We’ve recently written about the ugly truth behind fast fashion. While you may think clothes are the main culprit, the footwear industry is equally as guilty of contributing to fashion’s environmental crisis.
Sneakers, in particular, are one of the shoe kingdom’s biggest environmental offenders. Just take a look at these quick facts:
- A pair of sneakers has a carbon footprint equal to that of a 100-watt light bulb left on for an entire week. If you multiply that by the number of sneakers that gets made in a year (Adidas alone made about half a billion pairs in 2019), that amounts to around 700 million tons in carbon emissions.
- A single sneaker can comprise almost 40 different materials—glued, sewn, pressed, or melted together. This makes sneakers notoriously difficult to recycle.
- Sneakers are almost always made up entirely of plastic—some of which are toxic when inhaled—posing a serious health hazard to the people who make them.
Thankfully there are shoe brands that are taking bold strides to reduce their environmental footprint (puns intended).
If you’re looking for shoes that don’t only look good, but do the earth good as well, we’re here to help! Check out our definitive list of sustainable sneakers that you won’t feel guilty being seen walking around in.
Realizing that almost 300 million pairs of shoes get thrown in landfills yearly, Canadian shoe brand Native has committed to go zero-waste by 2023, making only shoes that are either 100% recyclable or fully compostable.
In 2019, the eco-friendly footwear company launched the Plant Shoe, their line of plant-based, 100% biodegradable shoes.Here are a couple of reasons we love it:
- It’s cruelty-free. Staying true to its “Beast Free” label, Native uses zero animal products to make each pair of Plant Shoes. Instead, it uses environmentally responsible alternatives like plant fibers from pineapple, corn, and eucalyptus.
- It’s 100% recyclable. Each pair is made without synthetic plastics—as soon as your pair has reached the end of its life, you can compost it in your backyard.
- It’s gender-neutral. The Plant Shoe’s simple, unisex design pairs well with any outfit, ensuring you can wear it season after season.
Modern clothing brand Everlane, known for its “Radical Transparency” motto, is on a bold mission: to “make the world’s lowest-impact sneakers.” And it claims to have achieved that with its Court Sneakers.
How are Everlane’s Court Sneakers a more environmentally friendly alternative to the conventional pair? Let’s take a closer look at what each pair is made up of:
- Sole: 94.2% virgin plastic-free. While most sneaker soles are made up of virgin plastic, Everlane’s Court Sneakers’ are made up of a combination of natural and post-industrial recycled rubber. Everlane claims that they have kept 18,000 pounds of rubber tires from ending up in landfills and incinerators.
- Leather: sustainably produced. “Eco-friendly” leather may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but that’s what Everlane claims ISA TanTec—the tannery that produces its leather—makes. The Leather Working Group, a nonprofit that certifies leather companies for environmental compliance, has given the Vietnam-based tannery a Gold rating for producing leather goods with 47% less electricity, 62% less water, and 46% less carbon dioxide emissions.
- Shoelace, insole, and linings: 100% recycled plastic bottles. Each pair of Court Sneakers is made up of 9.5 post-consumer plastic bottles.
Style-wise, the Court Sneakers are not meant to stand out and have a rather vintage-y look to them. But as Everlane CEO Michael Preysman explains, “It’s a style that you replace when it’s worn down, not when it’s out of style.”
Paris-based footwear brand Veja is known for making functional everyday shoes that are not only comfortable, they’re vegan and ethically made too. If the simple, classy lines on Veja’s vegan shoes aren’t enough to win you over, here are a couple of reasons that will:
- Veja sources raw materials like cotton and rubber from Brazilian and Peruvian farmer communities that practice organic farming and sustainable agriculture.
- The soles on Veja’s vegan shoes are made with wild rubber (seringueira) from the Amazon rainforest. In giving seringueiros (rubber tappers) a market for their products, Veja has helped preserve 120,000 hectares of the critically endangered Brazilian rainforest.
- Wherever possible, Veja uses sustainable bio-based and post-consumer resources as alternatives to virgin plastic and other materials that have a high carbon footprint:
- “Fish leather” from discarded tilapia skins for its uppers
- Wild husk for the soles
- Castor oil for its “V” logo patch
- Recycled PET bottles and jute for its mesh uppers
Who’s been spotted wearing Veja? Meghan Markle has donned Veja’s eco-friendly shoes on her royal feet, as have Katie Holmes and Emma Watson.
A footwear brand that places a premium on comfort and the environment, Allbirds has gained quite a cult following since its founding in 2014.
Allbirds’ most popular pair to date are its Wool Runners, dubbed “the world’s most comfortable shoe.” The insoles in each pair are made from breathable, temperature-regulating, odor-minimizing, and moisture-wicking merino wool fiber from sheep ethically raised in New Zealand. Sporting a no-frills minimalist design, it’s a breath of fresh air in an industry that abounds with synthetic plastic and flashy designs.
The best part about it is that you can proudly strut your stuff in your pair of Allbirds shoes, knowing that it’s made by a company that is serious about zeroing its carbon footprint. From using natural materials (like castor bean oil, eucalyptus, and sugarcane) and recycled post-consumer content like PET bottles and cardboard, Allbirds makes sure that each step in the making of its products uses as little of the earth’s resources as possible. No wonder it’s the go-to shoe brand of eco-conscious celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jessica Alba, and Sarah Jessica Parker.
As a reactionary answer to “over-built, over-hyped, over-designed products,” Simple makes classic sneakers and clogs that are comfortable and at the same time earth-friendly. This pioneering sustainable shoe brand first started treading the eco-friendly route in the early 2000s, making sneakers made out of a combination of renewable and recycled materials.
What goes into each pair of Simple shoes? Here’s a rundown:
- recycled car and bicycle tires
- certified organic cotton and hemp
- post-consumer plastic jugs
- used inner tubes
Simple’s most recent offering is its SLO line of canvas shoes. Sporting a timeless, classic look, the SLO is vegan and features a canvas upper made from organic cotton, which uses less water and is completely pesticide-free. The laces are also made of 100% recycled cotton.
If you’re looking for sturdy handcrafted and ethically made shoes, look no further than this leather footwear brand. Nisolo’s main factory in Peru employs local artisans and independent designers who are paid fairly, enjoy health care, are enrolled in a financial literacy program, and operate in a healthy working environment.
Nisolo specializes in handcrafted mules, oxfords, boots, and flats made from sustainably sourced materials. For instance, they source their leather from meat industry by-products, and use vegetable-based dyes (instead of toxic chromium) to reduce their tannery’s environmental footprint.
The Elayna is Nisolo’s take on the classic everyday sneaker. Available in three neutral, wardrobe-friendly colors, it features 100% vegetable-tanned leather, recycled rubber soles, and waxed organic cotton laces.
Game-changing sneaker startup Nothing New makes shoes that blend sustainability with style. As its name suggests, all of Nothing New’s sneakers are made without any virgin plastic: its uppers, laces, and labels are all made from post-consumer recycled plastic, while its outsoles are made from a blend of recycled and natural rubber and cork. Even its shoe box is made from 100% recycled paper.
With each pair of Nothing New sneakers you buy, you keep the equivalent of 5.6 plastic bottles from going to landfills and save 160 gallons of water. Nothing New also computes the carbon emissions in each step of its shoes’ life cycle and offset these by investing in wind farms, reforestation projects, and biofuel.
When Lisa Hackwith (of sustainable clothing brand Hackwith Design House) was approached by Dr. Scholl’s Shoes to collaborate on a shoe collection, she knew she had to go all in for the environment.
One of the products from its Original Collection is the All-In, Hackwith’s take on the classic white sneaker. Its linings are made from recycled plastic bottles, while the leather uppers are Leather Working Group certified and are dyed without the use of hexavalent chromium.
You may know Rothy’s for their comfy flats, but this sustainable shoe brand also offers an equally comfy slip-on sneaker, which it simply calls “The Sneaker.”
Here are two things that make Rothy’s sneakers eco-friendly:
- Recycled threads: Rothy’s makes its uppers with fabric made from a blend of repurposed plastic bottles and marine plastic. Since it launched in 2016, Rothy’s has recycled almost 60 million plastic bottles
- Less-waste 3D knitting technology: Its self-owned factory in China makes shoes and bags that are 3D knit, which produces significantly fewer waste.
Another good thing: these sneakers are safe to toss in the wash, so you can wear them for a long time.
TOMS became popular for their “One for One” campaign that has donated almost 100 million shoes to communities all over the globe. Now you’ve got more reasons to love the Los Angeles﹣based company with the launch of earthwise™, TOMS’ most eco-friendly shoes to date.
You can tell that TOMS pulled out all the stops in making this eco-friendly footwear if you look at each pair’s composition:
- recycled polyester and nylon fibers (from plastic bottles, fishing nets, and industrial waste)
- plant dyes
- renewable fibers (organic cotton, responsibly sourced wood pulp-based fiber, hemp, jute, and linen)
- recycled rubber
Over the next five years, TOMS has committed to greening its processes by growing its line of earthwise products, reducing its carbon footprint, and improving its B Corp environmental score by reducing waste and energy use.
Greats is a relatively new footwear startup, but since its founding in 2014, it’s earned a loyal following for its reasonably priced high-end sneakers. From its bestselling Royale Collection comes the Royale Knit, Greats’ most eco-friendly and fastest selling sneakers to date.
Besides its classic, pairs-well-with-anything aesthetic, one main thing to love about the Royale Knit is Greats’ no-compromise approach to making each pair as eco-friendly as possible.
Aside from being 100% vegan, each pair is made of a combination of recycled (7 bottles’ worth of plastic bottles, to be exact) and renewable raw materials (like cotton and natural rubber).
Sustainable? Check. Ethical? Check. Built to last? Check. Po-Zu is a footwear brand that’s checking a lot of our boxes and making our planet-loving hearts happy.
Check out its Sneak V Natural Cork. It’s a vegan sneaker made of natural cork, which has the same insulating properties as leather, minus the heavy carbon footprint. Natural rubber soles, a memory foam foot mattress made of natural latex and cork, and a solvent-free process complete the package.
Aside from cork, Po-Zu also makes shoes out of other renewable materials like pineapple fibers, coconut coir, apple skins, linen, and organic cotton.
If you haven’t heard of this Portuguese footwear brand yet, it’s about time you do.
NAE (an acronym for “No Animal Exploitation) is a sustainable, vegan, and ethical shoe company that aims to bridge fashion and compassion. From trainers to flats and even combat boots, NAE has shoes in every style to fit your preference.
Pineapple leaf fibers, discarded as waste during harvest season, are transformed into durable fabric for slip-ons and sandals. Recycled cotton, nylon, and polyester are given new life as “vegan leather.” NAE also uses cork, which is durable, compostable, and carbon negative.
As if we don’t already have enough reasons to love this brand, Nae also spearheads RE-MOVE, a project that removes plastic waste from the ocean and turns it into fabric for its shoes. Its Re-Pet line of sneakers is the product of this initiative. Available in four colors (blue, grey, black, and red), these unisex platform sneakers feature lace, elastic, and fabric made from recycled PET bottles collected from ocean cleanups.
Now that we’ve rounded up 13 of the most sustainable sneakers, here comes the difficult part: choosing which pair to go for. Whichever brand or style you go with, you know you’ll never go wrong if you’re choosing the planet.
Happy earth-friendly sneaker shopping!