It’s estimated that Nike sells 25 pairs of sneakers every second. That’s 1,500 per minute; 90,000 per hour; 2.1m per day (you see where this is going.) And they’re not alone. According to the World Footwear Yearbook, 23.5 billion pairs of shoes were made in 2017, the sneaker market taking up a large chunk of this. This creates a few issues.
Take leather, for example, the most commonly used fabric in sneaker production. The manufacturing process is indelibly tied with an agriculture industry that is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to an alarming amount of deforestation. Leather tanning, meanwhile, is one of the single most toxic sources of pollution in the world.
It was only inevitable, then, that the industry would eventually look for ways in which it can combat the issue. Of course, sustainability is a loaded term often used to highlight a number of ethical decision choices, including the rise in veganism (of which there is now an estimated 3.5 million in the UK alone according to a survey by insurance firm Compare The Market). Vegan alternatives for leather, however, are not in and of themselves wholly sustainable and free from environmental damage. Most faux-leathers are plastic-based which takes hundreds of years to degrade (as does leather). But that environmental impact is not to the extent of leather, and as such most sustainable and environmentally friendly sneaker brands, are also vegan.
Why Are Sneakers Unsustainable?
“It’s a double-edged issue,” says Umberto De Marco, founder of sustainable and vegan sneaker brand Yatay. “On the one hand, you have to look at the energy expenditure of the overall production process, and then there is also the direct environmental impact of the raw materials used.”
Critics will be quick to point out that, on the energy-consumption front, the fashion industry at large still does little to increase energy use from renewable sources like solar panels on the roof of the factories. But that’s not the only issue.
“Material-wise, most sneakers are both oil-based, and also heavily employ environmentally damaging chemical solvents in their production process like cheap solvent-based glues.”
In short, almost every component of a shoe can present an environmental issue. But as has been proven, given the proper research and development, the impact can be highly minimised without sacrificing quality.
How Sustainable Sneakers Became Cool
Sustainable and vegan footwear has had an unfair reputation for being seen as a bit, well, naff in the past. But the movement has come a long way in recent years. These aren’t like walking around with haystacks on your feet. Today, the sustainable sneaker market is jam-packed with slick offerings and luxury made-in-Italy choices.
Industry monolith Adidas got on board in 2017, collaborating with environmental initiative Parley for the Oceans to re-release its EQT sneaker in up-cycled plastic waste collected from the beaches of the Maldives. Elsewhere, the simple kicks offered by sustainable sneaker brand Veja have been one of the biggest hits of recent seasons, while luxury fashion brand Stella McCartney has pushed the on-trend chunky trainer into the sustainable fashion sphere (both are also vegan).
Need more convincing? Here are 10 sustainable and vegan sneaker brands making us want to think with our feet.
The Best Sustainable And Vegan Sneakers
No, not the succulent, nutty Indonesian chicken. This is Yatay with an emphasis on that first Y: a slick and ultra-modern sneaker brand that makes all its shoes in Italy. Still not sold? How about shoelaces made from organic cotton hemp, a sturdy sole made from a bio-based polyurethane and an upper made from recycled materials. Oh, and for every pair, Yatay will plant a tree in a deforested area. Sold? Damn, right you are.
Swedish outerwear brand Tretorn has long established its sustainable credentials through an Eco Essentials range which includes a jacket made out of discarded fish nets. A sneaker range will soon be added, featuring suede uppers that are completely traceable to farm and made with significantly less water than average. If you’re an impatient eco-warrior, you can still find elements of sustainability in its current collection, such as the environmentally friendly EcoOrthoLite soles.
The Germans are rather good at making sneakers, just ask anyone pounding the streets with a pair of Adidas or Puma on their feet. Founded in 2007, Nat-2 is based in Munich and takes its utilitarian influence from German industry. As for sustainability, there’s a lot of innovation here, from a line of sneakers which are half covered in recycled coffee, to antibacterial soles made out of real cork. Whatever will they think of next?
Of-the-moment shoe brand Veja has been able to concoct a winning combination of simple and stylish sneakers, clear-cut millennial marketing and sustainability nous for an eco-conscious product that has tapped into the modern consumer. The plain white styles with that soon-to-be-iconic V are the must-haves to get now before they become classics.
Stella McCartney has been at the forefront of ethical and sustainable fashion since before it was even a ‘thing’. The British designer is famously vegan, and her ethics trickle down into the manufacturing process of her wares, such as the way Stella McCartney sneakers are stitched together without glue for an innovative shoe that can be completely dismantled.
Californian non-profit brand Toms built its name by bringing the espadrille to the masses, with an initiative of giving new shoes to an impoverished child for every pair sold. It has since expanded into sunglasses, bags and of course sneakers. The ethics remain with all of its designs coming vegan and in a wide assortment of simple shapes and colours.
Matt & Nat
Matt & Nat (short for material and nature) isn’t shy about its vegan credentials. The footwear and accessories brand has been steadfastly vegan since it was started in Montreal, Canada in 1995, when there were a whole lot fewer vegans than there are now. It also incorporates eco-friendly materials into its designs including recycled nylon and rubber.
Scandi footwear brand New Movements launched its first line of sneakers on Kickstarter in 2017, before starting on fellow crowdfunding platform Indiegogo a year later. For a pledge, you’re promised a stylish pair of sneakers partly made in Portugal out of recycled materials with the promise of 1kg of ocean plastic being removed for every pair sold.
Sneakers by London-based Po-Zu look like they’ve been beamed straight out of a spaceship (that probably explains the collaboration with Star Wars). Midsoles crafted out of micro-honeycomb cork put an extra bounce in your step, while aClimatex mesh and Cradle to Cradle certification ensure the shoes are sustainable and considerate of future generations.
Marks & Spencer
Want to get all of your vegan-certified shopping done under one roof? High street stalwart Marks & Spencer marks the vegan options in its footwear range with an identifiable logo, so you can easily spot which sneakers meet your needs, just like it does in its food department. The sneakers also come at high street prices, making them a welcome budget option in a sector that still errs on the expensive side.