Sustainable Sneakers: S & S Top 10 Picks

Are you searching for some sustainable sneaks with a story to their sole? Nowadays as consumers, we crave something more than simply having a pretty pair of trainers to saunter the streets in. Knowledge of the stories behind the products we love and the ethical production practices and transparency along supply chains in manufacturing resonates with the masses. Sourced from slave or cheap sub-contracted labour is not in season but collectively helping communities for social entrepreneurship projects and using renewable innovative materials and gaining a pair of fresh creps in the process is. High Snobiety reported earlier this year that the sneaker industry produces over a whopping 15 billion pairs of sneakers each year, which to me comes as no surprise as we witness the rise of the fitness industry, street style and account for the queues of cult followers and collectors that camp overnight trying to cop the latest collaborations and pairs of Air Jordan’s or Yeezy’s.  A group of MIT researchers in 2013 found that manufacturing an average pair of synthetic trainers generates approximately 30lbs of greenhouse gas emissions which equates to leaving a 100-watt bulb burning for a week

The environmental impact of such staggering sneaker production is best measured and understood through a life cycle assessment (LCA). Briefly summarised, a LCA is a form of analysis and systematic approach that accounts for the environmental performance that a product may have at various stages within its life. It evaluates inputs and outputs throughout the product’s life cycle to identify where value can be created in reducing emissions and increasing efficiencies. Such stages can be traced from: 

  • Raw material extraction – Your typical trainer contains nylon, adhesives, rubber, metal eyelets, leather, PET and conventional cotton, so considering how these are gained through cattle or cotton farming, deforestation, water waste, health effects for workers of chemicals, greenhouse gas and fossil fuel emissions etc
  • Material processing – Chemical/hazardous/water waste used to treat raw materials to prepare them for manufacturing 
  • Manufacturing – Energy usage to construct shoes, package production, energy consumption in factory operations and machinery similar to material processing 
  • Distribution and transport – Energy usage, emissions, warehouse logistics, shipping methods, considering the carbon footprint and if parts are outsourced from across the world, where have they travelled from before they have arrived in-store? Are they distributed by energy efficient carriers? 
  • Consumer use – How do we use our trainers? Do we get as much wear out of them as possible or do they simply collect dust in our wardrobes? Think about the energy and water used in those risky rinses in the washing machine to desperately try and make them white again. 
  • Repair and maintenance – Does the brand offer repair services or help give an ad-hoc spruce up when they need it?
  • Disposal and recycling – Where do your trainers go when they have served their purpose? Do they find a new home via friends/Ebay/Depop or go to landfill? Are they recyclable or upcycled and innovated with a material /modular design that can easily be disassembled and transformed into another product with value?

These are just a few examples but indicate the vast opportunities to eliminate discrepancies in efficiencies within the production and use of our favourite footwear. 

For this reason, brands and organisations are increasingly undertaking a deeper commitment to circularity in production, designing with the environment in mind and making sustainable products to increase accountability and responsibility. This is encouraging as aforementioned MIT researchers found that 68% of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by shoes within their sample tested came during the manufacturing process, not in sourcing the raw materials or in the consumer use phase (unless you are Mo Farah burning some serious gas on the track). 

With this in mind, whilst all may not be to your stylistic tastes I’ve compiled a selection of potential options, brands and models with purpose that extends beyond sprints and streetstyle. So, whether you’re a sustainable sartorialist or need a gifting option to delight your ethically conscious vegan eco-warrior familia/friends you can draw some inspiration, minimise your impact and purchase with purpose! 

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P.S. 

Highsnobiety’s ‘From the Ground Up’ series produced a great episode on the sustainability of the sneaker industry which you can peep here

Veja

Super sleek, sustainable gorgeousness and my absolute favourite! Harvested from organic cotton, wild rubber and innovative materials including mesh from vegetable fibres. Designed for longevity and to stand the test of time, no fast fashion footwear here! For those in the UK, you can shop via their website or a capsuled selection are available on Net-a-Porter. The intricacies and efficacy of Veja’s transparent production at each stage of their supply chain is profoundly admirable, I will be publishing a full report in S & S Spotlight: Veja – Sustainable Sneakers with a Sole and Story imminently!

Allbirds  

A company hailing from New Zealand with a mantra of creating things in a better way, utilising natural materials and a certified B Corporation. Utilising the country of origin’s surplus of sheep, Allbirds create products using merino wool with the highest standards of farming, land management and animal welfare. You can even locate your future Allbirds with the hilarious sheep cam here! As well as using recycled bottles and cardboard Allbirds collaborate with Soles4Souls which is a non-profit social enterprise that creates sustainable jobs and provides relief through the distribution of shoes and clothing around the world. The brand’s potential was recognized by sustainability advocate Leonardo DiCaprio who invested in the company in August 2018. 

Photo Credit: Allbirds

Addidas Ultraboost Uncaged Parley

A collaboration between Adidas and Parley for the Oceans, an organisation dedicated to reducing plastic waste in oceans, is a prime example of multi-national corporations working on sustainable innovations. The objective for Adidas was to rethink design and actively contribute to reducing plastic pollution. 

The upper part of the shoe is made of 95% ocean plastic which has been recovered from oceans in the Maldives. The yarn component of the Ultraboost also consists of recycled waste, intercepted from beaches and coastal communities before it reaches the ocean. A super cool feature is the NFC chip in heel of the right shoe where you can scan with your mobile phone to follow the story of the sneaker from the plastic bottle to final product and to learn what you can do to help protect the oceans! Transparency at its finest. 

Adidas was ranked number one in the 2018 Corporate Human Rights bench mark which measures human rights performance of the top 100+ global companies across industry sectors largely due to their increased efforts in transparency.

Photo Credit: Adidas

Ecoalf 

Spanish in origin with recent expansion into Berlin, Ecoalf endorses value from the planet’s natural resources and developed fashion forward materials by upcycling the oceans. Another certified B Corporation they have developed partnerships with fishermen to source their raw materials. In 2018, they developed a collection of Ocean Waste Balenciaga esque shoes with a unique composition of an algae sole and recycled fabric from plastic bottles. Ecoalf’s collaborations span beyond sustainable footwear to include various material collaborations with the likes of Barneys to design briefcases with recycled nylon abandoned fishing nets and with Apple in creating sustainable laptop cases sold in 300 stores globally. They have even created custom garms for Spain’s football team RC Deportivo. 

Photo Credit: Ecoalf

Indo Sole 

Inspired by the idea to transform wasted tyres into a force for good, Indo Sole recreates unwanted tyres into the soles of sustainable shoes! 

To contribute to mitigating the 1.5 billion tyres that go to waste each year as they are unable to decompose, the mission of this B Corporation is to save 1 million tires from negatively impacting the planet. Whilst less on the sneaker and more on the casual canvas footwear side, artisans in Indonesia craft neglected tyres and repurposed natural materials to form this footwear. Read more on the specifics of Indo Sole’s tire up cycling process here. 

Photo Credit: Indo Sole

Nike Grind 

Launched in 1992, Nike Grind sees the retailer’s radical attempts to revise their design processes and create value from waste and close the loop on production. Nike Grind manipulates the scraps and recycled components from athletic footwear and their manufacturing activities to create performance products which include sports surfaces such as running tracks, and courts aswell as apparel and footwear. These scraps create a palette drawn from the regeneration process and include components of our gym gears such as the foam, fibres, rubber leather and textiles.  

Nike Grind materials are used in 71% of their footwear and apparel products and the project has transformed over 10,000 surfaces made with Nike Grind that cover over 1 billion square including Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester.

Photo Credit: Nike 

Po-Zu 

Translated from Japanese, meaning Pause Po-Zu is another ethical corporation creating footwear that utilises only natural materials and is designed with disassembly in mind. It prides it’s collection on unique biomimicry design using coconut husk as a natural shock absorber for maximum comfort. Additionally no pesticides, bleach, toxic dyes are used and their leather is chromium and solvent free. 

Po-Zu has set up The Better Shoes Foundation in 2016 to promote sustainable development and collaborative practices across the global shoe industry. They are recognised by the Fair Rubber Association and have been awarded the Positive Luxury Butterfly mark, an accolade for luxury lifestyle brands that take pride in their craftsmanship, service and design. Recent endeavours have seen Po-Zu collaborate a co-branded line with Star Wars™. 

 Photo Credit: Po-Zu

Stella McCartney 

Needing no introduction for her sustainability practices, Stella has pioneered and made profound waves in promoting ethical luxury fashion to a global audience. Her mantra of pushing boundaries and acting as an agent of change manifests itself in everything from store concepts to cutting edge technologies, protecting ecosystems, animal welfare and like many of the aforementioned brands embracing circularity. 

The Stella McCartney sneaker collection include designs such as the ‘Loop sneakers’ model where soles are engineered and the upper sole can be attached without glue making for easy dismantling and recycling after use. 

Featured here as part of her long standing collaboration with Adidas, are the iconic Stan Smith’s formed with vegetarian leather comprised of 100% recycled polyester.

Photo Credit: Stella McCartney

Vivo Barefoot  

As can be deduced from the name, these soles are intended for those that enjoy light footwear and a light impact on the environment. Their mission is to sell sneakers with zero bio mechanical interference with a zero impact. Undoubtedly designed for those that enjoy the outdoor pursuits activities they have developed their own materials including eco suede, eco mesh and eco canvas for a circular future and embracing transparent supply chains. Vivo Barefoot have set fantastically ambitious targets to use 90% sustainable materials across their entire product range by 2020.

Photo Credit: Vivo Barefoot

Wado

Wado is a Portguese business that prides itself on playful 80’s retro designs that produce sneakers and plant trees in the process! Their focus is on promoting a sustainable lifestyle, quality and working conditions through their Planting Project. For every pair purchased, two trees are planted. Their purpose is driven by the fact that 7.5 million hectares of forests are destroyed annually, equating to 27 football pitches/minute. Wado’s reforestation project has replanted 24,000 trees thus far, 30 hectares of forest and has sequestrated 5,596 tons of CO2, demonstrating that every little helps. In regards to their design, they are using cork obtained from their reforestation activity to form cork tongues for their collection and all models exclusively use chromium free leather to improve their trainers biodegradability in the end of life phase.  

Photo Credit: Wado

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