These boots were made for walking, well, in this case, it's our sneakers, they are for sure one of the most popular types of shoes on the market today, with some even fetching upwards of 10k, but are sneakers sustainable? No, not when you consider that studies estimate that "23 billion pairs of shoes are produced annually, and unfortunately, roughly 300 million pairs are thrown away each year!"
So let's put our best foot forward and take it step by step by breaking down what makes sustainable sneakers sustainable!
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What are sneakers made from? I will give you one guess! Most are made from plastic, rubber, foam (another type of plastic) leather and textiles, like knitted polyester. All of these parts are then glued together which makes them impossible to recycle so they end up in a pile in landfills. That's one giant footprint!
So not only do we have the issue of all that garbage we also have to contend with the fossil fuels created in the extraction and manufacturing of the sneaker itself. About 70 percent of all rubber used in manufacturing is synthetic, according to the American Chemical Society.
You might be thinking that leather might be a good choice, well, it's a little more complicated than you think. Leather in most cases it not ethical. About 1 billion animals are killed every year just for their hides. There are companies that use animal skins that are by-products of the agricultural farming industry but for me, the atrocities of this industry outweigh that. Where the leather is concerned there needs to be a third-party certification like The Leather Working Group.
And on top of this, you have the chemicals used in the tanning process, which are certainly not a step in the right direction when it comes to the health of the workers.
All of this leaves us with one question...
Why invest in ethical and sustainable sneakers?
The simple answer is it's better for humans and the planet. For all of the fashion-related posts on The Eco Hub, I take a few key criteria into account and will be applying those here.
What kinds of fabrics/materials are used to make ethical sustainable sneakers?
Some companies are using recycled materials like Econyl which is basically recycled plastic, obviously, it's not biodegradable but I am all for using what already exists as opposed to creating something new using and extracting virgin fossil fuels.
The construction of sneakers is pretty cool, it's not like a high heel where you have the heel, the shoe and the insole. On the sneaker you've got the upper, the insole and the midsole, each part is made from a different material.
The upper part, known as the upper, is typically made from fabrics, look for natural fabrics. Then you have the insole some of the brands I talk about use cork, which is known for its sustainably. You also want the insole to be as comfortable as possible.
Then you have the midsole, most of the time it's made from EVA, which is synthetic. And finally, you have the outsole, or the sole of the shoe, natural rubber is the best bet for natural sustainable sneakers.
Look for certifications like GOTS, OEKO-TEX , Organic Crop Improvement Association, FSC and Blue Design.
How is the fabric/materail ethically soured?
Sourcing is a key part of the ethics and sustainability behind the clothes we wear. To that effect, look out for brands that source textiles from certified manufacturers that pay workers fairly and ensure safe and healthy working environments. Take a look at our deep dive into ethical wool and ethical leather.
Corporate sustainability basically shows you how committed companies are to sustainability. So here we consider: what else they are doing beyond using sustainable fabrics and ensuring ethical manufacturing? Are they promoting environmental sustainability throughout their company? Offsetting their carbon footprint? Shipping items entirely plastic-free? Is the brand a certified B corporation?
Sustainable sneakers to stand behind
Located in Toronto, Canada this woman and POC-led company offers vegan ethical sneakers and some of the best hiking and rain boots on the market. Their entire ethos of design is based on four key principles: quality, comfort, functionality and sustainability. They launched back in 2013 via Kickstarter and are now a bonafide ethical shoe brand.
These sneakers are comfy and lightweight and totally free of any virgin leather or plastic. Priced at $200.
Alice + Whittles Materials
The upper part of these vegan sneakers is made from 100% recycled leather from car seat cutoffs. The soles are made from natural fair-trade rubber which comes from sustainably sourced from well-managed forests. Other materials include re-claimed ocean plastic, recycled PET and vegan water-based glues. They say on their website that "90% of their materials are sustainable and traceable, but they are aiming for 100%."
Alice + Whittles Ethical Souring
Their sneakers are made in a family-run factory in Portugal. They "partner for the long haul", they actually move to the region where their shoes are manufactured to get to know the makers up close and personal, this way they can work directly with them to ensure both sustainability and innovation.
Alice + Whittles Corporate Responsibility
Being owned by a woman and a POC is what makes their diversity even stronger. Founder Sofi Khwaja is in a unique opportunity to represent the diverse community of outdoor enthusiasts. Adding this on their website:
"We are deeply engaged in the value chain; taking into consideration fair pay, working conditions, advance payments, improving the relative position of women and other disadvantaged groups and continued improvement in environmental standards while making beautiful products that our customers want and love."
Tom's is a world-renowned shoe brand that basically came up with the one-to-one charitable model, at the very least they made it really cool and mainstream. Tom's offers one of the most affordable ethical sneakers at $65 - $95 a pair. When you buy a pair, they donate a pair to kids in need, they also invest ⅓ of their profits in grassroots efforts. They focus on key three areas "promoting mental health, ending gun violence, and increasing access to opportunity."
You can browse a wide range of sustainable sneakers, ethical sandals, slip-ons, boots, flats and espadrilles - I bought a pair while researching this post, don't judge! And they've got men, women and kids covered!
Tom's Fabric & Materials
Tom's Earthwise Collections features a selection of eco-friendly materials like:
REPREVE® recycled polyester is made from post-consumer plastic bottles;
TENCEL™ Lyocell is created from wood pulp that’s sourced from responsibly managed forests;
Green EVA outsoles that are derived from sugarcane;
Hemp, linen, and jute all consume less water than traditional fibers and require fewer chemicals to grow;
OrthoLite™ insoles made from recycled rubber;
The Strobel board, the part of the shoe attaching the insole and outsole, is made with recycled polyester.
Tom's Ethical Sourcing
They are a member of the Fair Labor Association, which holds its members to a higher level of workforce accountability. They also engage third-party auditors, such as Elevate, to make sure the factories are meeting their CSR requirements, which include Minimum Work Age, Wages and Benefits, Minimum Work Age just to name a few.
You can see a complete list of their factories on their website too. Along with this, they are also a member of The Leather Working Group (LWG) which "certifies leather manufacturing facilities based on environmental performance in areas such as water and energy use, air emissions and waste. Through their partnership with LWG, they source 100% of their leather from gold and silver-rated LWG leather manufacturer". I am not a fan of leather, so I'd stick with the Earthwise Collection.
They also uphold Canopy’s conservation standards which means all wood-based material comes from sustainably managed forests.
Tom's Corporate Responsibility
Tom's TOMS® became B Corp™ certified in 2018. Certified B Corps™ achieve a minimum verified score of 80 points on the B Impact Assessment—a rigorous assessment of a company’s impact on its workers, customers, community, and the environment. This assessment is overseen by B Lab’s ® Independent Standards Advisory Council. Once certified, B Corps™ amend their governing documents so that, by law, the decisions of their boards take into account any impact on employees, customers, society, and the environment. They also support grassroots organizations like Brave Tails, a summer camp for LGBTQ+ youth.
Allbirds are another really popular and mainstream brand that many of us have come to know and love. I was first introduced to them a few years back and simply love them. Not only do they look good, but they are also unbelievably comfortable. Allbirds eco-friendly wool sneakers come in 13 colours and are perfect for men, women and even kids.
Along with their popular sustainable sneakers they also carry flats, slip-ons, high tops, boat shoes, and even socks, you are bound to find something you love.
Allbirds Fabric & Materials;
Allbirds use Marino wool named after the sheep it comes from. This wool is sourced from Nex Zealand where sheep outnumber people! They work with an organization called ZQ Marino, the world's leader in ethical wool. It's a wool certification that ensures the ethical treatment of animals as well as taking all aspects of sustainability into account.
The laces on all of their shoes are made from recycled plastic bottles and the Treeline of shoes is made using a sustainably sourced TENCEL Lyocell from South Africa and they use Castor bean oil which increases the natural content in their insoles, but it does still contain EVA. They are working towards introducing a new material known as SweetFoam, which comes from Brazil.
Allbirds Ethical Sourcing;
Certifications matter! As mentioned the wool is certified through ZQ Marino and spun in Europe in a mill that is sustainably certified by the European Commission.
The Tencel from South Africa is certified by the FSC. Forest Stewardship Council's certification means they source materials that meet strict standards to protect forests and the animals and people who depend on them.
Allbirds Corporate Responsibility;
This certified B. Corp not only walks the walk, but they are also all about reversing climate change. They measure everything that contributes to their carbon footprint, from the factory floor to the lights in HQ.
They are working to reduce beyond carbon neutrality, with ambitions to eventually become climate positive. And they are shifting their farming practices to create healthy soil, effectively removing CO2e from the atmosphere. All of their packaging is made from 90% recycled cardboard. Because "every box deserves a second chance."
Cariuma is based in Brazil but ships to Canada and the USA. Their ethical high-top sneakers remind me so much of my LA Gear, do you remember those? Cariuma has a wide selection of sneakers for men and women, not all of them are high-tops and if you are looking for a shoe that resembles Converse, these are pretty close. They also have really fun colours, like bright yellow, green, blue and red.
Cariuma's Fabric & Materials;
Cariuma uses a selection of natural and recycled materials like:
Bamboo, which is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, OEKO-TEX, and the Organic Crop Improvement Association. Bamboo makes a way better alternative to cotton, it uses less water and pesticides to grow. Natural rubber is also used and extracted in a way that does not harm the tree, it's called "tapping". They've been using organic cotton to replace canvas, its certified by Global Organic Textile Standard.
They also use sugarcane a fully renewable, bio-based resource that grows quickly and naturally removes carbon from the atmosphere. Cork makes up part of their sustainable canvas sneakers and Mamona oil which is a plant-based and organic alternative to petroleum. Their recycled PET is certified by Global Recycle Standard. The leather and suede are certified by Leather Working Group and do not come from factory farms located in the Amazon.
They use Bluesign-certified chemicals to dye their materials. Working with Bluesign helps their factory to function more efficiently, reduces our water usage and helps with pollution control. 43% of all of their products are vegan.
Cariuma's Ethical Souring;
They are all about ethical souring. And on their website, you can find lots of great information on their factories. I especially love their traceability chart:
"Cariuma's Traceability: Tier-1 Suppliers: We have 100% Traceability into our Footwear Manufacturer. Tier-2 Suppliers: We have 85% Traceability in our Raw Material Processors, Mills, Knitting, Packaging, Outsole Factory and Components in General. Tier-3 Suppliers: We have 59% Traceability into our Yarns, Polymers and Chips."
When it comes to fair wages and working hours they follow International Labor Organization (ILO) Guidelines which promote and uphold social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights.
Cariuma's Corporate Responsibility;
They take sustainability one step further by making all of their sneakers in a solar-powered, air-conditioned facility. Their warehouse building is ISO14001:2015 Certified (Environmental Standards) and LEED Gold Certified as well! And their shipping is carbon neutral.
8000Kicks is the world's first waterproof hemp sneakers. They've got supportive eco-friendly sneakers for men and women in a variety of fun colours to choose from. Bernardo the founder worked with his grandmother, who has over 50 years in textiles, to help and after a year of trial and error "the World’s 1st waterproof hemp shoe, a whole new category into casual sustainable footwear" was born.
8000Kicks Fabric & Materials;
These eco friendly sneakers are made from super strong cannabis fibers that come from the hemp plant. Hemp is known to be one of the most sustainable materials on the planet. It uses no pesticides, it helps to clean the soil, it uses five times less water than cotton and it's really durable.
The soles of these shoes are made from Algae. They partner with "Bloom Foam to create a super light algae bottom with increased durability while sponsoring the removal of harmful algae."
8000Kicks Ethical Sourcing;
They source their hemp from France, Romania and China, you can read about each of the factories on their website, noting that:
"Not only to guarantee good working conditions, but in order to ensure maximum quality, we perform regular inspections to our factories and partners. Also, we have representatives in each country where major production takes place to guarantee they meet our standards." The shoes are manufactured in Portugal and China.
8000Kicks Corporate Responsibility;
They work with factory partners to increase the dependency on renewable energy sources. So far their Portuguese factory uses 45% to 55% and their China factory uses 30% to 40% of clean energy sources and improving.
The other way is by investing in capturing CO2 with hemp farms and the plantation of trees. Every newly planted remove an average of 50 kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere each year during its growth period of 20–50 years.
When it comes to ethical and sustainable sneakers Saola puts it pretty simply on their website: "We developed this collection of women’s sustainable shoes with a few clear goals in mind: make them comfortable, make them cute, and make them with as many recycled materials as possible.
Saola is based in the USA and offers a huge range of eco friendly sneakers including their very popular slip-on. Their men's and women's selection range in colours and styles. Writing this blog was hard, I wanted them all!
Saola's Fabric & Materials;
The upper part of the shoe is made from recycled plastic bottles, known as PET. They explain the process of using PET on the website noting:
"When recycled, PET goes through a cleaning, grinding, and melting process that results in the thread, giving second life to plastic and reducing trash in our landfills. And what happens to this thread you might ask? Well, it’s then woven into various fabrics to create the comfy and stylish uppers for SAOLA shoes. "
Each pair contains between 3 and 7 recycled PET bottles! The insoles are made with recycled Algae Foam. They work closely with Bloom Foam to harvest harmful algae and create eco-friendly, bio-sourced materials for the insoles and outsoles of their shoes.
The shoelaces are GOTS certified organic cotton and the insoles are made with cork.
Saola's ethical sourcing;
They work with factories that have social and environmental charters in place (set up by larger brands). But this year, they wanted to go even further. Of all the brands working with these factories, they are the first to have applied for BSCI certification and are in the process of being certified.
This certification will enable them to guarantee favourable working conditions for employees, without discrimination. It offers fair pay, decent hours, no forced labour, responsible waste management, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
Saola's corporate responsibility;
They are members of 1% For The Planet and are very active in wildlife conservation. Your purchase of SAOLA shoes supports our friend, Patrick Kilonzo, and his organization, MWALUA WILDLIFE TRUST. Patrick, a native of Kenya, has watched many animals perish over recent years due to severe droughts in the region.
Veja is probably one of the most mainstream sustainable sneaker brands. They are based in Europe but are sold worldwide in tons of shops. Veja makes eco-friendly sneakers for women, men, and kids and even offer sustainable workout sneakers. Choose from a wide range of styles and colours, from fun metallic pink to a minimal white and black, all with the signature V on the sides. And, if you love high-tops, they've got those too.
Veja's Fabric & Materials & Ethical Sourcing:
All of their organic cotton is sourced in Brazil and Peru through farmer associates that respect the growers and the environment. They pay their co-operative cotton growers between 30% and 50% above the world market price.
"Since launching the VEJA project in 2004, more than 390 tons of organic and fair trade cotton was purchased directly from several producer associations located in different regions of Brazil and the Peruvian coast."
The rubber they use is also fair trade and comes from local farmers. Since 2007, VEJA has been working with Amopreab, which coordinates rubber production and pays the seringueiros in the Chico Mendes Reserve. Today, more than 620 families represented by several associations are part of their project. They are one of the first companies to use recycled plastic in their shoes. Note they are not vegan, they do carry shoes made with leather, its sourced in Brazil and is certified Gold by the Leather Working Group.
Veja's Corporate Responsibility;
They decided to study their CO 2 emissions to go even further in the reality of VEJA. They looked at their production line, although they were already familiar with it, and made sure to make their results accessible to everyone. For them, there is only one way to do it: calculate everything and publish everything. Traceability is a huge part of the Veja ethos.
Babuuk is a swiss company that makes sustainable sneakers that are machine washable, yep you read that right, make sure to use a detergent made for wool. The name has such a cute story too it's a "mix between the BAAA of the sheep and the Russian word BABUSHKA (meaning grandmother), that's because these shoes are made from wool and you can choose between low and mid-rise in fun colours. Oh, they also make the cutest ethical slippers too!
Babuuk's Fabric & Materials & Ethical Sourcing:
Made from ethical wool that is mulesing-free the Everyday sneakers have a durable TPU Thermoplastic sole. The wool used to make their slippers and boots come from New Zealand. The wool used to make the Sky Woolers and Urban Woolers comes from Portugal where the sheep happily live in the natural park of Serra da Estrela.
They chose Nepal as the manufacturing hub for their slippers and boot-bodies for the chance to make a positive impact in a local community.
They do so by providing good working conditions, 25% higher salary than the national average and, in a world and country where men have more job opportunities, by employing more women than men (14 women and three men) in our workshop. They also guarantee that no children work in the facility.
Babuuk's Corporate Responsibility;
They are B. Corp Certified and since wool is at the center of everything they do, you can read and watch a ton of videos on their website about where the wool comes from, how it's sourced and made.
Today, more than ever we have so many ethical brands to choose from. If you are a shoe-aholic there are a ton of options you can choose from. No matter if you are choosing ethical boots or sustainable sandals you are bound to find something you love. And if you didn't find anything here you like, check out my 75+ Sustainable Brands Master List.
And for more sustainable shopping check out our brand directory, where you will not only find the best eco sneakers but pretty much anything you might need from fashion to skincare to shoes, bags, intimates and even men's wear!
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