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What is Sustainable Footwear?

What is Sustainable Footwear?

More and more companies, from giant tech corporations to big-box retailers of home goods, are examining the effect that their business practices have on the environment. And in response, they’re making changes that promote sustainability. 

The shoe industry is no exception, with a diverse community of brands pouring time and resources into developing new ways to make shoes that don’t harm the ground we walk on. 

The result is something known as sustainable footwear—footwear that meets each of your shoe requirements, like comfort, durability, and affordability, without compromising the planet. To that end, this article goes into everything you need to know about the sustainable footwear market, from the sustainable materials used to make them to the standard production methods and requirements. 

#1 Sustainable Footwear Uses Natural Fibers 

What is sustainable footwear?

It’s footwear that’s manufactured in a way that intentionally minimizes its environmental impact. Like all sustainability efforts, it’s focused on making shoes that fulfill our footwear needs through sustainable methods that allow future generations to live comfortably. 

The first hallmark of sustainable shoes is that they’re made from natural material and fibers. Natural fibers aren’t produced in a laboratory by a team of scientists. Instead, they’re derived from natural resources that include animals, plants, and minerals. 

Natural fibers include a range of materials, from those you encounter every day to some that you maybe haven’t heard of. Some of the most popular natural fibers include:

  • Silk – One of the most luxurious of natural fibers, silk is famous for its unique combination of shine and durability.1 It’s produced by silkworms, a species of moth in their caterpillar form who spin it to make their transformative cocoons. 
  • Organic cotton – Sustainably grown and harvested, organic cotton skips pesticides and genetically-modified seeds in favor of natural agricultural practices.2 This limits the environmental impact associated with producing conventional cotton. 
  • Hemp – Humans have been cultivating the cannabis plant known as hemp for centuries for a variety of uses, from fabric and papermaking to medicinal purposes like treating eye sores.3 It’s widely regarded as sustainable because it’s a sturdy plant that doesn’t require much water, and it replenishes its own soil by pumping vital nutrients back into it. 
  • Wool – As a category, wool includes a range of fabrics that are made from the fleece or hair of several different animals.4 Sheep are among the most recognizable wool providers, but it also comes from camels, goats, rabbits, and other animals. In addition to traditional lambswool, wool varieties include cashmere, angora, and mohair, among others.
  • Flax – When it blooms, the flax plant unfurls gorgeous purple or blue flowers. But the stems of this plant produce natural bast fiber that’s used to make fabrics like yarn and linen.5  
  • Eucalyptus – The wood of eucalyptus trees can be used to make a fabric known as lyocell.6 Lyocell is a sustainable option for making fabric products like clothing and bed sheets. It’s also used to make conveyor belts and some medical dressings.7 
  • Jute – Popularly known as burlap, fabric made from the jute plant is rough, textured, and highly durable. It’s also one of the most widely used fabrics in existence.8 Everything from furniture and floor rugs to shoes is made from jute.
  • Leather – Because it’s made from cows, leather is technically a natural fiber. That said, there are some big questions to consider when it comes to sustainability. For example, the use of chromium and other chemicals in the tanning process is cause for concern, as are animal treatment issues within the cattle industry.9
  • Natural fibers are an increasingly popular way for sustainable shoe brands in the footwear industry to promote sustainability and lessen the environmental impact of their companies. 

    But how can sustainable footwear benefit consumers? 

    By purchasing sustainable footwear instead of footwear from a shoe brand that harms the environment, you’re making a choice that decreases your own carbon footprint and mitigates environmental pollutants. 

    Additionally, footwear from a sustainable shoe brand is high-quality since natural fibers are more durable and absorbent than synthetic materials.10  

    Discover best-in-class sneakers from Snibbs. Shop now!

    #2 Sustainable Footwear May Also Use Repurposed Materials

    Sustainable footwear doesn’t exclusively include materials that occur naturally in the world, like wool or hemp fabrics. Sometimes, sustainability means limiting the amount of waste we’re collectively producing by reusing materials that might otherwise end up in the landfill. 

    That’s why sustainable footwear also includes recycled shoes that are made from repurposed materials. 

    Repurposed material refers to material waste that’s recycled or reused for a purpose other than its original use. Repurposing can happen on a small scale, like when you co-opt canning jars to hold tea candles or save your yogurt containers for food storage. But it also happens on a large scale when manufacturers use recycled materials to make new products. 

    Sustainable developments in footwear have led to the emergence of several recyclable materials that can be reused in sneaker manufacturing.11 Popular options include: 

  • Bamboo – A special yarn is at the heart of repurposed bamboo.12 Conventional methods of making fabric from bamboo require a toxic chemical that’s dangerous for the environment and people, but the development of an eco-friendly process that converts the bamboo into powder has led to a sustainable way of using this low-impact plant.
  • Cork – If you’re only familiar with cork as the stopper that keeps your wine fresh, you might be surprised to know it’s a 100% renewable material. Cork is harvested from the outer layer of a cork oak tree’s bark.13 It’s also naturally buoyant and resistant to water and fire.
  • Pineapple leaves – Pineapple is more than a delicious tropical fruit. The leaves of harvested pineapple plants can be reused to make a sustainable leather alternative.14 As a bonus, this natural fiber has the ability to fight foot sweat to keep your feet dry.
  • Recycled plastic – Discarded bottles, ocean plastics, and even composted materials are just some of the ways that plastics are recycled and reused for sustainable footwear.15
  • Tire rubber – When your old car tires rot away in the landfill, they release harmful chemicals and heavy metals into the earth that can cause cancers and genetic mutations.16 Fortunately, reusing this valuable natural rubber for shoe soles is a comfy way to cut back on rubber waste. 
  • Reuse is a highly important aspect of sustainability. In fact, in many cases, reusing materials is more beneficial than recycling them since reuse doesn’t require the energy or waste production that comes with recycling.17 

    #3 Sustainable Footwear Is Ethically Manufactured 

    When it comes to footwear, sustainability doesn’t stop with using natural fibers or recycled materials. It’s just as important that the shoes are ethically and responsibly manufactured in a way that protects not only the environment but also the people who make your sneakers.

    The history of unethical labor practices in the shoe industry is no secret, from big shoe brands that pay pennies on the hour to those that force their workers to labor under dangerous conditions.18 

    Fortunately, a renewed focus on sustainability within the footwear industry emphasizes ethical production methods.

    That being said, conscientious manufacturing practices must include:

      • Adequate training – Workers aren’t safe unless they’re given the proper training to work with machinery and other tools they need to do their jobs. Truly sustainable shoes are made by fully trained workers who are able to use their knowledge to minimize dangers on the job. 

      • Safe work environments – The labs, factories, and distribution centers where your shoes come from must prioritize worker safety. That means that all sustainable fashion structures are compliant with local building codes, proper protective procedures are in place, and workers are provided with all necessary personal protective equipment.

      • Proper compensation – It’s important that sneaker manufacturers pay appropriate wages—especially in an industry with a history of forced labor practices.19 

    A truly sustainable pair of shoes meets each of these ethical standards and uses materials that put the environment first. 

    Snibbs: Where Style Meets Sustainability 

    When our shoes are made with non-biodegradable or non-recyclable materials and crafted through unethical manufacturing practices, they can have a significant impact on our environment and community.

    Fortunately, sustainable footwear puts environmentally safe practices first by producing shoes with recycled and reused materials that are often plant-based. 

    At Snibbs, it’s our mission to make sustainable work shoes accessible. Nearly 100% of our athletic shoe materials are from plant and recycled materials, like recycled plastics, cottons, and polyurethane. Even our packaging is made from 100% recycled cardboard. 

    And we do it all while still delivering on everything you need from your work shoes, like comfort, slip-resistance, and stain-fighting features for quick cleaning—all in eye-catching styles you love.

    Ready to make a sustainable decision when it comes to your work shoes? Shop Snibbs today.


    Sources: 

    1. Masterclass. Fabric Guide: What is Silk? How to Use and Care For Silk. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/fabric-guide-what-is-silk-how-to-use-and-care-for-silk-fabric 
    2. Good On You. A Quick Guide to Organic Cotton. https://goodonyou.eco/know-your-product-a-quick-guide-to-organic-cotton/ 
    3. Hemp Eyewear. A Brief HIstory of Hemp. https://hempeyewear.com/blogs/blog/the-history-of-hemp
    4. Masterclass. Guide to Wool Fabric: 9 Types of Wool. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/guide-to-wool-fabric#9-different-types-of-wool 
    5. Council of Fashion Designers of America. Flax (Linen). https://cfda.com/resources/materials/detail/flax-linen#
    6. Good On You. Material Guide: How Sustainable is Eucalyptus Fabric? https://goodonyou.eco/eucalyptus-fabric/
    7. The Guardian. Pulp Fabric: Everything You Need to Know About Lyocell. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/nov/18/pulp-fabric-everything-you-need-to-know-about-lyocell 
    8. Revolution Fabrics. What is Jute Fabric? https://revolutionfabrics.com/blogs/gotcha-covered/what-is-jute-fabric 
    9. Good On You. Material Guide: Is Leather Ethical or Sustainable? https://goodonyou.eco/the-hidden-costs-of-leather/ 
    10. MasterClass. Natural vs Synthetic Fibers: What’s the Difference? https://www.masterclass.com/articles/natural-vs-synthetic-fibers#advantages-of-using-natural-fibers 
    11. Household Wonders. 6 Most Eco-Friendly Materials for Shoes. https://householdwonders.com/eco-friendly-materials-for-shoes/ 
    12. Diversity in Steam. These Shoes Are Made From Bamboo, Sugarcane, and Cork—And Are Entirely Carbon Neutral. https://diversityinsteam.com/2019/10/shoes-made-bamboo-carbon-neutral/ 
    13. How Stuff Works. Where Does Cork Come From? https://home.howstuffworks.com/question550.htm 
    14. Panaprium. The Truth About Piñatex Pineapple Leather. https://www.panaprium.com/blogs/i/pinatex-pineapple-leather 
    15. Recycled and Renewed. Top Eco-Friendly Shoes Made of Recycled Plastics. https://www.recycledandrenewed.com/top-eco-friendly-sneakers-the-best-shoes-made-from-recycled-plastic/ 
    16. EcoGreen. How Do Old, DIscarded TIres Affect the Environment? ​​https://ecogreenequipment.com/how-do-old-discarded-tires-affect-the-environment/ 
    17. Clearance Solutions LTD. The Difference Between Recycling & Reusing. https://www.clearancesolutionsltd.co.uk/reuse-and-recycling/the-three-rs-the-difference-between-recycling-reusing/#
    18. Fast Company. Did a Slave Make Your Sneakers? The Answer Is: Probably. https://www.fastcompany.com/90279693/did-a-slave-make-your-sneakers-the-answer-is-probably 
    19. Discourse Magazine. The China Challenge: The Stain of Forced Labor on Nike Shoes. https://www.discoursemagazine.com/economics/2022/01/05/the-china-challenge-the-stain-of-forced-labor-on-nike-shoes/ 
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