What do shoes have to do with Plastic-Free July? Well, did you know that most shoes are terrible for our environment? The majority use unsustainable materials — and shoe production accounts for a fifth of the fashion industry’s environmental impact, generating 1.4 percent of global carbon emissions annually.
More than 24 billion pairs of shoes are made each year, with over two billion of those going to the United States alone. That adds up to about seven pairs per person — which eventually. make their way to the trash. And the trash — with its plastic waste — ends up in our oceans and landfills. Because most shoes are largely fabricated from plastic and plastic-like materials — and because of their construction, the components are stitched and glued and molded together in complicated ways, making them almost impossible to recycle.
You may be done with your shoes in a year, but our oceans and landfills are stuck with them for hundreds of years. Experts predict that in 30 years, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. And one study estimates that 90% of seabirds have consumed some form of plastic waste. All that pollution on beaches and in the ocean is harmful to both marine life and humans. So Adidas is trying to stop some of that plastic before it reaches the ocean
Fortunately, a growing number of shoe companies are becoming green — using vegan leather, bamboo uppers, upcycled ocean plastic, recycled bottles, insoles made of cork, and soles made of algae and sugarcane. These companies are also pioneering low-water, minimal-waste, carbon-neutralizing techniques and incorporating as sustainable businesses. And the best news is that they are comfortable and cool-looking. So do not despair, sneakerheads! You can wear shoes from some of these companies and make the world a better, safer, cleaner place one step at a time.
For those of you committed to upping your game this plastic-free July, here is a list of some of the best sustainable shoe brands and links so you can support them (in no particular order) except we’re beginning with a company that has long supported EverWalk. . .Adidas.
Adidas: Props to Adidas for leading the way among the big-time shoe manufacturers in cleaning up their act and our world. Adidas makes over 400 million pairs of shoes every year and so they are working to reduce the amount of plastic that reaches the ocean. In 2015, Adidas partnered with the environmental organization Parley for the Oceans. Their goal? To turn marine pollution into sportswear. And they’ve made huge progress.
In 2019, Adidas made 11 million pairs of shoes with recycled ocean plastic. That’s more than double what it made in 2018. Adidas says the partnership has prevented 2,810 tons of plastic from reaching the oceans.
You can even get some of their vintage looks in their PRIMEGREEN style — using high-performance recycled materials that make up at least 50 percent of the upper, and NO virgin polyester. Even the iconic blue Adidas shoebox received a redesign with Mother Nature in mind. It’s now made with around 90 percent recycled paper.
Allbirds and Adidas have worked together to improve the environment, partnering on materials and designs for Allbirds running shoes. They also use a wide range of materials that are sustainable — including renewable eucalyptus trees in South Africa and sugarcane-derived foam from Brazil. They are also one of the most transparent big businesses around — tasing themselves on 100 percent of their carbon emissions annually and label each product with its personal carbon tally. All their shoes are basically made from wool sourced from healthy ethical farms, tree parts from Forest Stewardship Council-certified groves, and/or the trademark SweetFoam, the world’s first green, carbon-negative EVA.
They care so deeply about protecting the environment that they even gave the competition the recipe for it — and now Reebok, Timberland, and Ugg are using their technology.
The brand has invested in technology that generates the world’s first 100 percent natural plant-based pleather. What a great company!
Cariuma kicks are cool, cute, retro, consciously made, and appeal to all ages — as Helen Mirren showed this past week at the Cannes Film Festival. Tons of celebrities love this shoe — and on top of their renewable resources — they also plant 10 trees in a tipping-point section of the endangered Amazon rainforest, as well paying indigenous communities who live in those forests. Recently, they have contributed to plastic pollution initiatives as well.
Over 50 percent of the materials they use are 100 percent vegan and the meat-based materials for the leather options are responsibly sourced from Argentina, Thailand, Brazil (but not Amazon areas deforested by cattle ranching), and China, and all of the water used to produce leather and suede is recycled and reused. Canvas OCAs use organic cotton and the highest purity rubber and IBIs are crafted from low-impact bamboo and reclaimed plastic.
Check out Cariuma if you’re a fan of retro-cool kicks that are super comfy!
Rothys began with women’s shoes and then branched out into kids’ shoes and now bags and more — making everything with thread spun from repurposed plastic bottles and merino wool. (They’ve used 100 million discards so far.) Assembly of their lace-ups, loafers, slip-ons, and best-selling pointed-toe flats is done by hand and 3D knitting tech to shape. Shipping boxes are 100 percent recyclable and reseal for returns to avoid tape waste. They apply all the same eco-friendly practices to their adorable purses, totes, and weekenders. In 2021, they have reduced the amount of air transportation for inventory with a goal of ceasing it entirely in the coming years and they’re piloting a shoe recycling program. 2022 brings a plan to incorporate twice-recycled materials and achieve zero waste and reaching carbon neutrality is the objective of 2023.
Rothys are great for travel and now they are making lace-up shoes that are great for walking. Super comfy and super chic and good for the environment.
Surf and skate shoe companies Converse and Vans are now getting in on the game as well. Both of these classics are shifting to renewable resources with upcycled and sustainable materials and a reduction of emissions and waste in their manufacturing. If you’re into the old-school look for your kicks, be sure to check out these classics — and keep encouraging them to up their sustainable game!
Two companies that focus on lightweight, comfortable travel shoes that are as good for walking as for going out on the town are Suavs and Atoms. Suavs use a 100% recycled digital knit, essentially a super soft and flexible fabric made from post-consumer recycled water bottles. Everything is tested to ensure minimal impact on the environment, with a focus on reducing material waste during sourcing and production.
Atoms fill an interesting niche offering quarter sizes for optimal fit. Many of their models are 99 percent recyclable, using materials like recycled brass for the eyelets and antimicrobial copper threads, and they’re 100 percent vegan so they create fewer carbon emissions than animal-derived products. And their waterless dyeing process both conserves the precious resource and eliminates the possibility of toxic runoff into groundwater or soil. They deserve kudos for reducing cardboard usage by 44 percent by customizing their shoebox design, eliminating receipt waste by foregoing them, choosing BPA-free shipping labels, and for setting up carbon-neutral shipping, and using carbon offset credits to protect the Garcia River Redwood Forest. Also only stocking three timeless colors 24/7 and handling limited-edition pairs in a made-to-order fashion means there isn’t a lot of wasteful deadstock at the end of a season.
For the fashionistas out there, Veja was started by two Parisians who learned about the unacceptably unhealthy working conditions in Chinese factories and decided to build a better business model that protected workers, didn’t hurt the environment, and ultimately produced a higher quality shoe at an affordable price point. They went to Brazil to work with villagers who live in, and off of, the abundance of the Amazon led them to wild rubber. They met a farming cooperative in the Nordeste that produces their organic cotton without fertilizers or pesticides and by using agroecology and gave them three-year planting contracts at double-market prices.
They are continuing to innovate, using vegetables to tan leather and creating fabric made out of discarded plastic bottles found on the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo. Now they sell in 50 countries and have sold over two million pairs. They also continue to fine-tune their fair trade and green practices even refusing to use banks with branches in tax havens and get their green electricity from Enercoop who collects it from indie producers.
Two more companies that deserve mention for using alternative materials are Sanuk, who have created foam made out of repurposed algae and whose sales of limited-edition hemp, jute, and faux crepe 2021 outdoor slippers will raise money for the Surfrider Foundation, an organization dedicated to cleaning oceans and beaches. Their SustainaSoles are Sanuk’s most sustainable product to date as they contain 55 percent recycled content. Sanuk partnered with BLUMAKA to divert foam scraps typically produced in footwear production from being sent to landfills and instead convert them into a durable sole filler. The un-dyed uppers also save water (115 gallons per pair of Skuners) and energy.
And Strauss and Ram, created in Miami, when two longtime footwear industry workers had the brilliant idea of turning the local coconut surplus into comfortable, affordable, and more sustainable shoes. All have insoles made with a 60 percent polyurethane and 40 percent coconut kernel extract paste formula. Used in its natural form, the paste adds further squish to already well-cushioned insoles, which will keep molding to the wearer’s foot when body heat, weight, and movement are introduced.
More and more shoe companies are getting on the sustainable bandwagon, Share some of your favorites in the comments. And what can you do to help lower the plastic waste and subsequent pollution caused by shoes:
- Buy fewer shoes.
- Look for shoes made sustainably with natural materials.
- Reach out to your favorite brands and encourage them to develop single-material shoes that can be recycled.
Walkers gotta have shoes. But the shoes we wear make a huge difference to the future of this planet. So