The sneaker market’s growth has been impressive in recent years, but its impact on the environment not so much, Everlane noted, with billions of pairs ending up in landfills annually. The athletic footwear also has one of the heaviest carbon footprints, as it’s made largely from virgin plastic.
In October, Everlane set out to eliminate virgin plastic from its supply chain by 2021 with the introduction of ReNew, an outerwear collection made using recycled polyester derived from roughly 300 million plastic bottles.
“With Tread by Everlane, we’re taking the next step forward in sustainability to better the sneaker industry and our environment with the mission to create a zero-impact sneaker,” Alison Melville, Everlane general manager of footwear and accessories, told Sourcing Journal.
“Sneakers are filled with plastic, plastic that is impossible to break down and causes hundreds of millions of pairs to end up in landfills,” Melville said. “To add to that, sneaker growth has grown tremendously over the last few years and it’s largely a hype-driven style, only adding to the consumption and production of plastic. This is where we saw the need for a sustainable style in design and engineering.”
It took two years for Tread by Everlane to create the low-impact Trainer. The brand enlisted two third-party firms to measure the Trainer’s carbon footprint and offset 100 percent of those emissions.
The biggest challenge with sneakers, Melville said, is the number of components in their construction. Plastic is lightweight and durable, “which is maybe great for sneakers, but not so great for the environment,” she said, adding that the company was challenged with finding a material that could deliver on those traits with a lesser impact.
“Our solution was to develop a sole made by blending natural and post-industrial recycled rubber, and use recycled plastic in every element that we could, from the lining to the laces,” Melville explained. “From there, we looked to alternative materials and components, and the right factory partners.”
The choice of alternate raw materials results in 18,000 pounds of rubber kept out of the landfill each year, and 54 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, Everlane noted. Tread by Everlane chose to use leather because of its aesthetic, comfort and durability, but it needed a responsible supplier, which it found in Saigon TanTec.
The company uses 42 percent less electricity and 56 percent less fresh water than industry standards in its leather processes, and emits 20 percent less greenhouse gas than conventional leather finishing. Saigon TanTec has also achieved gold level certification by the Leather Working Group.
When it came to design, Melville said the challenge was to create a sneaker that would provide everyday versatility and broad appeal, but with a distinctive design.
“Creating a unisex shoe allowed us to reach a broad market, with the style and tonal colors ensuring the Trainer can be worn dressed up or down,” she said. “Tread by Everlane is our first unisex sneaker and first footwear offering for men. We believe that sneakers can and should be unisex, and it was important for us to launch a sneaker that appealed to as many people as possible. Naturally, this led us to create a unisex sneaker that is versatile and caters to a wide range of styles.”
While sneakers are the foundation of the American uniform, most consumers aren’t aware of their heavy environmental footprint, from the energy needed to produce them to the virgin plastic that never breaks down, Melville said.
“With Tread by Everlane, we’re creating a timeless sneaker that is the lowest impact of its kind from a materials perspective,” she said. “Our responsibility is to educate our customers on what they’re buying and we believe they will make the right choices by providing more sustainable options.”
Tread by Everlane is developing alternatives for the few components still made from virgin plastic, designing more efficient patterns to reduce leather waste, and searching for leather alternatives that won’t reduce the appeal or durability.
“With Tread by Everlane, we’re continuously working towards creating the lowest impact sneaker possible,” Melville said. “With every new style and every improvement, we move one step further down the path toward our ideal of zero impact.”
Everlane will introduce new colorways in the Trainer this year, with additional styles to come down the line. However, Melville added, “We will not introduce new drops on a frequent basis, as our goal is to make a timeless sneaker that you will wear for years.”