Of the 23 billion pairs of trainers produced each year, over 300 million end up in landfill where they’ll take up to 40 years to fully decompose. It’s unsurprising, then, that this particularly popular retail item is one of the most wasteful. But as environmental concerns take centre stage in politics and the media, a growing number of footwear brands have become incentivised to offer sustainable alternatives.
At the core of the problem with trainers as we’ve known them for decades are their use of virgin plastic, rubber and petroleum, all while emitting alarming amounts of carbon dioxide. Thankfully, the rise of the conscious consumer has birthed a demand not just for eco-friendly materials, but silhouettes and colourways worthy of their place in style-conscious closets, too. Here are five brands who are doing sustainable trainers just right.
Silicon Valley’s trainer brand of choice, Allbirds receives investment from one of Hollywood’s most vocal climate change activists, Leonardo DiCaprio. The brand was founded by New Zealander Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger – an engineer and renewables expert.
What makes these shoes so eco-friendly? For their uppers, the range uses either merino wool sourced from New Zealand sheep (using 60% less energy than typical synthetic shoes) or eucalyptus trees from South African farms relying on rainwater, thus using 95% less water than most cotton manufactures.
The shoes’ inner linings are constructed with recycled plastic and castor bean oil, while their SweetFoam soles are made from sugarcane, the technology for which is public so that other brands can also utilize it as a sustainable alternative. The cherry on the very eco-friendly cake is the multi-purpose packaging, made from 90% post-consumer recycled cardboard.
The buzz around Veja shows little sign of letting up. The French brand is pushing to make footwear as responsibly as possible, working with local Brazillian producers at the same time to preserve the Amazon.
Founders Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion vouch for using raw materials from organic and ecological agriculture avoiding chemicals. Kopp has also revealed in interviews that he has no desire to join in with the material values of wider sneaker culture and, rather than spend money on advertising campaigns, prefers putting it to use in finding better ecological materials, factories, or funding social projects.
One out of four Veja designs is 100% vegan. The leather it does use comes from an audited tannery in southern Brazil while “fish leather” used on some shoes is upcycled from discarded freshwater fish farms. In 2019, Veja introduced its Venturi silhouette using mesh made from recycled plastic bottles and a wild rubber outsole from the Amazonian Forest. Its more recent collaboration with Rick Owens comes made from 45% bio-based materials such as banana oil, sugarcane, rice husk and natural rubber.
Everlane’s Tread is a carbon-neutral trainer. To make it, the apparel and footwear brand partnered with two third-party firms to measure its carbon footprint and offset all emissions.
The total CO₂ emission for each pair of Treads is calculated at 28.9kg, accounting everything from food grown for the cattle whose leather is used for the upper to shipping. For every pair sold, Everlane then works with NativeEnergy to support work with ranchers to improve cattle-grazing practices on American grasslands, leading to better soil health, cleaner waterways, and greater carbon sequestration into the soil.
Not enough for you? There are ways in which Tread beats your standard runner in the sustainability department, too. The soles are 94.2% free from virgin plastic (of which the average sneaker sole is almost entirely made from), instead made mostly from recycled natural rubber. The leather, meanwhile, comes from a gold-certified tannery using 47% less electricity, 62% less water and contributing 46% less CO₂ emissions than is typical. Finally, laces and linings are made from recycled plastic bottles, renewing 9.5 bottles per pair.
Belgian footwear label Rombaut is rooted in luxury fashion; its namesake director previously holding the title of creative director at Lanvin. The result is minimalist, contemporary styles which keep environmental responsibility at their core, dedicated to finding better alternatives to the synthetic textiles, glues and tanning dyes that have given the sneaker industry its bad rap.
Rombaut’s commitment is to produce plant-based shoes which stand the test of time, which means innovative design. Some of the game-changing natural elements that have replaced leather on the brand’s shoes include coconut, fig, potato starch and pineapple.
“Doing things in an ecological way was the only option for me,” said Rombaut in an interview with Glamcult. “I read a lot about the impact of the fashion industry and animal agriculture on the environment and their role in climate change. It was a logical step and it doesn’t require extra effort for me. Every time I read an article on climate change, my choice is reassured.”
adidas x Parley
By far the most vocal of mainstream sportswear brands about its sustainability efforts is adidas, and the best example we have of this in a single collaboration comes care of Parley for the Oceans.
The brand with three stripes and the environmental organisation joined forces for the first time in 2015, replacing uppers with a yarn made from recycled ocean plastic and illegal deep-sea gill nets. Today you’ll find upcycled ocean waste used on adidas training apparel (produced using a low-energy, low-water printing process) and footwear specific to running, hiking, tennis and even golf.
More interesting still is the current development stages of adidas’ completely recyclable shoe, made entirely from reusable thermoplastic polyurethane, produced at the brand’s fully automated facility, the adidas Speedfactory. The shoe is intended to work towards a goal of fully eliminating waste from the production process, enabling the refurbishment of the same shoe over and over. It’s aptly being named “The Loop”.
Discover Form’s sustainability initiatives here.