In the past decade, the buzz around sustainable products has increased and has infiltrated the fashion industry, with more and more shoes made from recycled material becoming available. Brands are getting incredibly inventive, using both existing materials, like plastic bottles, and new materials made from natural and compostable sources. With that said, all eco-friendly sneakers aren’t created equal.
In this article, we’ll cover the top brands, how environmentally sustainable they are, and why they’ve made the cut.
We cover a bunch of brands and topics on this post, so here are some quick links to navigate to a specific topic or brand:
- Veja Eco-friendly Sneakers with Mesh Made of Recycled Plastic Bottles
- Rothy’s 100% Recycled Plastic Flats
- Adidas-Parley Sneakers Made from Plastic Ocean Waste
- Barefoot Vivo Recycled Plastic and Bio-based Materials
- Native Shoes
- Thousand Fell Recycled and Recyclable Sneakers
- Third Mind Dress Shoes Made from Recycled Materials
- Ecoalf High Fashion Sustainable Sneakers
- But Wait! What About Microplastics?
The fashion industry has gotten a bad rep over the last decade for its wasteful practices, with the footwear sector as an especially troublesome player. The shoe industry alone contributes 1.4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While that might not seem like a lot, consider this: producing shoes alone creates nearly as much GHG emissions as airplanes, which contribute to 2.5% of GHG emissions.
The fashion industry has invented a concept called circular fashion that seeks to close the loop and stop textile and material waste. The idea of circular fashion is aspirational at best for most types of clothing, especially shoes. We produce about 20 billion pairs globally, with 90% ending up in the trash. When shoes do find their way to the landfill, they can sit for decades and even centuries. Some shoe soles can take 1,000 years to break down.
Or, another way to think about is the EPA estimates the U.S. created 17 million tons of textile waste in 2018. If you take the weight of my Vejas – 23 ounces – this would equate to roughly 24 billion pairs getting buried or burned a year!
Then there are the issues of materials. Shoes and sneakers require materials like:
- Leather, which is associated with greenhouse gas production and deforestation.
- Synthetic rubber, the production of which results in more waste than the volume of the rubber created. The waste comes in the form of byproducts, including volatile organic compounds. Some of these compounds as suspected carcinogens.
- Conventional cotton, the production of which accounts for 24% of global insecticide use.
You can buy from companies that use recycled materials to decrease your footprint and you help divert a little bit of the large portion of plastic being burned or buried in landfills, as evident in the chart above. You also send a message to companies that sustainability matters. As Tara St. James, a sustainability expert quoted in the NY Times said
“I think that have a really powerful voice when it comes to demanding changes, and brands really listen to that. they’re going to listen to customers paying for product or not paying for product as a result of it’s sustainability.”Fashionably Late to the Climate Crisis, NY Times, November 12th 2021
If you’re an avid reader of Recycled & Renewed, you’ll know that we’ve covered Veja shoes before. They’re a top provider of eco-friendly sneakers, and for good reason! They are incredibly transparent about what goes into their shoes and how the people making the raw materials and shoes are treated.
Their most-used materials are:
- Recycled Plastic – Provides a second life to plastic that would otherwise end up in landfills, repurposing the equivalent of up to 3 plastic water bottles per pair.
- Organic cotton – Doesn’t use harmful chemicals or waste water the way that conventional cotton does, reducing water usage up to 91% relative to non-organic cotton.
- Chrome-free leather – Not all Veja leather is chrome-free, but chrome-free leather does mean less pollution, better biodegradability, and cleaner waste streams.
The company also treats employees and workers well by following fair trade principles. For example, they pay premium prices for organic cotton and purchase it before harvest, so farmers can depend on the pay.
The shoes themselves are unique and recognizable – sporty and modern. While they can take some time to break in, they are overall comfortable, well-made shoes. You can snag a pair for about $100 to $120, which is becoming the norm for most brand-name sneakers. Veja says a pair costs 5 times more to make than the big brands, so you’re truly getting value for these shoes. They make up the difference by doing zero marketing, pretty cool.
Rothy’s: Shoes Made From Plastic Bottles
Rothy’s have risen to popularity not necessarily for their inventive materials, but rather for their fit. People rave about how comfortable, flexible, and breathable the shoes are. Knowing this, you might be surprised to find out that they are shoes made from recycled plastic bottles. Over time, they’ve diverted millions of bottles from landfills, giving them a second life in their shoes.
They also use:
- Algae-based foam, which makes for a comfortable insert but uses excess algae that has been removed from waterways, helping restore balance to the ecosystems.
- Natural rubber, which is renewable and biodegradable.
- Bio-based TPU, made from corn yet flexible and durable, can provide great traction.
We could go on all day about their sustainable materials. They also use natural minerals, castor beans, hemp fiber, and merino wool. Rothy’s even delivers the shoes in recycled packaging.
You’ll pay something in the $100 to $200 range, which is a bit pricey for most people. However, the price makes sense when you consider the innovation and quality that goes into the shoe.
Rothy’s Deep Dive: Pros and Cons
We have tested three pairs of Rothy’s over the last few years. The first two pairs have held up really well (the 3rd pair is newer). We loved the fact that they were completely washable, even the insole (see the microfiber section below for tips to reduce the negative impact of washing them). As compared to other cheap, basic black flats on the market, Rothy’s are far superior.
There are a few drawbacks of though:
- Although they are comfortable, since they are made of plastic, they do not stretch or accommodate your feet as the day goes on. If you are anything like us, your feet can expand over the day and the Rothy’s do not do well after a long day of walking.
- There isn’t a lot between you and the ground in a pair of flats. I don’t think this is particularly unusual for flats. But again, with this issue and the non-stretchiness factor, you want to stick with Rothy’s for less intense walking days.
All that being said, we love Rothy’s – it’s pretty ridiculous that they pretty much look brand new after years of use. I guess that speaks to the durability of plastic, for good or ill.
Sizing up is not much of an option if you have any concerns about how your feet might feel at the end of a long day, but they are a good investment, and you can choose classic styles that will never go “out”. We look forward to trying a Rothy’s bag (which look amazing and super durable) or maybe a boot or sneaker. Stay tuned.
Adidas X Parley: Saving Plastic from the Oceans
Adidas X Parley is a collection of sneakers made from recycled plastic waste. It’s a partnership between athletic gear leader Adidas and Parley for the Oceans, an ocean-focused charity. Over the lifetime of the collection, they’ve saved 500,000 pounds of plastic from entering the oceans (similar to Waterhaul’s sunglasses which are made from fishing nets harvested off the coast of England).
The goals of this campaign go beyond making shoes made from recycled materials. They host events called Run for the Oceans, during which they spread the message of taking action against plastic waste and host plastic clean-ups, to inspire and educate people.
You’ll pay between $150 to $250 and come in various styles, from mountain biking shoes to running shoes.
Eco-Friendly Sneakers from Vivo Barefoot
Vivo Barefoot is a unique company, and their sneakers are equally unique. Unlike most shoes, Vivo Barefoot has made footwear shaped like a foot – not a shoe. They’re thin and flexible, which allows you to use your natural stability and movement. Despite their different make, they’re still comfortable – the company applies a thermal insole and hex outsole, keeping your feet’s temperature regulated and providing grip.
Vivo Barefoot uses recycled post-consumer plastics as well as natural materials and innovative bio-materials, like algae-based EVA. EVA is ethylene-vinyl acetate, a rubber-like compound, and in this case is supplemented by algae so less is needed to make the same quality shoe. Natural materials include wild hide leather, which is sourced from free-roaming cattle in Ethiopia.
Shoe styles range from modern and clean to funky patterns and styles. Your pay $100 to start and prices go up to $200. Vivo Barefoot also offers a repair service, truly ensuring that these shoes last you a lifetime.
Native Shoes Made from Recycled Plastic
Native makes sneakers, slides, boots, and more for everyone in the family. First and foremost, they use recycled materials, like recycled EVA in their insoles, recycled plastic in threads of knitted styles, and recycled insulation in their boots. They also use other unique materials, like Susterra, a corn-based polyurethane, as well as algae-infused outsoles.
The shoes themselves, even the boots, are lightweight because of these innovative materials. Despite their weight, all Native shoes are warm and comfortable. Shoes range from $50 to $100, with most styles being modern and some leaning more toward street-style trends.
Thousand Fell Recycled Plastic and RECYCLABLE Shoes!
Thousand Fell stands out on this list as the only company that will actually take their shoes back at the end of their useful life – and pay your for them!
We are thoroughly impressed with their approach. It is rare, very rare, for a company to take full responsibility for their product from cradle to grave. Plus, Thousand Fell has gone above and beyond by thoughtfully designing sustainability into the core identity of their product.
Thousand Fell uses a mix of recycled plastic and natural, biodegradable materials in their shoes. They highlight an amazing, innovative list of inputs, including recycled plastic bottles, recycled rubber, old yoga mat material, food waste such as castor beans and coconut husks, among others.
After you are done with a pair of Thousand Fell shoes, send them back and get a $20 discount on your next pair.
We like their simple, clean style, with slip-on and lace-up options, bright accent colors and a reputation as being super comfortable. Also, Thousand Fell claims they are stain-proof, due to a natural quartz-based coating, which will extend their useful life (another plus for Momma’ Earth). Maybe stain-proof sneakers could help avoid heated exchanges among the sneaker-heads of the world getting an errand smug from passerby…can’t we all just get along?! (see Do The Right Thing)
The bottom line is, we’ve found our next pair of shoes to test out, Thousand Fell is on to something.
Third Mind Dress Shoes Made from Recycled Materials
Most of the shoes we’ve highlighted are only appropriate in casual settings, but Third Mind makes stylish dress shoes made from recycled materials. With each pair of shoes, you will divert the equivalent of 20 plastic water bottles from the landfill. The company also incorporates recycled materials, such as outsoles (the bottoms of the shoes) made from 30% recycled rubber.
Third Mind seems very thoughtful about the environmental impact of the materials they use. The Third Mind website includes a full breakdown of every piece of their shoes, describing the materials used, highlighted the recycled content, and setting aggressive targets for increasing the recycled materials used.
Ecoalf High Fashion Recycled Plastic Sneakers
Ecoalf makes some stylish retro sneakers made from recycled plastic and recycled rubber. These stylish do-gooders make many other products made from recycled materials – coats, backpacks, and many other accessories – all made from nearly 100% recycled materials.
They also provide very detailed estimates of the environmental impact of each product. Each product has a cool visualization which counts up the kilograms of CO2 equivalent and water saved by their sustainable processes.
Ecoalf also has a cool branding approach that makes their commitment to the planet obvious. They emblazon many products with the slogan “There is no planet B”.
Wait! There’s a Catch: Microplastics and Microfibers
When modern society comes up with technological solutions to our problems, we sometimes introduce unintended consequences (read about the failures of plastic recycling here). When we use recycled plastic in our clothing, we create some serious negative externalities in the form of microplastics.
[Read our post about textile waste, the problem of clothing in landfills and microplastics here]
Microplastics are, simply, pieces of plastic that are less than 5 mm in diameter, or about the size of a sesame seed and often much smaller, potentially microscopic. In the past, humans introduced microplastics into the environment indirectly. Namely from larger plastic waste degrading over time.
In recent years studies have shown that when consumers wash products made of recycled material, the clothing sheds microscopic fibers. These fibers can easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in waterways and, ultimately, the ocean.
In some ways shoes made from recycled plastic are a better option. As compared to a pair of socks made from recycled material, you will likely throw your shoes in the washing machine much less frequently, if at all, reducing microplastic waste.
However, when you wear your shoes down, you could introduce microplastics just by walking. Most of the shoes above have rubber bottoms, including Adidas’ Parley shoes and Vejas, but this issue does complicate things for consumers. It also muddies the water on how sustainable shoes with recycle plastic really are.
If you want to purchase shoes and clothing made with recycled plastic, a good option is to use bags that catch microplastics during the wash cycle. We like the Guppy Friend. They cite some scientific evidence (see the testing FAQ) which suggests the bag significantly reduces microplastic shedding.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there are plenty of excellent, eco-friendly shoes made from recycled plastic on the market today. Though you might expect some crunchy granola, hippie-looking shoes when searching for eco-friendly options, that’s just not the case. You can expect the same modern style and technology as any other pair of sneakers – just with the planet in mind.
If you’re shopping for eco-friendly sneakers or shoes made from recycled materials, you know you’ll likely pay a bit more. Oftentimes, these shoes cost more to produce and require more effort in design and production. With cost typically comes better service and better quality, not to mention the assist to Mother Earth, so spending a little more tends to be worth it.
This post has affiliate links. We try to indicate which products we’ve owned and tested ourselves. If you end up making a purchase through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a very small commission that offsets the cost of hosting, building, and maintaining this site.