sneakers that will hold up to your toughest workouts and runs.
1. Allbirds Sneakers
I would walk 500 miles if it meant ending the climate crisis, especially if I got to do it in a swanky new set of breathable and sturdy Tree Dashers from Allbirds, the popular shoe brand making footwear from sustainable materials.
The Tree Dashers are concocted from renewable eucalyptus trees in South Africa and sugarcane-derived foam from Brazil. Or, choose the slipper-like Merino wool Runners, or cozy Pipers or puddle-protected Mizzles, you know if it happened to be raining on this hypothetical quest.
All of this is to say you really can’t go wrong with this brand that’s the antithesis of fast fashion and one of the most transparent big businesses around. They tax themselves on 100 percent of their carbon emissions annually and label each product with its personal carbon tally. All their shoes are basically made from wool sourced from healthy ethical farms, the aforementioned tree parts from Forest Stewardship Council-certified groves, and/or the trademark SweetFoam, the world’s first green, carbon-negative EVA. They care so deeply about protecting the environment that they went a step above and gave the competition the recipe for it. Recently Reebok, Timberland, and Ugg have all bitten. The brand has invested in technology that generates the world’s first 100 percent natural plant-based pleather and intends to introduce styles using it later this year.
2. Cariuma Sneakers
With kicks this cute, cool, and consciously made on the market, there’s no excuse for stocking your closet with synthetic sneakers anymore. Supporting this vibrantly colored made-in-Brazil brand also puts you in good company as Jon Hamm, Pete Wentz, Brooke Shields, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are among Cariuma’s celebrity supporters.
You can also feel a burst of superiority knowing that for every pair sold, Cariuma’s founders have pledged to not only plant 10 trees in a tipping-point section of the endangered Amazon rainforest, but are also paying indigenous communities who live in said forest to do the heavy lifting.
Currently, the company says 43 percent of the materials they use are 100 percent vegan. It’s a number they’ve targeted to increase to more than 50 percent this year. Meat-based materials for the leather options are responsibly sourced from Argentina, Thailand, Brazil (but not Amazon areas deforested by cattle ranching), and China, and all of the water used to produce leather and suede is recycled and reused. Canvas OCAs use organic cotton and the highest purity rubber and IBIs are crafted from low-impact bamboo and reclaimed plastic. They just debuted their first slip-ons, which set the company record for the lowest carbon footprint per pair. And did we mention they have an ongoing collaboration with Pantone? Who wouldn’t want to sartorially save the world in millennial Pink or Bungee Cord?
3. Rothy’s Shoes
In 2012, two friends had their lightbulb moment courtesy of leggings. The stretchy uber-casual style had become ubiquitous, chic even. They realized leggings had no equal in the footwear space so they set out to give one to the world. They were saddened by all the waste they found from excess materials exiled to dumps and overproduction to toxic dyes. They vowed to be better and always push toward the goal of zero waste, content employees, and thrilled customers.
To make the colorful on-trend women’s and children’s collections, they started with thread spun from repurposed plastic bottles and merino wool. (They’ve used 75 million discards so far.) Assembly of their lace-ups, loafers, slip-ons, and best-selling pointed-toe flats is done by hand and 3D knitting tech to shape. Shipping boxes are 100 percent recyclable and reseal for returns to avoid tape waste. They apply all the same eco-friendly practices to their adorable purses, totes, and weekenders. And they are just getting started. In 2021, they ceased using air transportation for inventory and they’re piloting a shoe recycling program. 2022 brings a plan to incorporate twice-recycled materials and achieve zero waste and reaching carbon neutrality is the objective of 2023.
4. Adidas Stan Smith “Forever” Sneakers
Fly since Run-D.M.C. rapped about them in the Eighties, the new greener takes on Adidas’ signature sneaker, the Stan Smith, are also pretty fresh, especially the ones that have wildflower illustrations printed, embossed, or embroidered on the upper.
Others in the Stan Smith, “Forever” oeuvre, launched in January, look almost identical to the originals, but the sustainability ante has been raised. The legend is now made with PRIMEGREEN, a series of high-performance recycled materials that make up at least 50 percent of the upper, and sans virgin polyester. Even the iconic blue Adidas shoebox received a redesign with Mother Nature in mind. It’s now made with around 90 percent recycled paper.
5. Converse Renew
At first glance, it might look like business as usual. The Chuck Taylor All Star aesthetic hallmarks are still present—toe cap, foxing tap, the embossed stripe around the side of the foxing tap, and, of course, the circular logo patch on the side of the ankle. But upon closer inspection of any iteration of the Renew series, Converse’s experimental “throw things at the wall and see what stick” category, you’ll quickly realize something new and cool is afoot.
The 100-plus-year-old sporty silhouette now gets several makeovers a season in the company’s quest to be more eco-conscious. Some are infinitely cool, others cooky, and still more remind us of the power of science and the importance of walking the fine line between nostalgia and evolution. The most recent round saw Chucks and Jack Purcells made out of vintage Hawaiian shirt fabric, repurposed tear-resistant Tyvek mailers, 100 percent recycled morphlon knit (which blends upper recycled polyester and post-industrial textile scraps) and triple-rigged recycled laces, and ombre plant-dyed swatches.
Yes, the Model 000 casual skater-style sneaks are 99 percent recyclable, using materials like recycled brass for the eyelets and antimicrobial copper threads, and they’re 100 percent vegan so they create fewer carbon emissions than animal-derived products. And sure, the waterless dyeing process both conserves the precious resource and eliminates the possibility of toxic runoff into groundwater or soil. They deserve kudos for reducing cardboard usage by 44 percent by customizing their shoebox design, eliminating receipt waste by foregoing them, choosing BPA-free shipping labels, and for setting up carbon-neutral shipping and using carbon offset credits to protect the Garcia River Redwood Forest. Also only stocking three timeless colors 24/7 and handling limited-edition pairs in a made-to-order fashion means there isn’t a lot of wasteful deadstock at the end of a season.
But the real reason Atoms is a game-changer we should all be talking about is that they are the first shoe brand to offer quarter sizes for optimal fit. Yeah, we know, mind blown.
Two Parisians set out to disrupt the sneaker industry after they found unacceptable and unhealthy worker living quarters during an audit of a Chinese factory they conducted on behalf of the popular Western clothing brand they worked for in the early aughts. Seeking to build a better business model that protected workers, didn’t hurt the environment, and ultimately produced a higher quality shoe at an affordable price point, they headed to Brazil. Villagers who live in, and off of, the abundance of the Amazon led them to wild rubber. They met a farming cooperative in the Nordeste that produces their organic cotton without fertilizers or pesticides and by using agroecology and gave them three-year planting contracts at double-market prices.
Porto Alegre is home to the factory where Vega now manufactures hipster high-tops and vegan trainers. They’ve continued to innovate along the way as their cult following grew, using vegetables to tan leather and creating fabric made out of discarded plastic bottles found on the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo. Now they sell in 50 countries and have matched two million pairs to happy feet. They also continue to fine-tune their fair trade and green practices to sleep even sounder at night. They refuse to use banks with branches in tax havens and get their green electricity from Enercoop who collects it from indie producers.
The laidback California beach-town brand has long dabbled in groovy and green footwear designs made out of hemp, vegan materials, and recycled ingredients. To combat the environmental destruction fast-fashion leaves in its wake, they also offer lots of machine-washable styles to extend the lifecycle of the shoes.
But they are particularly proud of a trio of projects recently introduced to the market. The fourth round of Grateful Dead Slings, Sandbars, and Sidewalk Surfers features foam made out of repurposed algae so ramble on, Rose and her Deadhead pals. Sales of limited-edition hemp, jute, and faux crepe Earth Day 2021 outdoor slippers will raise money for the Surfrider Foundation, an organization dedicated to cleaning oceans and beaches.
Lastly, SustainaSoles are Sanuk’s most sustainable product to date as they contain 55 percent recycled content. Sanuk partnered with BLUMAKA to divert foam scraps typically produced in footwear production from being sent to landfills and instead convert them into a durable sole filler. The un-dyed uppers also save water (115 gallons per pair of Skuners) and energy.
9. Strauss + Ramm
These bad boys were recently born in Miami when two longtime footwear industry workers had the genius idea of turning the local coconut surplus into comfortable, affordable, and more sustainable shoes. All have insoles made with a 60 percent polyurethane and 40 percent coconut kernel extract paste formula. Used in its natural form, the paste adds further squish to already well-cushioned insoles, which will keep molding to the wearer’s foot when body heat, weight, and movement are introduced.
The three styles—a lace-up chukka, a mod Chelsea boot, and a slip-on—are common, but the available Japandi-esque colors and fun camo and leopard prints make them very of the moment.
Long the favorite footwear of the hip-hop set, Timberland is out to prove you can teach an old dog new Earth-friendly tricks. The company has set itself a lofty goal: all products will have a net-positive impact on nature by the year 2030. To achieve this admirable and ambitious objective they plan to incorporate circularity, regenerative agriculture, upcycled waste like scraps of wool and leather, and more natural materials into their strategy starting with two lines.
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