By Sarah Lozanova, Sustainability Writer
Every year, about 20 billion pairs of footwear are produced across the globe. Unfortunately, the fashion industry is known for pollution, an immense water and carbon footprint, and poor working conditions. However, a handful of footwear companies are creating fundamentally more sustainable products and inspiring corporate giving programs.
These innovative brands are taking actions such as opting for ocean freight over air freight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, partnering with BLOOM for algae-based EVA foot beds, and using recycled water bottles in their footwear materials. They are creating fashionable products using bio-based or recycled materials, reducing packaging waste, and paying a living wage to their workers. Let’s explore some of these footwear brands that are leaders in sustainable footwear.
Third-Party Sustainability Certifications & Ratings
These programs help shoppers identify more sustainable and socially-responsible companies that meet a higher standard.
Casual Shoes & Sneakers
This comfortable footwear is ideal for less formal settings and prioritizes comfort.
Water-Repellent Shoes – Allbirds Wool Runner-Up Mizzle Plus for Women (also available for men)
The Mizzle Plus is a super cozy merino wool shoe with a water-repellent shield. This is quite an innovation because Allbirds has made a high-top with biobased materials that can withstand some rain and relatively cold temperatures. Still, we don’t recommend jumping in rain puddles with them. The Allbird Runner-up Mizzle Plus is an impressive shoe on our list that combines comfort, functionality, and style with some remarkable sustainability features.
These Allbirds are made with ZQ-certified merino wool and FSC-certified natural rubber soles. Whereas some shoe manufacturers use concerning chemicals, Allbirds uses an ECO Passport-certified (OEKO-TEX), fluorine-free water repellent shield. The company is a leader in sustainable footwear, has been a certified B Corp since 2016, and has a score of 89.4.
Allbirds is on track to cut its carbon emissions to near zero by 2030. It uses renewable energy, maximizes ocean shipping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and supports regenerative agriculture for wool production.
Fit: True to size, available only in whole sizes
Road Running Shoe – Brooks Ghost 15 for Women
The Ghost is Brooks’ first carbon-neutral running shoe, and the Ghost 15 has 6% fewer carbon emissions than the Ghost 14. The company performed a lifecycle assessment that included the materials production, product assembly, packaging, distribution, and end-of-life to understand the impact and make incremental improvements.
All the upper materials contain a high percentage of recycled content, and they offset emissions with carbon credits. The Ghost line shows how Brooks is taking steps to improve its sustainability, but we would like to see a higher percentage of recycled content in Brook and carbon offsets more widely used throughout Brooks products. The Ghost 15 is available for both men and women and in a variety of colors.
Although Brooks Sports has set some clear sustainability goals, such as net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, we’d like to see shorter timelines. It is slowly transitioning to a circular business model that also incorporates recycled polyester and nylon yarn in footwear and apparel and aims to use 50% bio-based or recycled content by 2030. It received a relatively low rating by the FashionTransparency Index 2022 of 27, considerably lower than New Balance (41), ASICS (44), Reebok (48), Adidas (51), Nike (53), Converse (53), and Puma (58). but did fairly well in the policies and commitments category, so improvements may be on the horizon.
Fit: True to size
Sneakers – Cariuma Low Top 4oceans for Women (also available for men)
This limited-edition shoe is a classic Cariuma low top that celebrates Worlds Ocean Day 2022 and supports 4ocean’s worldwide cleanup initiatives. With each pair, 2 pounds of plastic and debris is removed from coastlines, oceans, and rivers. This casual vegan sneaker has more cushion and arch support than you might expect, thanks to its insoles that contain cork and mamona oil. They come in three colors (blue, white, or gray), and all have the classic cap-toe design. These sneakers are available in both men’s and women’s, and seem durable and well-made.
The shoes are made largely of post-consumer recycled plastics and organic cotton. Cariuma plants two trees in Brazil for every pair of shoes they sell as part of its mission to restore biodiversity and the carbon-capturing ability of rainforests. The company has an impressive list of certifications, including Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), bluesign-certified chemicals, Global Recycled Standard certification, and OEKO-TEX. It also uses innovative bio-based materials, such as bamboo, cork, and sugarcane.
Fit: Cariumas are true to size.
Sneakers – Cariuma OCA Highs for Women (also available for men)
These high-top sneakers feature a timeless design rooted in the culture of skateboarding and surfing but with a modern makeover. We find them more comfortable than Converse and Vans, in part due to the memory foam insoles (described above). The OCA highs come in both men’s and women’s, and there are various colors and material options for the upper fabric and three sole colors.
Cariuma sources leather and suede materials from Leather Working Group (LWG) Gold-rated suppliers and all the water used in the tanning process is recycled and reused.
Fit: Cariumas are true to size.
Casual Orthotic Shoes – Therafit Sienna Sidezip Sport for Women
If you are looking to combine style and exceptional comfort, the Sienna is an excellent choice. One of the first things we noticed when wearing these shoes is how they naturally encouraged us to stand up straight and walk without caving in the arches. If you’ve ever had the experience of a yoga teacher instructing you to stand with proper alignment and posture, these shoes magically and effortlessly achieve this.
Therafit shoes, sandals, and boots feature patented technology designed to prevent foot pain and support proper alignment, so it’s no wonder they are American Podiatric Medical Association-approved. The Therafit Sienna comes in many colors and has a functional side zipper.
Therafit has been a Certified B Corp since 2013, says that philanthropy is part of its DNA, and donates $1 to the non-profit of your choice for every pair of Therafit shoes sold. It partners with non-profits working in “medical research, education, and the preservation of our planet and its resources.” Although we are impressed with Therafit’s philanthropic endeavors, we would like to see greater use of recycled and bio-based materials in its orthotic footwear.
Fit: Therafit shoes are not true to size and run a bit small. We suggest ordering a half or full size larger than normal.
The following shoes are waterproof and ideal for wet weather and exploring the outdoors.
Waterproof Snow Boots – Bogs Bozeman Tall Yulex Boots for Men
Made of Yulex Natural Rubber from FSC-certified forests, these boots are both durable and 30% lighter than comparable boots. In addition, these seamless boots are super rugged and perform very well in rain, snow, and cold conditions. We’ve owned several pairs of insulated Bogs boots that have kept our toes warm in very frigid weather and lasted for years despite heavy use. These Yulex boots might be our most durable pair yet. Although these boots are for men, there are similar Yulex snow boots available for women.
Bogs has been making some impressive strides to become a sustainable company and reduce its “carbon bootprint.” It is partnering with BLOOM to use algae-based EVA footbeds across its entire line, helping promote water quality and healthy ecosystems. It sources leather from LWG Gold-rated tanneries, and its durafresh odor protection technology uses probiotics instead of pesticides. Its rubber factories reduce waste by using up to 40% post-consumer recycled material, and the Classic Casual line features recycled laces, outsoles, webbing, textiles, and binding.
Fit: True to size, available only in whole sizes
Waterproof Hiking Sneaker – Forsake Cascade Trail for Women (also available for men)
This shoe is an excellent choice for exploring the great outdoors in colder or wet weather. The Cascade Trail is available in four colors and is rugged yet lightweight. Forsake is also partnering with BLOOM to create an EVA footbed that is 20% algae-based, which helps promote clean water and air. These hiking sneakers also have a men’s line.
Forsake is taking numerous steps to be a sustainable company, such as being Climate Neutral certified, offering UPS carbon-neutral shipping, and transporting footwear from Asian factories via ocean instead of air freight. It uses 100% recycled packaging and sources LWG Gold-rated leather (for its non-vegan products). Forsake works to reduce its carbon footprint through efficiency improvements and its carbon offsets in 2021 supported Envira Amazonia, a rainforest conservation project in Brazil.
Fit: True to size, allows a bit of extra space for thick socks
Waterproof Shoe – Native Nova Hydroknit for Women
This knit shoe features a waterproof membrane made from 50% recycled PET yarn with water and stain-resistant spray protection. It features a light rubber outsole. The stretchy fabric hugs the foot yet keeps it dry and warm, so it’s ideal for cold or wet weather. We find them relatively easy to get on and off, but that might not be the case for someone with wide feed.
Native has taken an innovative approach to sustainability in creating its limited-edition Plant Shoe, a compostable, plant-based shoe made from materials including jute, pineapple husk, linen, and treated with natural oils. The Remix Project gives used shoes a second life and recycles them into playground equipment or donates them to other good causes. Simply request a free shipping label online and drop them off at a UPS location. Plus, Native Shoes has set ambitious greenhouse emissions reductions targets for 2030.
Fit: True to size
These boots feature natural rubber, vegan leather, and Leather Working Group-certified leather.
Paddock Boots – Nisolo Carmen Chelsea Boot, Sold by Made Trade for Women
The Chelsea boots combine style, comfort, and sustainability. They have a stacked leather heel, water-resistant leather upper, and a memory foam insole. It took a day or two to break them in, which is common with leather shoes. Unlike many of the shoes featured in this article, the toe box is relatively slender, and they have a slightly elegant look.
Nisolo uses 95% LWG-certified leather, which is always a byproduct of the meat industry and is sourced from the United States and northern Mexico. The company has an impressive 115.4 B Corp score, which increased from 89 in 2017, showing Nisolo is dedicated to making sustainability improvements. The boots are made in an ethical factory in Peru that Nisolo owns and operates.
Made Trade and Nisolo are an excellent combo because Made Trade carries ethically made and sustainably sourced goods and offers carbon-neutral shipping. Its rigorous application process examines the manufacturing process, materials, labor practices, third-party verifications, and more to ensure it meets Made Trade’s core values of “equity, sustainability, and transparency.”
Fit: Not true to size and tend to run small; order a bit larger than your usual shoe size
Leather Boots – Timberland Grayfield Women’s Boots for Women
These Timberlands are surprisingly lightweight and comfortable yet sturdy. Be prepared for lots of compliments when you wear them because these boots are stylin’. They are reasonably priced and have moderate but not significant arch support. Although we haven’t tried them out in warmer weather, they probably will fare better because they are so light despite a thick sole. Grayfield boots feature a ReBOTL lining made from processed PET bottles.
Timberland is also achieving some impressive sustainability milestones, such as using nearly 500,000 pounds of recycled rubber in its footwear annually. Timberloop, its circular design platform, refurbishes gently-used gear or else reuses and recycles materials, and it sources leather from LWG gold and silver tanneries.
Timberland also ranks high in the Fashion Transparency Index 2022, rating 66. Although this might not sound like a stellar score, it’s among the top-performing brands. We are impressed that Timberland, which was founded in 1952, has made so much progress within such a large and well-established company.
Fit: Not true to size and tend to run big; so order a bit smaller than your usual shoe size
Vegan Leather Dock Boots – Will’s Vegan Store Dock Boots for Men
These boots feature water-resistant Italian vegan leather with 69% bio-based content. They have excellent treads and are a vegan version of classic dock boots. Unfortunately, many products are out of stock on the website, making it a bit tricky to order, but the company certainly takes sustainability seriously.
Will’s Vegan Store launched in 2013 as an ethically made, cruelty-free footwear company, and it’s interesting watching its subsequent sustainability progress. It became certified carbon neutral certified in 2016. It introduced bio-based content into its vegan leather in 2017, recycled options in 2019, and now has a fully biodegradable sneaker. While its vegan suede is 100% polyurethane, it is seeking more sustainable alternatives. Also, customers can mail back their footwear at the end of life for recycling.
Fit: True to size, uses European sizing
Flats & Flip Flops
This footwear is ideal for warmer weather or indoor use.
Slide Sandal – Indosole Slide for Women (also available for men)
We love many of the sustainable features of these handmade sandals, but were disappointed with overall comfort. Indosole uses minimal packaging, and the soles are made from old tires from Indonesian landfills. There is also a layer of natural rubber between the recycled tires and the footbed. The company also has active in corporate giving programs, such as providing food to Bali, Indonesia, families when the tourism industry collapsed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated travel restrictions.
While the waterproof slides are well made and attractive, we found them less comfortable than expected, despite the contoured footbed. The soles were quite rigid and the footbed texture felt rough against the foot.
Indosoles was created with a vision of finding a useful purpose for spent tires, which can be a breeding ground for mosquito-borne illnesses in tropical climates. Tires are not biodegradable and are sometimes burned, creating toxic fumes. To date, Indosoles has kept more than 80,000 tires from landfills.
Fit: Indosole slides aren’t available in half sizes. We recommend a larger size if you’re between sizes.
Flip Flops – Sanuk Ziggy Flip Flops for Men
This lightweight flip flop is comfortable and features a nice mesh material. The midsoles are thick and bouncy and are slightly contoured. Sanuk makes a variety of products for men, women, and children, including sandals, slippers, sneakers, and loafers. The company has been making numerous sustainability strides.
Sanuk moved the majority of its production from China to Vietnam, which helped reduce the carbon footprint of its products because Vietnam uses a lot of hydropower, while China generates a lot of electricity from coal. The company is taking steps to reduce waste, conserve water, and avoid hazardous chemicals.
It sources many natural and recycled materials, like straw, hemp, and recycled cotton, polyester, and EVA. For example, its new Veg Out collection is 100% plant-based and made with recycled natural materials. Although most of its products are vegan, when it does use leather, it sources it from LWG tanneries. Sanuk performed a lifecycle analysis of its packaging and has been using less plastic and paper.
Fit: True to size
Flats – Rothy’s Mary Jane for Women
This versatile flat features a flexible sole and square toe, and it hugs the foot with a strap. Rothy’s Mary Janes are super comfortable, soft, and machine washable. The shoes are made from recycled water bottles, and the outsoles contain some natural rubber.
Rothy’s uses recycled water bottles in all its products and has repurposed millions of water bottles to date. It also uses ocean-bound marine plastics in bags and algae-based foam in its sandals. The company also offsets carbon emissions with CarbonFund.org and owns and operates its own LEED-certified factory in China, which it says makes it easier to reduce waste and implement sustainable innovation.
Fit: True to size
Quality shot insoles can help boost alignment, maintain proper arch support, and improve weight distribution.
Insoles – Sole Performance Medium with Met Pad (Unisex)
This footbed is designed to relieve foot pain by distributing weight and pressure and supporting the natural alignment of the foot bones. These inserts are a simple way to revamp a pair of shoes that isn’t comfortable or that lacks arch support. We find them ideal for sneakers, hiking boots, and running shoes. They quickly became a product we use almost daily.
You can either heat the footbed in the oven at 200° F for 2 minutes or wear them for a few days to have them naturally mold to your foot. Because they are temperature sensitive, avoid leaving them in the car on hot days or in direct sunlight.
They are made with ReCORK recycled wine corks, a material that is naturally antimicrobial and is overwhelmingly carbon negative. Sole also uses BLOOM algae foam, a bio-based material that partially replaces the fossil-fuel-based material in its sandals. Algae is a quickly renewable resource and harvesting it helps protect natural ecosystems from harmful algae blooms.
Fit: Sole Insoles are not available in half sizes. If in between sizes, order half a size up and trim them down.
Leading the Way Towards More Sustainable Footwear
Although the footwear industry isn’t known for being sustainable, numerous companies that are sourcing cleaner materials, minimizing emissions, and using cruelty-free materials. We were especially impressed by the sustainability initiatives and ingenuity of Allbirds, Bogs, Cariuma, Forsake, Icebug, Indosole, Nisolo, Rothy, Sanuk, Sole, and Will’s Vegan Shoes. These companies are leading the industry toward a greener and cleaner future.
This article was originally published on Earth911.
About Sarah Lozanova, Sustainability Writer
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and a sustainability communications professional that helps shoppers find greener, socially-responsible, and eco-friendly consumer products. These products may use recycled or repurposed materials, have third-party certifications, be made in factories that pay a living wage, and minimize waste. She is the author of the book Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and holds an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School.