In the ever-growing world of sustainable fashion, competition to create popular, wearable designs in the most sustainable, eco-friendly, and socially responsible way is as stiff as it gets. This is particularly true for the sustainable sneaker industry.

There are hundreds of shoe companies the world over that are taking the steps to minimize their carbon footprints but at the final buzzer there only a few that really have a shot of bringing the sustainability title home.

These shoe companies have breezed through the sweet sixteen to make up the most sustainable final four. Take a look at them below:

1. Indosole

For Indosole, “Soles With Soul” isn’t just a great tagline, it’s three little words that perfectly sum up all this sustainably-minded company has to offer on their self-proclaimed quest to save one million tires from landfill by turning them into everyday footwear. The inspiration behind Indosole’s aspirations came from a single pair of motorbike sandals discovered by founder Kyle Parsons on his first trip to Bali fifteen years ago.

It was on that trip that Parsons saw what resourcefulness at its finest could do. The way that people were putting their overabundance of used tires to use got him wondering… If this was a problem in Bali, what did the bigger used tire issue look like globally? The answer was disturbing, to say the least.

Every year over one billion waste tires end up in landfills globally—that’s the rough weight equivalent of 75,000 school buses. To put that into perspective, 75,000 school buses end parked end to end equals 640 miles—enough to cross the state of Ohio three times.

Needless to say, waste tires are a big problem. So how exactly is Indosole working to keep tires out of landfills? This is Indosole’s sustainability gameplan:

First Quarter: Planet’s Winning

Indosole is repurposing useful rubber from discarded tires to create incredibly durable and long-lasting soles for their sandals and shoes. They do this in five steps:

1.) Indosole has a tire-sourcing team that works to intercept tires in India before they are burnt, which releases toxic chemicals that are bad for the environment, or buried in landfills. These tires come from garages and tire brokers.

2.) According to Indosole, they “cut the tire sidewall by hand and then utilize various cutting devices to cut the tire into the shape of a sole.” This keeps the durability of the tire intact and is also what makes each sole unique.

3.) Once the sole is created, Indosole artisans use natural material to create the rest of the shoe. These materials can be woven, stitched, folded, or batiked from organic canvas, banana leaves, and grass.

4.) Once the sole and upper are complete they are combined to create the full shoe.

5.) The insole is inserted and you have one super sustainable—and comfortable—shoe!

Second Quarter: People are Winning

“Indosole represents a lifestyle of resourceful creation. Our footwear is crafted by artisans in Indonesia featuring repurposed and natural materials.”

There is a lot behind that simple statement. In honor of the Indonesian people that inspire their shoes, Indosole not only works diligently to repurpose waste tires, they also do it in a way that fully supports their workers. They do this by creating a professional, safe, and healthy environment where adult artisans and workers can thrive. They make sure that their facilities are open, sanitary spaces filled with music and laughter.  

In a 2018 interview with Let’s Imagine, Killian Page, CX & Operations Manager of IndoSole, was asked what was special about their manufacturing location. The answer was very telling of Indosole’s loyalty to the people that inspired its creation: “We manufacture in Java and Bali, Indonesia, and are headquartered in San Francisco, CA. Waste tires are available everywhere, but for now, as we grow, we prefer to stick with the people and the culture that created Indosole and have been with us since its inception.”

If you want to learn more about Kyle Parsons, be sure to watch his Ted Talk on redesigning consumer habits, and what it means to be a ‘Conscious Consumer’.

Third Quarter: Indosole is Winning

Indosole is a B Corporation (B Corp)

Indosole is operationally transparent, and just five years after they started they became a certified B Corporation. This means that they meet all of the rigorous standards of social and environmental performance required by the nonprofit B Lab. (Rubicon meets these same ESG requirements, and is also a Certified B Corp.)

Fourth Quarter: We are All Winning

Indosole has a collection of “good humans” who are fighting the good fight for our planet’s survival. They define these people as “An influencer who spreads positivity, lives responsibly, takes care of our natural environment, and inspires others to pursue their interests and passions to the fullest.” 

2. Allbirds

This San Francisco-based company loves their wool, and the planet, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to their shoes, Allbirds is anything but sheepish about sustainability. How could they be when they proudly claim Mother Nature as their muse!

Allbirds was created when former New Zealand soccer player, Tim Brown, decided he wanted to simplify the shoes he wore in counterpoint to the massive amount of sponsored sneakers he had worn over the years. His idea was simple, make shoes out of wool. Merino wool is warm, breathable, and comfortable—three of the best descriptors of great shoes.

Here’s how Allbirds is making a simple, unbranded, and comfortable shoe that is nurturing for your feet, and the earth you walk on:

The Layup: Materials are Everything

Allbirds has met all of the strict B Lab requirements to become a proudly Certified B Corp. They have done this with a serious dedication to all areas of their manufacturing process. Here are a few examples of Allbirds sustainable material practices:

  • Merino wool requires 60 percent less energy to produce than synthetic shoe materials.
  • They make their shoelaces out of plastic bottles.
  • They use castor bean oil to increase the natural content of their insoles.
  • According to Allbirds, their tree fiber—TENCEL™ Lyocell—is sourced from South African farms that minimize fertilizer and rely on rainfall, not irrigation. This uses 95 percent less water than traditional shoe materials.
  • The eyelets of their shoes are uniquely created with the help of microorganisms that consume plant sugars.

The Starting Lineup: Mother Nature Comes First

There is more to Allbirds than just great materials. They are revolutionizing the way shoes are packaged with a triple threat approach that uses 90 percent post-consumer recycled cardboard which serves as a shoebox, shopping bag, and mailer all in one.

Here are a few more ways Allbirds is doing the right thing for the planet:

  • They keep shoes from the landfill by distributing them to communities in need through their partnership with SOLES4SOULS®.
  • They don’t use just any Merino wool; they use ZQ-certified Merino wool, which indicates a strict standard of sustainable farming and animal care has been met.
  • They are Forest Stewardship Council® certified, meaning they source materials that meet strict standards to protect forests, and the animals and people who depend on them.

3. Veja

With firsthand knowledge of the amazing ways that fair trade can change the economy, Veja decided to revolutionize a product that everyone on the planet can use in a balanced way that would create a fairer exchange between consumers and producers. This is why they have meticulously rebuilt the sneaker.

According to Veja, it had to be the sneaker because they love them and “as a consumer product, it stood as a symbol for our generation… We were the ones wearing sneakers in the ’90s, when they became massively popular and went from sports fields to the streets.” That sparked Veja to create a sneaker that people can feel good about wearing, not just for themselves, but also for the planet.

Veja states that sneakers are “one of the most interesting products on an economic level because it concentrates the most advertising spendings… When you buy a pair of sneakers from a big brand, 70 % of its costs goes to advertising and communication […] only 30% goes to raw materials and production.” As a response to this flawed model, Veja is answering back by being more sustainable than the big brands, while also adhering to social responsibilities.

This is how they are playing defense to create a great offense:

The Double Team: Social Responsibility

In 2003, a visit to a Chinese factory opened Veja’s eyes to the production breakdown and lack of social accountability to employees. After spending three days with workers, things seemed above board until they saw the living quarters–thirty-two workers living in a 270 square foot room filled with five-level bunk beds.

In response, Veja made the decision to reinvent their business model in a way that would take care of the workers they couldn’t live without. This meant eliminating their advertising budget while producing their sneakers in a more expensive way in order to shift their spending to production, raw materials, and, most importantly, the people who actually make the sneakers.

Within this model they:

  • Work with a small agro-ecological cooperative of 35 Brazilian producers who provide their organic cotton.
  • Abide by Fair Trade principles—they pay for crops in advance, at a three-year contracted price.
  •  Manufacture their sneakers in Porto Alegre, an area with strong social rights, reasonable hours for workers, and unionization, in the south of Brazil.

The Box Out: The Earth Comes First

  • Veja’s sneakers are unlike most you will find on the market. This is because they work diligently to source all of their materials in an environmentally sound, socially responsible way. Every stage of production is focused on these ideals.
  • They protect the environment by making their leather from a vegetal process.
  • Make a shoe entirely from recycled water bottles. According to Veja, the bottles are picked up from the streets of Rio and Sao Paolo in Brazil.

The Three-Pointer: What You See is What You Get

Since the 2005 sale of their first sneaker, Veja has been focused on leaving the world a better place than they found it. This hasn’t changed along the way as they grew from ten employees to sixty, or now that they are selling their shoes in more than fifty countries.

4. Two Degrees

Thanks to Two Degrees, boat shoes are getting an eco-friendly overhaul without sacrificing their signature features of serious comfort and durability. The reason for this reinvention of an old classic is pretty basic—Two Degrees is motivated by its love of the environment.

When it comes to the word ‘sustainable,’ Two Degrees opts out. They prefer to use the term ‘product lifecycle.’ They say that, “This is the approach [we] use to understand the environmental cost of making a product at a holistic level—from raw materials to end of life solution. [We] don’t sensationalize or isolate. [We] carefully assess every step of the lifecycle and make improvements—sometimes game-changing, sometimes very small, but always important.”

Here are a few examples of how Two Degrees is making the world a better place to live.

The Full Court Press: Saving Endangered Habitats Globally

Would you be more inclined to wear a great pair of boat shoes if you knew that they were directly responsible for protecting 1,000 square feet of endangered habitat? If you buy a pair of Two Degrees then you can do just that, thanks to their Feet for Feet® business model and a partnership with 1% for the Planet and the World Land Trust.

According to Two Degrees Co-Founder Plum Turner, “We always knew we wanted to create a business that also gives back which is why we’re excited to be working with the World Land Trust to bring our Feet for Feet model to life. The big goal is to protect 25 million square feet [of endangered habitat] by 2020.

The Free Throw: Full Transparency and Impact Assessment

Two Degrees provides an impact assessment that covers all of their bases. Here is some of the information they share:

All of their leather is biodegradable. Leather tanning is done with a bioprocess that keeps the environment free from damaging heavy metals.

  • Their soles come from recycled rubber waste such as old car tires.
  • Their packaging is minimal (one sheet of cardboard makes one box), biodegradable, and plantable.
  • Their supply chain exists within a 100-mile radius to decrease their carbon footprint.
  • Two Degrees is big on transparency. If you can’t find the information you need, they invite you to contact them to learn more.

The Winning Shot: Taking Leather to a New Level

Two Degrees loves leather for its durability and natural breathability, and it takes its procurement very seriously. This is why they source their leather from the waste products of the meat industry.

Remember the tanning process we mentioned earlier? Two Degrees takes it a step further by creating hypoallergenic material that is safe even for babies to wear. This material also biodegrades in fifteen days, whereas they state that the majority of footwear leather tanned with Chromium can take more than fifty years to biodegrade.

Editor’s Note: References made to businesses/companies in this post are not meant to convey affiliation or endorsement of Rubicon by those companies in any way.

Want to go into overtime? Read about Rubicon’s partnership with the Atlanta Hawks.