It’s tough to find sustainable shoes, or footwear brands that align with your environmental values, especially since so many shoes are composed of hazardous materials and made with nonrenewable energy.
Fortunately, these shoemakers are leading the way in producing fair trade footwear that ensures a safer future for the planet, thanks to sustainable material use in and low-emissions practices.
5 Top Sustainable Shoe Brands
Best Empowering Shoe Brand: Fortress
Supports family-owned factories in climate-vulnerable regions.
Best Cruelty-Free Brand: Veja
Uses vegan-friendly materials.
Best Intricate Brand: Ocelot Market, CANO
Partners with Mexican artisans to preserve ancient shoe-making traditions.
Best Slow Fashion Brand: Cariuma
The brand is intentional when it comes to designing products.
Best Fair Wage Brand: The Root Collective
Artisans are paid 50-400% higher than their country’s minimum wage.
Now you have a reason to love your shoes even more! These sustainable brands are building a reputation for quality, durability, and eco-friendly practices.
Check ’em out!
1Best Empowering Shoe Brand: Fortress
What We Love About These Sustainable Shoes
The creators of Fortress shoes were first introduced to the handcrafted footwear of Peru in 2004, during a backpacking trip through South America. They brought the shoes back to the United States and founded a sustainable shoemaking business in 2010 in Austin, Texas.
Now, Fortress specializes in handcrafted goods, emphasizing a professional culture driven by “fair wages, gender equity, and good working conditions” for everyone in the company. Their motto reflects the underlying sentiment that drives the company’s commitment to Fair Trade: “We believe the people who make our shoes are just as important as the people who buy them.”
Fortress partners with multiple family-owned factories in Peru, empowering local communities in a region considered to be “highly vulnerable to climate change” due to its vulnerability traits:1
- Low coastal habitats
- Susceptibility to deforestation, erosion, and natural disasters
- Susceptibility to drought and desertification
- High pollution levels in urban areas
- Fragile ecosystems
These sustainable shoes are crafted with natural materials, such as high-quality, full-grain leather (meaning the hair is removed from the skin and it’s immediately taken to the tanning process), rubber, and wood.
Fortress prioritizes equal treatment and environmental consciousness in every pair of shoes they produce. With this footwear, you’ll stay committed to your sustainable, humanitarian lifestyle with each step you take.
2Best Cruelty-Free Brand: Veja
What We Love About These Sustainable Shoes
Your vegan lifestyle can extend far beyond your food choices. Why not ensure your kicks are cruelty-free, too? Veja is here to help you keep animal-derived materials out of your wardrobe with its line of vegan footwear that looks awesome!
From rocker bottom athletic shoes to casual wear designs, your feet will stroll along without a trace of environmental or wildlife harm. Each shoe’s sustainability varies slightly, depending on the materials used to craft it.
For example, the Alveomesh White Pierre running shoe components are as follows:2
- Upper, the part of the shoe that covers the foot: 100 percent recycled plastic bottles
- Heel support insert: 100 percent Ricinus oil, also known as castor oil, which scientists have officially deemed “environmentally friendly” due to its low environmental impact3
- Lining tech: 100 percent recycled plastic bottles
- Insole: 51 percent sugar cane, 21 percent recycled plastic bottles
- L-foam cushioned technology, a part of the shoe responsible for shock absorption: 30 percent natural Brazilian latex, 70 percent synthetic latex
- Outsole: 30 percent Amazonian rubber, 31 percent rice waste, 39 percent synthetic rubber
This shoe alone represents just how dedicated to sustainability and low-impact practices Veja is in all its operations. The company’s bio-based shoes feature far more eco-friendly materials that help mitigate ecological harm in various ways, from the use of organic cotton to the incorporation of vegan suede and canvas.
Vegan living just got a lot more fashionable. Grab your eco-conscious kicks and strut your carbon neutrality like there’s no tomorrow!
3Best Intricate Brand: Ocelot Market: CANO
What We Love About These Sustainable Shoes
The Ocelot Market takes a different approach to sustainability than many other modern shoe brands. Instead of focusing exclusively on what they can repurpose today, the company looks to the past and uses techniques that have stood the test of time.
CANO is one of the youngest brands sold by Ocelot Market. It offers sustainably, ethically handcrafted footwear, designed and molded by Mexican artisans.
These shoes are modeled following traditional styles with a contemporary twist, with both aspects manifesting in one key practice: A 200-year-old vegetable leather tanning method that ensures the lowest possible environmental impact for shoemaking.
Vegetable tanning is the oldest process still used in the tanning industry. Historically, it relies entirely on raw materials, mainly the tannins, a type of chemical compound, found in many types of plants, including mimosa, birch, sweet chestnut, various oaks, willow, and so much more.6
To this day, it remains one of the best ways to make leather, especially considering the worsening climate impacts communities face worldwide. In addition to their eco-conscious production methods, CANO artisans receive fair pay for every shoe they make and thrive in a safe and healthy work environment.
The benefits of Ocelot Market exceed that of sustainable living, ensuring the preservation of ancient traditions and fair treatment of Mexican artisans in partnership with the company.
4Best Slow Fashion Brand: Cariuma
What We Love About These Sustainable Shoes
Cariuma’s sustainable shoes are centered on improving sustainability for people and the natural world. In the company’s words: “It’s cool to care.” This basic belief is co-founders’ David and Fernando’s central motivation for producing “cool-classic” sneakers that are socially responsible and eco-friendly.
They are explicitly opposed to “fast fashion,” the type of consumerism driven by clothing trends that appear and vanish within weeks. Shoppers’ environmental footprints keeps growing. They’re buying 60 percent more clothes than they did two decades ago, and to make matters worse, these clothes aren’t staying in the buyers’ closets.7
Instead, the old fabrics get tossed, leading the shorter lifespan to force higher manufacturing emissions. This causes a domino effect, in a way, causing textile production to now be one of the highest polluting industries worldwide, responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2-eq (about 1.3 billion tons) annually (more than international flights and overseas shipping operations).7
Cariuma requires deliberation of a sneaker style for at least one year before initiating production to combat this destructive industry. Furthermore, the company takes every opportunity to reduce the number of steps required to manufacture footwear, minimizing energy consumption.
Even better, the production process regularly presents opportunities to recycle and reuse materials. For example, if a piece of rubber is spared in one stage of making outsoles, it’s preserved and used in the next pair of shoes. Plus, Cariuma currently has a recycling program in development, so its manufacturing process is headed toward net-zero waste.
Several more materials in Cariuma shoes are selected and implemented with environmental health in mind. The key components include:8
- OEKO-TEK® certified Bamboo (also certified by Forest Stewardship Council and the Organic Crop Improvement Association)
- Natural rubber, harvested via “sapping,” so no trees are harmed
- Organic cotton, certified by Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
- I’M GREEN certified Brazilian sugarcane
- Natural cork, from the cork oak tree
- Mamona oil, an organic alternative to petroleum
- Recycled plastic
- Responsibly sourced leather and suede, certified by Leather Working Group (made with renewable energy, and 100 percent of the water used to produce these materials is recycled and reused)
- Recycled and recyclable packaging paper, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council
- Bluesign-certified dye chemicals
Cariuma has gone above and beyond to make its shoes safe for the environment and fight destructive fast fashion trends. Yet, it doesn’t stop there. Although 43 percent of their shoes are vegan, the company aims to exceed 50 percent by 2023. In these shoes, you can be confident you’re a part of an ongoing movement to make the earth a healthier place to live.
Plus, they look incredible!
5Best Fair Wage Brand: The Root Collective
What We Love About These Sustainable Shoes
“Our business started to create jobs, and we’ve held true to that.”
The Root Collective aims to improve the lives of their partners running the small workshops in Guatemala, responsible for making eco-friendly footwear, while also empowering everyday people to be fashionable and sustainable.
Similar to Fortress, The Root Collective believes that “the people who make the things we buy are every bit as important as the people who wear them.” It’s for this very reason that they refuse to mass manufacture but rely on the expertise of small-batch artisans, each of whom is paid a fair wage.
But their efforts in improving global sustainability don’t end with their shoes. Instead, The Root Collective offers its customers a collection of resources on ethical shopping to ensure their entire wardrobe is eco-conscious.
The company’s founder, Bethany Tran, cares deeply for all the people who craft the beautiful footwear filling this environmentally friendly inventory. Tran tells the story of many Guatemalan artisans on the company website, sharing how the company has helped improve their families’ lives.
Everyone in partnership with The Root Collective earns anywhere from 50-400 percent above the country’s Fair Wage minimum, ensuring a high quality of life for all involved. This company encourages a deep emotional bond and genuine support of each and every artisan who contributes to this sustainable brand. Choosing The Root Collective for your footwear isn’t just beneficial for global ecosystems, but humanity, too.
Why Shop for Sustainable Footwear?
Many of the manufacturers listed here were inspired to produce environmentally friendly shoe-wear to combat the damage from the “fast fashion” industry.
Unfortunately, when most people consider the environmental costs of this facet of consumer culture, they only think of the rapid production and waste of clothing, driven by short-lived fads, forgetting the impact of the shoe industry. Yet, footwear contributes to the problem, too, and quite significantly.
Shoe manufacturers reflect many of the same practices as clothing makers, particularly in terms of the harmful materials collection (especially for fibers and non-recyclable plastic) and mass production and disposal. These issues manifest in the following ecological consequences:
- Materials and manufacturing: Extracting and assembling shoe materials makes up the bulk of shoes’ carbon emissions, which are approximately 14 kg CO2-eq (about 31 lbs) per pair, based on recent studies. Researchers state, “[T]he material processing and manufacturing phases of [the shoes’] life cycle dominate its lifecycle GHG emissions.” (“GHG” means “greenhouse gas.”)9
- Mass production: In 2018, shoe manufacturers produced 24.2 billion pairs of shoes, about three percent more than the year before. Yet, the industry has grown by 20.5 percent when compared to 2010 production levels. This requires a devastating amount of energy and resources.9For instance, one pair of leather shoes was found to use about 8.4 L of water for a lifetime of 3,650 hours. The same pair also required approximately 18.04 MJ (megajoules) of energy, and emitted roughly 3.31 kg CO2-eq (7.30 lbs).9
- Disposal: Recycling rates for clothing and footwear are alarmingly low. In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that only about 13 percent of these goods were cycled. Each of the pairs tossed in landfills instead take at least 30-40 years to decompose, leading the waste to accumulate much more quickly than it can degrade.10,11
Swapping your current footwear for a more sustainable brands can do wonders for environmental health. Too few people consider how their shoes contribute to climate change. Yet, “green-ifying” this aspect of your wardrobe, among others can help shrink your carbon footprint dramatically.
Keep Your Kicks Cruelty-Free
Shoe production places a pretty hefty burden on environmental health. You can help mitigate the devastation to global ecosystems by swapping out your current boots or tennis shoes with vegan, fair trade sustainable shoe options instead.
Yet, for many of these sustainable shoes, you’ll need to ship your footwear out to your home, so you can use tree planting offsets to erase transportation emissions and make your shoes entirely carbon neutral with one of the top carbon offset providers. Use an ecological footprint calculator to measure your annual emissions as well, so you can offset your sustainable shoes, and all the greenhouse gases you generate, to achieve a completely carbon neutral lifestyle.
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1Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean. (2014, December 15). Climate change in Peru seen affecting the fishing, high Andes’ livestock and agricultural sectors the most. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.cepal.org/en/comunicados/pesca-ganaderia-altoandina-y-agricultura-serian-los-sectores-mas-afectados-por-el-cambio
2Veja. (n.d.). Condor 2 alveomesh white Pierre. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.veja-store.com/en_us/condor-2-alveomesh-white-pierre-cl012500.html
3Penabad Sanz, L., Rubio Erazo, D., Rodríguez Ramos, P. A., Zumalacárregui de Cárdenas, L., & Pérez Ones, O. (2019). Production and environmental impact of ricinus Communis L oil for biofuel purposes. DYNA, 86(210), 137-142. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.15446/dyna.v86n210.77167
4Veja. (n.d.). The blindness around CO2 emissions. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://project.veja-store.com/en/single/emissions/
5Veja. (n.d.). Upcycling. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://project.veja-store.com/en/single/upcycling/
6Falcão, L., & Araújo, M. (2018). Vegetable Tannins used in the manufacture of historic leathers. Molecules, 23(5), 1081. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23051081
7The price of fast fashion. (2018). Nature Climate Change, 8(1), 1-1. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-017-0058-9
8Cariuma. (2021, June 1). Factories: Empowering sustainable choices | Materials. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://cariuma.com/pages/about-us-sustainability
9Muthu, S. S., & Li, Y. (2021). Chapter 12: The environmental impact of footwear and footwear materials. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from In Handbook of footwear design and manufacture (2nd ed., pp. 305-320). Woodhead Publishing.
10U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, July 2). Textiles: Material-specific data. Retrieved September 4, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/textiles-material-specific-data
11Lickteig, J. (2021, March 10). Engineering students’ projects keep shoes out of landfills. Wichita State University. Retrieved September 4, 2021, from https://www.wichita.edu/about/wsunews/news/2021/03-march/EET_Shoe_Recycling_5.php
12Image source: Fortress, https://fortress.shoes/collections/womens-booties/products/adriana-coco-booties?variant=14483077431411
13Image source: Veja, https://www.cettire.com/products/veja-campo-sneakers-99104475
14Image source: Ocelot Market, https://ocelotmarket.com/collections/all-mens/products/mens-turkish-kilim-loafer-34
15Image source: Cariuma, https://cariuma.com/collections/women/products/oca-low-washed-burn-sand-nude-contrast-thread-canvas-sneaker-women
16Image source: https://therootcollective.com/collections/heels/products/chloe-wedge-in-noir-leather