Fashion and footwear have been huge contributors to our current climate and ecological emergency. There is really no way around that — Greta Thunberg's recent comments fully encapsulate our growing frustration with the fashion industry's irresponsibility. Yet, there is hope.
Hope that in the future being more environmentally friendly is less of a buzzword and marketing campaign, but instead lies at the core of the industry’s strategy. While there is currently no truly sustainable footwear brand, there are brands across the world that are trying to limit their environmental impact.
This positive change has given rise to brands that use recycled cotton, hemp-based fabrics, vegan leather, and synthetic rubber in their products. They source these materials locally while ethically working with artisans to manufacture their shoes. From sketch to upper, shoes are created to ensure as little goes to waste as possible.
We’ve rounded up some of the most planet-friendly, sustainable sneaker brands in 2021.
First up are Native Shoes. Founded in 2009 in Vancouver, Canada, the label has always operated under a planet-first ethos. Offering styles to suit men, women, and children alike, Native can sustainably lace up entire families. The brand introduced the world’s first fully compostable sneaker in June of last year, made entirely from plant-based materials. The end result goes to show that, if wearing eco-friendly sneakers is your aim, there needn't be any compromise in style and aesthetic.
The Plant Shoe carries a formidable silhouette, reminiscent of some of the most recognizable cupsole styles on the market, with an attractive gum sole. The varying textures of the plant-based materials elevate it above and beyond — resulting in a genuinely stylish, biodegradable sneaker.
Native also offers forward-thinking boot options such as the Apex 2.0, versatile slip-ons in the form of the Chamonix Basecamp, and a variety of trainer silhouettes.
As well as their current planet-friendly offerings, Native pledges that by 2023, every pair of shoes the brand produces and sells will be 100 percent lifecycle managed, with old pairs of Native shoes being reground into a versatile material mix that can be used for playground flooring and insulation, amongst other purposes.
French label VEJA is one of the most recognizable and responsible footwear brands around. Founded in 2003 and now stocked in some of the most prestigious stores worldwide, VEJA has always placed great importance on producing sneakers that have "one foot in design, and the other in social responsibility."
The brand works closely with organic farming co-operatives out of North-Eastern Brazil to source their cotton, ensuring fair wages and a planet-friendly approach in the process. The rubber soles are made using naturally occurring rubbers from the Amazon, working with native rubber tappers to sustainably source this precious material without the need for deforestation. Finally, waterproof mesh is applied to the soles of VEJA sneakers, with each sole requiring three recycled plastic bottles to be made.
VEJA has since expanded into 100 percent vegan footwear with the V-10 style, which carries the recognizable V logo on the upper. Other notable styles include the recent V-Knit collaboration with Rick Owens and the classic Campo tennis silhouette.
Old-school sneakers, new-school ethics — this is the ethos of Brazilian footwear brand Cariuma. Founded by former sneaker industry executives, with the view to weaving sustainability into their products without compromising on comfort or style, the uniquely sourced materials ensure you can feel good as well as look good.
Organic cotton, ethically sourced rubber, and leather from suppliers that operate under strict environmental protocol to reuse 100 percent of all water that goes into the production are just some of the ways that Cariuma lessens its impact on the earth.
When it comes to packaging, all boxes are made from recycled materials and are 100 perfect recyclable. Impressively, Cariuma boasts a 100 percent carbon neutral footprint when it comes to delivering its products. This is achieved through purchasing carbon offsets to ensure a zero footprint.
With a selection of high and low top sneakers in its roster, Cariuma caters for the casual, everyday sneaker market with accessible, classic styles.
Taeger makes some of the freshest sustainable sneakers on the market. The brand's shoes are clean and uncomplicated but are made from premium recycled and renewable materials. The high-end Dutch-designed sneaker brand has recently made waves for its use of Ecopell Nappa. It is a chrome-free, vegetable-tanned leather, meaning no chemicals are used to treat it. This translates to less pollution, cleaner waste streams, and improved biodegradability.
Taeger's Nappa leather makes up the uppers of the brand's beautifully minimal Nardo sneaker as well as their chunky Tech Runners. Both shoes are constructed by locals in Portugal and are designed to be seasonless and genderless. They've blessed us with sustainable sneakers that you can get away with wearing every day.
Catering more towards the higher-end eco-friendly consumer is Italian-made brand Yatay. Founded only in 2018, the label has already made a great impact. Certified 100 percent vegan, with one tree planted for every pair sold, Yatay even works with green data centers, benefitting from half the energy consumption of traditional facilities.
After two years of research and development to bring together the best Italian-made sneakers with advanced green fashion technology, Yatay released its first style, the Neven Low. Available in an array of colors, this sleek silhouette is certainly one for fans of Common Projects and Axel Arigato styles. Accompanying the Low is the Neven High; both sneakers are cruelty free, lightweight, and breathable, with all the quality of Italian-made footwear.
soleRebels is a product of Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu's dream of merging her community's creative artisan talents with the classic "barbasco" — Ethiopian recycled tire - shoe. The sneaker brand produces vibrant, original, and comfortable footwear. The craftsmanship used in the sneakers is directly tied to Ethiopia's history and environment.
Barbasco's are made using organic cotton, upcycled tires, artisan loomed fabric, and plant-based fibers, all from Ethiopia. soleRebels has even thrown out the shoebox and ships all of their shoes in hand-loomed reusable chinsaks.
Founded by Sven Segal, Po-Zu tells the story of one man’s mission to produce the most sustainable shoe possible. The brand's name stems from the Japanese word ポーズ, meaning to pause, echoing Segal’s thought process. Po-Zu produces ethically sourced footwear, made from natural and sustainable materials. They are also designed to be good to your feet, with comfort engrained. This slow process results in some truly unique pieces that can be shopped guilt-free, and were created putting the planet first.
From fully vegan styles to a recent collaboration with the Star Wars franchise, Po-Zu offers an array of unique and individual styles.
Standing For Your Earth, FYE is is another dope sneaker brand that incorporates recycled and sustainable materials throughout their shoes. Hyperaware of the impact of the effects footwear production has on ecosystems and biodiversity, FYE has consistently worked to disrupt the footwear industry. The brand is one of the first companies to invest in the recycling of end-of-life shoes by recycling several tens of thousands of shoes.
FYE offers wearers runners, beach-friendly canvas lace-ups, and basketball sneakers. From the uppers to the outsole, the sneaker brand uses natural dyes, organic cotton, recycled polyesters, and other discarded shoes to create products. Their sneakers give us retro adidas and Asics vibes, and we are not mad at that.
Since 1988, Komodo has strived to produce eco-friendly fashion. Every design and manufacturing decision that the brand makes is driven by its goal to minimize its environmental imprint. Almost every material that the brand uses in its sneakers is either recyclable or renewable. Shoes are commonly made from plastic bottles and responsibly sourced fabrics while also being free of GMOs and AZO dyes. Products across the board are vegan and cruelty-free. When it comes to manufacturing, Komodo makes its products in Kathmandu, Bali, and India. Garments are made ethically by family-run businesses in the regions. Komodo is passionate about supporting its local communities using proceeds from its clothing to restore rainforests in the area.
Not to mention, Komodo knows how to make summer-ready, environmentally conscious footwear. Heading out in this heatwave? No problem. The brand's bright and simple Eco Sneako has got you covered. It's 100 percent vegan, made from organic cotton and upcycled rubber. The silhouette feels familiar, paying homage to Converse's beloved classic.
"The world’s most comfortable shoes," reads the tagline of Allbirds, a New Zealand-born brand focussed on the use of merino wool compounds in footwear. Founded by Tim Brown, an NZ native with plenty of knowledge as to the qualities of merino wool — a sustainable, highly comfortable resource — Allbirds filled a true gap in the footwear market.
After teaming up with Joey Zwillinger, an engineering and renewables expert, Allbirds took flight (excuse the pun), developing an entirely new category of footwear inspired by natural materials.
The merino wool used to create the uppers requires 60 percent less energy than alternative materials, and is unrivaled in comfort. For the laces, each pair is made from one recycled plastic bottle, and as a certified B Corp, Allbirds is committed to putting the planet first, when it comes to materials, packaging, transport, and the people who make them.
Offering a variety of silhouettes and with their array of runner-esque styles, Allbirds caters to the casual aesthetic. Lace-up, slip-on, and high top options are available, with notable styles being the Runner Up Mizzles and their classic Wool Runner.
Spanish-based Flamingo's Life is another brand that has put vegan sneakers on the map. In recent years, the shoemaker has emerged as one of the most exciting sustainable labels, designing environmentally responsible sneakers that mix retro design with premium materials. Using "veganism as a vehicle for change," Flamingo's Life's commitment to sustainability informs every aspect of its design and manufacturing.
Popular sneakers, such as its basketball-inspired Retro 90's and Rolan V.3s, are made using a mix of environmentally-friendly materials. Uppers are made from corn, inner linings from bamboo, while the soles are made of cork, and a blend of synthetic rubber and natural rubber. The sneakers themselves are handcrafted by local artisans, while each shoe purchase contributes directly to global projects, like waste-free oceans and reforestation. Flamingo's Life's no bs approach to sneaker design is not only refreshing but looks good on the feet year-round.
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