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Scrappy DTCs Set Their Sights on Sustainable Sneakers

The most popular shoes in the U.S.—and across the globe—are sneakers. From basketball shoes to casual cup-soles, easy-wearing lace-ups dominate the footwear market.

But these styles also happen to be among the most complicated to make, employing up to 30 different materials and components to form a single style. From leathers to textiles, meshes, metal shanks, eyelets, laces, foams, rubbers, glues and more, sneakers require a significantly longer roster of inputs than most other footwear styles.

That fact virtually ensures that styles that have passed their prime will meet a landfill fate.

The fusion of different parts and pieces makes footwear virtually impossible to deconstruct—and its individual components, therefore, cannot find a new purpose—or return to the earth. Instead, sneakers contribute to fashion’s undeniable waste woes, piling up in landfills and dumps and refusing to break down.

In recent years, footwear heavy-hitters and newcomers to the space have attempted to address the issue head-on, paring down these moneymaking products and building them more sustainably. Innovative new materials, from recycled plastics to bio-based foams, are becoming much more common than they once were. And shoemakers are realizing that working with less may be key.

Two-year-old Brazilian sneaker brand Cariuma began its business with reinvention, scaling back on the usual inputs used in sneaker production and settling on just 10 pieces and components for its introductory style.

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The Ibi lace-up was designed with natural materials like sugarcane and cork, along with a knit upper crafted from a proprietary blend of bamboo fibers and recycled PET from post-consumer plastic bottles.

Co-founder Fernando Porto told Sourcing Journal that he and partner David Python took ample time to develop each of the brand’s styles, knowing that “with proper care placed in the design process you don’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability.”

“The simple fact is: you can’t fix these kind of issues after the product is done,” Porto added. By utilizing fewer materials, the brand’s silhouettes “require minimal cutting, less labor, and less energy overall, thereby eliminating waste and reducing CO2 emissions in the process.”

They also invested time and resources into finding or developing the locally sourced materials from which the shoes are made. The bamboo used in the shoe’s uppers is regenerative, growing back from its roots each time its stalks are cut down. The plant also thrives in varied conditions, and doesn’t require irrigation.

A sugarcane-based foam was developed for Ibi’s durable performance outsole, replacing the petroleum-based EVA used in most casual and athletic sneakers.

“In order to push our industry to evolve, it is essential to invest the time to create thoughtfully from the jump,” Porto said. “That means slowing down the wheels of the industry and focusing on good, intentional design.”

“It’s not easy, but good things that push us forward never are,” he added. The effort requires time, dedication, and of course, technology.

Native Shoes has slashed its list of inputs even further, with some styles made from just a single material.

Gabe Lam, footwear design and development manager for the Vancouver-based brand, said Native’s introductory style, a laceless, slip-on sneaker called the Jefferson, was made solely from ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA), a polymer-based foam.

Over the years, the brand has expanded from the mono-material silhouette to a range of vegan shoes and sneakers. The line uses an array of materials, “with a specific focus on recycled, recyclable and future-forward materials,” Lam said, including recycled PET uppers made from post-consumer plastics, animal-free suede, and algae-infused foam in the company’s collaborative collection with Bloom.

While many of Native’s shoes are made with synthetic, petroleum-based materials—materials typically fingered when examining the footwear sector’s negative impact—the brand is intent on providing an end-of-life solution that keeps products out of landfills, Lam said.

Native Shoes' Jefferson pull-on sneaker.
Native Shoes’ Jefferson pull-on sneaker. Native Shoes

By 2023, Native hopes to be able to manage the life cycles of 100 percent of its products. Through a company-wide program called Remix, the company’s footwear—from sandals to slip-ons, knit sneakers and boots—can be reground into material for industrial use, like playground flooring and insulation.

Consumers who have outgrown or worn out their footwear can send it back for free through a partnership with Zappos for Good, the retailer’s corporate social responsibility program, or drop off their old kicks at a Native Shoes store.

“We absolutely believe it’s possible to make shoes while being respectful of the environment and to reduce our impact on the planet,” Lam said, adding that the use of hazardous materials, irresponsible waste management and supply chain carbon emissions are a few of the challenges that the industry faces today.

“We are always exploring ways to improve in all aspects of the business,” he said, “with material innovation being only one of many things we can do move towards a more sustainable future.”

Monxi Garza, founder of travel-ready sneaker DTC Suavs, echoed the sentiment that making sneakers more sustainably is a goal that the industry can and should take on.

The Austin brand’s signature silhouette, the Zilker, has a digitally knitted upper made with 100 percent post-consumer plastic threads. A minimalist rubber outsole and removable, washable polyfoam insole make the shoes flexible and ultra-packable for weekend excursions.

Suavs' Zilker sneaker, made with recycled knit uppers.
Suavs’ Zilker sneaker, made with recycled knit uppers. Suavs

“Our main goal was to create a simple, comfortable and versatile shoe you could wear every day, be it for work, running errands, walking the dog, or just lounging at home,” Garza said. The design was carefully edited to remove any excess bells and whistles, she added, to increase its versatility.

“Your typical sneaker has so many components, many of them to increase performance and protect your feet, but the rest are just there for decoration,” Garza said.

Garza was drawn to the idea of a recycled plastic knit upper because it allowed for expressive design. “You can create so many different unique patterns out of thread, without having to source all these different materials and generate waste.”

While the industry thrives on newness and innovation, Garza also believes that insatiable appetite is its Achilles heel. “One of the fashion industry’s most dangerous and most damaging practices is the high rotation of trendy styles,” she said.

This short-term thinking leads to massive amounts of waste during production—not to mention afterward, when a trend has lost its luster for reasons that are largely arbitrary.

Brands should seek to curb their input not just through material innovation and streamlined supply chains, but by “creating more simple, timeless silhouettes,” she said.

Consumers are playing a bigger part than ever in driving the industry forward with their purchasing power, she added. They’re choosing “ethically made product that can be worn often” and enjoy a longer, fuller life as a part of their wardrobes.