As the end of 2019 nears, it feels only natural to think about the past twelve months in terms of fashion trends. So let's recap: biker shorts a la Princess Diana returned, tie dye went couture, scrunchies got supersized (hello, TikTok girls!) and of course, there was the tiny purse trend, which Lizzo rocked recently on the AMA's red carpet.
But among all things trendy and viral, there was also a growing crescendo of voices addressing the rising issue (and gripping realities) of climate change. In reaction to this, people looked for answers and joy in all kinds of places. Enter fashion brands trying to cater to the ever-changing appetite of today's shoppers.
Some brands announced they were going on a carbon neutral diet while others unveiled lackluster campaigns to become (sort of) zero waste. Many, many others launched sustainable sneakers. Dio Kurazawa, brand consultant, founder of The Bear Scouts and advisor to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, attributes this to the growing demand for more responsible fashion alternatives.
For example, this year, French-born ecological sneaker brand Veja upped the ante with its new running shoe while industry giant New Balance launched its Test Run Program, which is made using surplus from other sneakers. Everlane released its first-ever sustainable sneaker while Vans announced a “Save Our Planet” sneaker pack, with a corresponding donation of up to $200,000 to the Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. Allbirds was as hard at work in the space as it has been since its inception, launching an eco-friendly collaboration with Just Water. There's also emerging designer Mats Rombaut who released biodegradable sneaker heels.
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"For me, this topic gained attention when I noticed the Veja brand trending for their vegan leather alternatives," Kurazawa says. "This pushed us to try and find responsible sneakers that spoke to our critical aesthetic and didn't look as basic as Veja did at the time."
As the conversation around responsible fashion has risen from a quiet subculture narrative to a powerful movement — after all, this is the year that fast fashion giant Forever 21 went bankrupt — consumer demand has increased. Sneaker brands have been tasked with finding alternative options for uppers while manufacturers have been forced to create responsible molds and alternatives to traditional outsoles.
"Buyers are totally into the story these brands offer, but also realize the position our planet is in and are keen to support aesthetically pleasing brands who are creating responsible alternatives," adds Kurazawa.
What will set one sustainable sneaker apart from another moving forward, beyond their production processes?
"Cool collabs," The Bear Scouts founder says. "Instead of the more traditional collabs, we expect to see industries colliding with material and innovation companies partnering with performance trainer brands. Think Porsche and Boeing's flying car project."
Only time will tell how unconventional collaborations can usher in a new decade of responsible evolution. In the meantime, peep the sustainable sneakers that caught our attention this year — and keep in mind that as always, the most sustainable option is always to repair old sneakers you already own or buy secondhand rather than copping the latest pair.
Earlier this year, Veja launched its first performance runner shoe, the Condor, which the brand claims to be the first "post-petroleum" sneaker. According to a release from the brand, approximately 53 percent of the sneaker is made with bio-based, recycled materials, and it was designed for long runs as opposed to marathons. The mesh is made from recycled plastic bottles, the branding is made from 100% castor oil and the lining is composed of organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles.
In 2019, the internet caught wind of Romanian designer Ancuta Sarca's sneaker kitten heel hybrids made from used heels and old Nike sneakers that she finds at charity shops and on resale websites. Based in London, the designer makes each pair by hand in her studio where she meticulously takes shoes apart and then puts them back together as new creations. She made her fashion week debut in September as the newest member of Fashion East.
According to the brand's press release, Thousand Fell "is thoughtfully designed to be your new 10,000 steps a day, perfect white sneaker that will never end up in landfill." The vegan slip-on, which is stain-proof, water-resistant and odor-repellent, has been designed with disassembly in mind so that every part of the shoe can either be recycled, biodegraded or upcycled. Claiming to be the first circular brand to offer full transparency around a product's end of life, the company is enticing consumers by also offering to pay shipping fees involved in sending back their sneakers.
Following the launch of its Maddox Jogger Sneaker in Fall 2018, Kenneth Cole introduced a version of the best selling sneaker with sustainability at the forefront: the Maddox Resource. Created from overstock material, which would've otherwise gone unused by the company's design team, the sneaker's uppers are created from overstock and 100% recycled neoprene while the laces are made from 100% recycled polyester. Beyond this, the outsoles are made of byproduct rubber grindings and rice husk material.
Cariuma launched its IBI sneaker, which is made from a new sustainable material that self-regenerates and recycles 100% of the water used to make the sneakers. The blend is composed of a high percentage of bamboo and a percentage of recycled plastic from water bottles while its shipping and production are reportedly 100% carbon neutral. Plus, the knit is made from only three pieces total, meaning more efficiency and less labor, energy and waste.
Launching their sneakers via a Kickstarter campaign and an Indiegogo campaign, Nøgen is a new 100% vegan, 100% waterproof footwear brand designed in Barcelona. Made from plastic collected from the streets of Portugal, the brand intends to plant one tree for every pair sold, and donate one pair of sneakers to those in need for every four pairs of sneakers sold.
New Balance announced its Test Run PRJ 3.0 that uses an existing midsole and gives it an upper made entirely from the brand's surplus materials. Since the limited edition sneakers are made from extra supplies, each pair is unique in its own way. The brand also collaborated with Reformation on sustainable sneakers. Together the two brands "reinvented" New Balance's 574 and X 90 styles with exclusive colorways and used more sustainable materials and production methods than what is typical for New Balance.
Adidas, which has been working on sustainable sneakers for several years now, unveiled the first iteration of the Futurecraft.Loop circular sneaker in April and announced its second version in November. The initial sneaker was beta tested by 200 people who wore them for a month before returning them to the brand. They were then recycled into a second generation, which were returned to the same testers for comparison.
Calling itself the "most sustainable sneaker brand in the world," Komrads initially launched in 2013. In November, the brand announced Komrads APL, a sneaker built out of re-used, recycled materials and apples. With an upper made out of Apple Eco "leather" that's 100% vegan and made of 50% recycled apple fiber, the brand is currently raising funds via an Indiegogo campaign. The sole is made from 100% recycled rubber car tires and the laces were made from recycled plastic bottles.
Launching its own sneaker brand called Tread by Everlane, the company launched its first unisex Trainer in April, which was produced using materials that create the "lowest-impact sneaker of its kind," according to Everlane. The sneakers use a sole with only 6% virgin plastic, incorporating leather from a tannery that is highly rated for its environmental standards. Its laces and lining were also made using recycled bottles.
Reebok announced its Forever Floatride GROW, which will launch in Fall 2020. According to the brand, it's "a plant-based performance shoe that rivals the best performance running sneakers on the market today." The cushioned midsole is built from sustainably grown castor beans while other materials include its eucalyptus tree upper, BLOOM algae foam sockliner and a natural rubber outsole. It's the brand's latest debut from its ongoing Cotton + Corn lifestyle collection of footwear.
In June, Native Shoes announced The Plant Shoe, claiming to be the first and only sneaker made entirely of plant-based elements. The shoe, which is 100% biodegradable and animal-free, is made using components like pineapple husk, corn and eucalyptus with olive-oil-soaked jute thread. The company hopes its efforts will make a positive impact, ensuring zero waste is left behind.
Performance sneaker brand Lane Eight announced the launch of two new sustainable sneakers made from recycled and plant-based materials. Featuring a vegan microfiber overall, recycled upper and an algae-based midsole created with BLOOM, the sneakers come in two colorways inspired by the natural environment in which their materials were harvested. The brand says that moving forward, all of its releases will be produced using these materials as well as pre-existing core product.