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How to buy a pair of sustainably-made trainers

Veja trainers
By Keeley Bolger
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Follow our eco-conscious guide to help you shop for your next pair of trainers that won't cost the planet.


If your trainer buying habit is at odds with your eco-conscious beliefs - don’t despair. Here to help make sports shoe shopping more ethically sound is George CEO of The Sole Supplier, an online destination which prides itself on keeping up to date with trainer news and releases in the UK and Europe.

What are the main ethical issues around buying trainers?

"Their high carbon footprint. Most trainer designs typically have many parts and involve injection molding, foaming, heating, cutting and sewing. One study found manufacturing a single pair of running shoes emits 13.6kg of carbon dioxide. Most of the world’s sneakers - nearly 80% - come from Chinese factories. These factories mainly rely on fossil fuels which are bad for the planet."

What things should you avoid when buying a new pair of trainers?

"The easiest thing is to simply avoid buying trainers that are cut from fabrics you've never heard of. These have usually been created synthetically in labs using various chemicals and many are bad for the environment because they don’t biodegrade."

What materials should eco-conscious shoppers look for?

"For leather alternatives, look for chrome-free leather, vegetable tanned leather, alternatives like Piñatex - made from pineapple leaves - or textiles including hemp, organic cotton or wool. For rubber alternatives consider natural or wild rubber, which is cultivated to prevent deforestation."

What’s the difference between vegan and sustainable trainers?

"Shoes can be made with a variety of animal-based materials, including leather, silk, fur and wool. However, vegan shoes contain no traces of animal materials. Sustainable fashion focuses on cruelty-free options which are also ethically produced. It’s all about creating products which respect the environment and its workers. Sustainable trainers may contain some animal materials, but the animals won’t have been slaughtered specifically for fashion. The skins are re-used from other industrial processes. For example, Veja experiments with ecological materials, such as leather made from the skin of tilapia, a fish commonly farmed for food."

What else can eco-conscious shoppers do to buy better?

"There are practical actions you can take, like investing in more ‘classic’ looks, rather than just the latest fads, as these will really stand the test of time. Some say shopping online, directly from brands reduces emissions too. Try to avoid next-day or same-day shipping too. This requires a brand to arrange a special delivery, which will inevitably result in more journeys with less cargo on board."

What trainer brands would you recommend for their high ethical standards?

"Adidas got on board in 2017, collaborating with environmental initiative Parley for the Oceans and has re-released its EQT sneaker using up-cycled plastic waste collected from beaches in the Maldives. They’ve also just announced the launch of a new running shoe, The Futurecraft Loop, which is made from 100% recyclable materials. Italian brand Rombaut’s core mission is to protect the earth’s biodiversity. All materials and fabrics are sustainably engineered from plant-based materials, using stone, tree bark, natural rubber, cotton cellulose and coconut fibre.

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"Nike’s Plant Color Collection has just been announced as the Summer 2019 capsule collection. It’s "inspired by alternative ways to make colour," using plant-based dyes. The Air Max 95 and Blazer Low were the first to undergo this eco-makeover. There’s also Veja’s V-10 Low Top, Stella McCartney’s Loop sneakers and Reebok’s Cotton and Corn initiative made from a 100% cotton upper and a bio-based corn sole."

How sustainable is it to buy a new pair of trainers every year?

"It depends on the sustainability practice of each brand. Some brands are not as eco-conscious as others, which means buying multiple pairs from them wouldn’t be good for the environment. However, more companies are launching sustainable initiatives and recycling projects to make the buying process better for our planet. For example, Nike recycles any sneakers with their Reuse-A-Shoe programme. It turns them into Nike Grind, which is used to create courts, tracks, playgrounds and fields."

Why should we spend more on ethically-made trainers?

"Many of the alternative materials can be costly and take time to produce. Sustainable brands are also very much more focused on buying from producers at fair rates. This means they can sometimes be paying as much as three times the market price for materials. However, as consumers, we have the knowledge we are buying from an ethical brand ensuring its partners and workers can survive on fair salaries. Surely that is enough to encourage us to spend a little more?"

What’s next for sustainable trainers?

"One of the key elements of sustainable fashion is eliminating waste and reducing unsold items. Considering this, eco-conscious brands will focus on producing more gender-neutral designs as this is one of the easiest and quickest ways to streamline production lines and make business more sustainable.

"Technology will also play an important role in enhancing sustainable manufacturing processes. For example, start-ups are experimenting with using bacteria to naturally dye fabric, which dramatically reduces water usage. The pigment itself is also naturally and non-toxically created by the bacteria. Artificial leather is being ‘grown’ in laboratories, which eliminates the need for raising - and killing - animals and reduces waste by creating hides devoid of imperfections or uneven edges. There will be more sustainable partnerships and initiatives created to encourage us to be more eco-conscious."

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Words: Keeley Bolger

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