Trainers have become a wardrobe staple over the years, and even more so now that working from home has become the new normal for so many of us. But understandably you don't want to be causing more environmental damage as the result of buying yourself a new pair of kicks – so how you make the eco-friendly choice, and avoid the greenwashing?
By Chris Margetts, Director of sustainable trainers brand Humans Are Vain
There are so many new 'sustainable' trainers brands launching in the market all the time. Thankfully it is absoutely possible to buy yourself a pair of gorgeous, high quality trainers that are also ethical and sustainable – but you do need to do a bit of work and find out more about the brand and product, rather than just accepting the word 'sustainable' in the brand's marketing copy.
In reality, shopping ethically and sustainably requires a complete consideration of where the trainers are made, how the trainers are made and what happens at the end of a trainer's life span. The factory producing the 'sustainable' trainers should be operating in an ethical manner, and that means good working conditions for the workers such as paid overtime, safety regulations followed and a fair wage. The factory should also be functioning in an environmentally friendly manner, which could mean a number of things – with our factory in Portugal for example, they operate a zero waste to landfill policy, conserve water, use renewable energy and have installed energy-efficient lighting, to name just a few things.
When it comes to the product itself, trainers can be made up of 20-30 different materials and components, and to really be considered ethical and sustainable, these should all be produced in an ethical and environmentally friendly way. For example this means not using animal leather or virgin plastics, but instead using natural materials such as organic cotton canvas, linen, apple leather or pineapple leaf fibres (Pinatex); or vegan leathers that are made from up-cycled and recycled materials such as plastic ocean trash that can be turned into a polyester upper for trainers. If a virgin material is used to create sustainable trainers, then that should be produced under strict guidelines that ensure that no harmful chemicals are used in the production, and certification like Oeko-Tex 100 will show this has been followed.
For a conventional pair of trainers, the sole is normally one of the highest carbon emission components used, contributing around 43% of the trainer's total c.14kg of carbon emissions during production. This is one reason why at Humans Are Vain we were so focused on using recycled rubber for the soles of our sustainable trainers.
What happens at the end of the trainer's lifespan is also hugely important, because if the trainers haven't been designed and engineered to be recycled, then they will most likely be heading for a landfill. Currently around 93% of all shoes end up in landfill, and when you consider the fact that 19 billion pairs of shoes are sold globally each year, the need to recycle sneakers is very important. At Humans Are Vain we operate a circular economy, and we can turn any of our sustainable trainers into new soles to be used on our next production run.
Why are mainstream trainers often not ethical and sustainable – even if they're vegan?
With so many materials and components going into a typical pair of trainers, it’s common that the majority of those materials have not been produced in an environmentally-friendly manner. And regarding how they treat their workers, while some mainstream brands operate a high code of practice for their factories, it’s often documented that with the sheer scale of their volumes, outsourcing to non-approved factories and forced overtime can occur. In addition, many non-leather trainers sneakers aren’t produced with vegan glue, so aren't actually vegan.
It’s great to see some mainstream brands switching to more sustainable trainers, but it’s simply not enough to call a product truly sustainable by just using one or two eco components – so as a consumer you need to look for more information about all the materials used in its production, and not be afraid to ask brands about their materials or factories.
How can you tell if a trainer brand is ethical and sustainable?
It’s sometimes hard to tell just how sustainable a brand is, but if a brand has nothing to hide they will be transparent and provide all the information about exactly how and where their sustainable trainers have been made. We like to detail all the elements of our vegan and sustainable trainers, from showing that our uppers are made with natural materials, as well as virgin materials which have the Oeko-Tex 100 certification – right through to the hidden components inside the sneakers such as the thin layers of reinforcements (stiffeners as they are known in the industry) that give the sneakers their shape, which are made from recycled materials in our sneakers. The most important thing is that as a consumer you feel you can make an informed decision about your purchase.
The carbon footprint of the trainers can at least be roughly judged by checking the country of origin. Consider that the product might have travelled halfway around the world to get to you, and as over 50% of brands use air freight on a regular basis rather than sea freight, this should be looked at when considering a purchase. The packaging used for the sneakers can also highlight a brand's sustainability credentials; for example we use recycled cardboard and tissue paper for all our packaging.
It's hard to make 'perfect' decisions as a consumer, but hopefully this will help you ask the right questions and make the most informed choices you can.
About the Author
Chris Margetts is Director of vegan & sustainable trainers brand Humans Are Vain
You can explore our full range of sustainable and vegan trainers here.
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