Let’s talk about shoes, more precisely sneakers. But first of all did you know that over 23 billion shoes are produced worldwide each year and that less than one percent of these are made responsibly? On top of that more than 300 million pairs end up each year in landfills after their use. So there are massive problems out there and especially in the sneaker industry.
Sneakers are not only one of the most popular fashion products, it is also like VEJA nicely described “…a symbol of a whole generation and era. It’s also a product that crystallizes the major issues of globalization through its production, dissemination, and usage.”
So luckily there are some brands out there who recognized this problem, faced it and took on the challenge a few years ago. They rebuilt supplier chains, found or innovated new materials and focussed on ethical production instead of big marketing campaigns and on the way created some of the coolest sneakers on the market. Because ethical and sustainable design is not only the future, it’s extremely hot too.
So here you go, these are my 10 favorite sustainable sneakers for men and women and the brands behind them. My criteria for the selection was, on top of innovation and sustainability, ethical production. Because the last thing I want to support here is greenwashing, right?
THE ETHICAL PIONEERS
VENTURI by VEJA
“We decided to make sneakers, because this product is a symbol for our generation and our era. It’s also a product that crystallizes the major issues of globalization through its production, dissemination, and usage.” VEJA
Already founded in 2005 the French brand VEJA is one of the first and most successful sustainable sneaker brands. The journey of the two friends started after visiting cloth factories in China and being deeply concerned how people were treated there. They choose to make sneakers, not only because they loved them and wearing them every day, as well, because it is a product that shows off the major issues of globalization. So they decided to start completely from scratch, moved to the jungle of Brazil, where they could find all their raw materials needed, natural rubber and leather. They worked back up the production chain, changed it, cut out the middleman and invested in fair trade and organic raw materials instead of advertising, until today. Meanwhile they have many different designs and collections, but still trying to stay timeless, designing slower after the principals of slow fashion and keep improving their materials. To create vegan sneakers, VEJA found an alternative to go beyond leather, which is not like many others out of petroleum-based plastic, its called C.W.L, it is made from a coated canvas composed of 50% corn waste and polyurethane and is biodegradable, which opens a new exciting path for the brand. Furthermore VEJA is the first sneaker brand to use fabric entirely made from recycled plastic bottles, called B-Mesh.
The brand is very transparent, which the name connotes, VEJA means look in Brazilian, as in look through it. I totally recommend to browse through their website, they tell their story, describe each material they are using, map their origins, show the costs, quotes, certifications, just everything. Because transparency is the future of environmentalism, right? You can listen to the audio clip, where the VEJA founders explain their vision and how it all started.
Certificates: Certified B-corporation, Organic certification, all coton is certified organic since the beginning. Social impact: VEJA chooses ethical correct suppliers, for example they chose banks who don’t have branches in tax havens and for electricity they use Enercoop a power suppliers that collects green energy from small independent producers. News: VEJA just launched Condor, the first post-petroleum running shoe after four years of R&D.
THE 80s LOVER
MODEL’ 89 by WADO
The Spanish brand WADO is designing timeless sneakers influenced by the 80s. They are using the brand as a vehicle to help make a change through being very transparent in describing each material they use. This holistic work starts with the production. All the shoes are produced in Portugal under fair work conditions. The materials which are used for the shoes are leather from Portugal and Spain, which is a bi-product of the meat industry, organic cotton and a mix of Portuguese rubber and synthetic for the outsole. The insole is made out of recovered Polyurethane leftovers from European automotive factories, the counter and puff of the shoe is made of recovered thermoplastics and wood chips from the carpentry industry.
Social impact: For every sold sneaker, WADO is planting two trees in the most needed areas like India and Zambia together with the NGO We Forest. Due to the fires of the Amazon rainforest in July and August 2019, they are planting in August and September trees in the Amazon, together with the NGO Saving the Amazon Rainforest.
THE UNICOLOURED CARBON REDUCER
These cool eighties style sneakers called Tread come from the San Francisco based ethical fashion brand Everlane. Tread comes in a lot of pretty colours and editions mostly all unicoloured, which makes them very versatile. The brand is on a mission to become completely carbon neutral and hired third-party firms to help to fulfil this vision. The upper of the shoe is made of full-grain leather from Saigon TanTec, a Gold-Certified tannery which uses less electricity, water and CO₂ emissions. The sole is a blend of natural and recycled rubber that’s 94.2% free of virgin plastic. The laces and linings are made of 9.5 recycled plastic bottles for each pair which saves 18% of carbon. Everlane is radically transparent by showing their pricing and presenting all factories they work with and which products are made there.
THE COASTAL’ FAVORITES
ROLAND V.2 by Flamingos’ Life
Founded in 2015 by three Spanish friends, Flamingos’ Life is a vegan sneaker brand who emphasizes the surfers lifestyle and the importance of nature through its shoes. The sneakers come in minimal timeless retro designs and are made out of natural materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester from post-consumer plastic bottles and industrial recycled plastics. All the shoes are proudly produced in Spain under fair work conditions.
Certificates: Peta approved Vegan, Global Organic Textile Standard, Global Recycle Standard, OEKO-TEX® Standard Social impact: By using recycled materials, over 50% of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere are reduced. On average two recycled plastic bottles are needed to produce one pair of Flamingos’ Life sneakers. Furthermore they are cleaning the oceans, by collaborating with Waste Free Oceans to whom they are donating from each pair of Roland V.2 sold. By purchasing other shoes from their collection they’ll plant 5 trees together with the Eden Reforestation Projects.
THE UPCYCLING HEROS
The Spanish brand ECOALF already exists for almost 10 years. Javier Goyeneche founded the brand after the birth of his son Alfredo and named it after him. He was concerned about what kind of world we would pass on to the next generations when we use natural resources so excessively. His idea was to create a fashion brand that is truly sustainable. ECOALF is using the latest technology to create clothing and accessories that are made entirely from recycled material and still looking really stylish. They are representing the fabrics for the future generations. ECOALF are collaborating with a lot of brands, organizations and celebrities. Latest collaboration is the one with Camper, which you can see in the next section below. The shoe DENVER consists out of a mesh sock without laces, made out of 59% recycled polyester from plastic bottles and 41% Sorona® (a soft biopolymer made out of cornstarch which reduces energy comsumption by 30% and greenhouse gases by up to 63%)
Social impact: ECOALF founded the movement #becausethereisnoplanetB where 10% of profits from the collection support the ECOALF Foundation and its mission to clean the ocean with its Upcycling the Oceans project. Since the existence of the foundation in 2015, they have taken out over 400 tons of waste from the bottom of the oceans in Spain and Thailand, recycled over 120 million plastic bottles and developed over 300 fabrics and turned them into top quality garments. They want to replicate this project in other parts of the world, likewise, the ECOALF Foundation participates in other initiatives that involve waste management, environmental education and R+D. Certificates: Certified B-corporation
THE SUSTAINABLE UPDATE OF AN ICON
One of the collaborations of ECOALF is with the Mallorca-based shoe brand Camper with an update of their iconic Pelotas shoe. They used 100% recycled nylon uppers, laces, and linings, as well as special recycled fabric and thread developed by ECOALF. Camper is currently on a shift to become more sustainable and transparent. They list up all the factories where they produce, the materials they use and have invested in green energy since 2010. So very interesting to watch their journey.
Social impact: Additionally, for each pair sold from the Together With ECOALF collaboration, they will donate 2€ to the ECOALF Foundation.
THE RECYCLED KNIT SNEAKERS MADE IN FRANCE
ECTOR by Soft’in
Ector is the name of the first sustainable sneaker made in France. It is a sneaker, which was developed with the principles of the circular economy. The colorful sneakers are knitted out of a thread made of recycled plastic bottles and an outer sole made out of recycled rubber. They limited its environmental impact while using locally available techniques, such as KNIT technology, a method of technical knitting which gives Ector its airy and urban look. For the end of its lifetime, local partners are collecting the shoe to recycle it again. For the fall/winter season the inner lining incorporates a 3W membrane (WATER + WIND = WINTER), that protects the feet from rain and wind.
Good to know: They also have a sport edition, if you like it a bit more bouncy.
THE CLOUD WALKERS
WOOL RUNNER by Allbirds
Allbirds were founded in 2014 by New Zealand native Tim Brown, an ex-professional football player, who thought that natural materials were totally overlooked in the shoe industry. Coming from the country which has six times more sheep than inhabitants, he knew about the benefits of the precious merino wool. The superfine wool is breathable, temperature-regulating and moisture-wicking without being itchy. Tim teamed up with the engineer and renewables expert Joey Zwillinger and developed a revolutionary wool fabric made specifically for footwear. The outcome is the Allbirds wool sneaker, which comes in a puristic design, without big logos or senseless details. The sneaker is composed of a merino wool upper, castor bean oil insole and a SweetFoam sole. Furthermore the laces are made out of recycled plastic bottles and the eyelets out of bio-based TPU. Allbirds claim their sheep are living The Good Life. They are collaborating with leading organizations like ZQ Merino to ensure the wool is held in high standard of farming, animal welfare and land management. Next to the wool sneaker Allbirds launched sneakers with uppers out of eucalyptus tree fibers
Good to know: In 2016 shortly after their launch Time Magazine called the Allbirds wool sneakers the world’s most comfortable shoes and this is how they promote their shoes today. The cool thing is, you have a 30 day trial, if you don’t walk like you’re on cloud nine you can send them back without questions asked. Certificates: Certified B-corporation Social impact: Next to using only natural materials which drastically reduces their carbon footprint, they reinvented the shoeboxes, while using 90% post-consumer recycled cardboard that serves as a shoebox, shopping bag, and mailer all in one. Furthermore in cooperation with Soles4Souls®, lightly used Allbirds find new life all around the world, helping communities in need. News: Allbirds just launched the Mizzle Collection, the Wool Runner with a Puddle Guard™ a waterproof, breathable bio-based shield that keeps your feet dry.
THE PALM TREE LUXURY
NEVEN by Yatay
The Italian brand Yatay was founded in 2018, after two years of R+D to create a timeless, comfortable and sustainable sneaker with the best made-in-Italy quality. All based on the latest green fashion technology. The brand’s name was inspired by the highest palm tree from the Butia Yatay family which then became its logo. The brand is completely transparent and shows all the materials they are using. The uppers are made from 50% Bio Polyols (derived from natural vegetable oils) and 25% recycled polyester. The stylish lasers are out of 100% hemp.The cool thing about this faux-leather is, it’s actually better than leather, you can wash it in the washing machine, it is very breathable and has a high abrasion resistance. The inner sole is made out of Bio Oil, recycled foam and rubber and the outer sole is made out of 63% Bio Polysols. But see for yourself, on their website, they have a cool explosive illustration, where every part is described. The sneakers have a very sleek and puristic design and come in many beautiful colors, so you can go crazy.
Certificates: Peta approved Vegan Social impact: Yatay is planting one tree for each pair of sneakers sold together with the organization One Tree Planted. Furthermore they use OVH as a green hosting provider.
THE COCONUT FOOT MATTRESS
SNEAK by PO-ZU
The award winning cruelty-free british footwear brand PO-ZU was founded in 2006 by Sven Segal. The shoes are all crafted from only natural materials, are responsibly harvested and aren’t containing any pesticides, bleaches or toxic dyes and are locally sourced. They are using organic cotton, linen, Piñatex (pineapple leaf fibre), apple skin, wool, cork, chrome-free leather, coir (coconut fibre) and natural rubber. Moreover, they are not using any solvent-based substances and glues, the majority of their shoes are designed for disassembly and are glue-less, simply stitched together with the help of natural latex. The shoes are produced in Sri Lanka, whose local supply chain provides PO-ZU with Fair Trade rubber and coconut husk, and Portugal, which is famous for its shoemaking. The core of PO-ZU is their revolutionary Foot Mattress. It is built with layers of spiralled, naturally pliable coconut fibres called coir linked together with high-elasticity natural latex. They integrated air pockets in this mattress, which are reacting to your weight, heat and foot movement, which has the effect that the coir fibre gently forms itself around the shape of your foot, eliminating pressure points and are maximising the support. This biomimicry design is found in nature and is based on the coconut husk’s shock absorber, which protects the coconut when it falls from the tree. On top of that, coir is extremely breathable, dissipates moisture and is a natural antibacterial that simply makes you walk on clouds.
Certificates: Butterfly Mark Certification, Member of Fair Rubber Association, Certified Ethical Company Organisation Social impact: PO-ZU donates 10% of their net profits to environmental charities. They divide the donations equally under these three: The Resurgence Trust, an educational charity that promotes ecological sustainability, social justice and spiritual values; Pesticide Action Network UK, eliminates the dangers of toxic pesticides, our exposure to them and their presence in our environment; Environmental Justice Foundation, who builds a direct link between the need for environmental security and the defence of basic human rights. Furthermore in 2016 they launched the The Better Shoes Foundation a kind of a blueprint for a whole new footwear industry. Through an open-source website, it helps bring together the best practices from across the industry, from the design process through material selection, supply chain to post consumer life.