Sustainable Sneakers : Trends, Brands' Strategies And Latest Models

Ever wondered what the most sustainable sneakers are? In an era where eco-conscious choices matter more than ever, brands are ramping up their environmental efforts to meet climate mitigation targets. Join us as we explore what the biggest shoe brands have been doing to prioritize sustainability.

Table of Contents

Introduction

What are the most sustainable sneakers?

If you’re young and outgoing, chances are you want to exude a sense of coolness among your peers. However, the definition of ‘cool’ has evolved, with a growing emphasis on ethical consumerism and environmental consciousness in our purchasing decisions.

While this shift may not apply to everyone, millennials and Gen Zers, particularly the latter, are increasingly concerned about the sustainability agendas of major brands like New Balance, Nike, and Adidas.

The numbers they tout regarding sustainability initiatives serve both as a marketing strategy and an attempt at transparency.

However, while being environmentally conscious is commendable, it's essential to consider the entire carbon footprint associated with manufacturing sustainable sneakers, including factors like transportation.

Nevertheless, the desire to make a positive impact through mindful purchasing decisions is a step in the right direction.

In this article, we delve into the social significance of sustainable sneakers and their environmental impact, followed by a curated list of main brand recommendations that align with both style and sustainability. Read along!

Our Pick ⭐ Allbirds Men’s Wool Runner (Made With ZQ Merino wool)

Our Pick ⭐ Allbirds Men’s Wool Runner (Made With ZQ Merino wool)

Allbirds Men's Wool Runners

Specs

Carbon Footprint - 8.03 kg CO2e (carbon-neutral practices certified by Climate Neutral).
Sustainable Materials - Featuring ZQ-certified Merino wool upper, SweetFoam® midsole made from sugarcane-based green EVA, recycled plastic bottle laces, and castor bean oil-based insole foam.
Comfort and Versatility - Superfine ZQ Merino wool provides warmth, coziness, and natural thermoregulation, making them perfect for walking, cooler weather, and everyday wear.
Origin - Made in South Korea, reflecting Allbirds' commitment to transparency and sustainable operations.
Color - Hazy Indigo (Natural White Sole), Natural Black (Natural Black Sole), Natural Black (Natural White Sole) with more options available on the Allbirds official website

Product Description

The Wool Runner Mizzles earn our top spot for their exceptional sustainability and comfort.
Allbirds' commitment to reducing carbon emissions and their use of eco-friendly materials like ZQ-certified Merino wool make these sneakers a standout choice.
Not only are they environmentally responsible, but they also offer unmatched comfort, versatility, and style.
With the Wool Runner Mizzles, you're making a conscious choice for both fashion and sustainability.

1. Sustainable Sneakers: How Style Meets Environmental Consciousness

Sneaker culture has always appreciated the meticulous craftsmanship that goes into each pair. This appreciation aligns with the notion of consciousness, including environmental concerns.

As we step into the global sneaker market, we are greeted by its staggering magnitude, valued at a whopping $79 billion in 2020.

Projections paint a picture of exponential growth, with estimations soaring to $120 billion by 2026. Yet, amidst this colossal industry, a sobering reality surfaces—the environmental toll of sneaker production.

Annually, a staggering 23 billion pairs of shoes are manufactured, with an alarming 22 billion pairs meeting their end in landfills.

This wasteful narrative underscores an urgent need for sustainable practices within the industry.

Sustainable Fashion Brands: Leveling Up Strategies

Thankfully, major brands like Nike, Allbirds, Adidas and New Balance are stepping up to the plate, spearheading sustainability initiatives to combat environmental degradation.

Nike, with its ambitious vision of achieving "zero waste, period", embraces recycled materials and smarter production methods.

Similarly, Adidas sets its sights on replacing virgin polyester with recycled alternatives by 2024, aiming to infuse sustainability into nine out of ten clothing items by 2025.

However, amidst these commendable efforts, the shadow of greenwashing looms large.

Instances where brands make exaggerated or misleading claims about their environmental practices continue to cast doubt on the industry's commitment to sustainability.

For example, Adidas faced scrutiny over its ocean plastic range, with only a fraction of the shoe's upper portion being made from recycled plastic.

Consumer behavior within the sneaker culture plays a pivotal role in shaping market trends, driven by celebrity collaborations and the allure of limited edition releases.

U.S. Sustainable Footwear Market 2023-2030

The U.S. Sustainable Footwear Market Is Projected To Grow by 5.9% over the 2023-2030 period

Footwear emerges as the streetwear product of choice for 62% of respondents in a survey, underscoring the influence of this culture on consumer preferences.

The promotion of ‘repair, reuse, and recycle’ is often put forth.

Here’s an article on where to recycle shoes.

These initiatives are crucial for breathing new life into old shoes, steering them away from landfills and towards a circular economy within the sneaker industry.

Eco Sneakers: Embracing ethical consumerism

As we move towards ethical consumerism, we are reminded of the responsibility that lies in our purchasing decisions.

Shoppers Sustainability

Gen Z is the generation that considers sustainability the most

As consumers, making informed choices and supporting brands that prioritize sustainability can drive positive change and contribute to a more environmentally conscious future for the fashion and footwear industry.

Beyond style and comfort, our sneakers carry the weight of environmental impact and ethical considerations.

As consumers, we wield the power to demand transparency and substantive action from brands, steering the industry towards a more sustainable future—one step at a time.

2. The Most Sustainable Shoe Brands: How Can Sneakers Be Sustainable?

The production of sustainable footwear represents just one facet of a broader agenda (including clothing) embraced by leading brands, signaling a commitment to heightened transparency regarding the carbon footprint of their products.

Yet, it transcends mere environmental considerations; it's equally about ethical manufacturing practices and the holistic approach to product creation.

When it comes to shoes, it is important to consider not only transportation but also the entire lifecycle of production.

Across the board, major players like New Balance, Nike, Adidas, and Allbirds share a common vision, albeit with nuanced distinctions.

Their collective commitment underscores a unified pursuit of sustainability, blending environmental stewardship with ethical production principles to shape a more conscientious future for the footwear industry.

New Balance Sustainability Agenda  

NB Green Leaf Standard

The upper part of the NB574 is composed of over 50% recycled materials.

New Balance's sustainability strategy aims to achieve key goals by 2030:

  • Environmentally Preferred Materials: Source 100% preferred leather and 50% recycled polyester by 2025 to reduce climate impact.
  • Renewable Electricity: Use 100% renewable electricity for owned operations by 2025.
  • Hazardous Chemicals Elimination: Eliminate hazardous chemicals from operations by 2025.
  • Zero Waste to Landfill: Achieve zero waste to landfill in footwear factories by 2025.
  • Emissions Reduction: Cut emissions in half by 2030, aligning with climate science targets.
  • Worker Well-being and Development: Invest in workforce training and education programs by 2025.
  • Transparency and Accountability: Publish targeted supply chain wage data by 2023 for fair compensation.

New Balance is committed to sustainability, focusing on environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and quality design for a more sustainable future.

New Balance’s Green Leaf Standard

New Balance's Green Leaf Standard, integrated into its popular 574 and Fresh Foam 1080v12 footwear lines, signifies a significant sustainability push. These models feature environmentally-preferred materials, including recycled polyester and preferred leather, aligning with the brand's goal of sourcing 50% recycled polyester and 100% preferred leather by 2025.

New Balance Women's 574 V2 Essential Sneaker

New Balance Women's 574 V2 Essential Sneaker

New Balance Women's 574 V2 Essential Sneaker

Specs

Sustainable Materials - Midsole foam uses approximately 3% bio-based content made from renewable sources to help reduce carbon footprint.
Comfort and Versatility - Vamp, collar and tongue mesh are 100% recycled polyester; Rubber outsole with 5% recycled rubber
Origin - Imported
Color - White, Grey with White

Product Description

Experience the timeless style and eco-conscious design of New Balance's 574 Green Leaf sneakers.
These iconic shoes feature a midsole foam with 3% bio-based content for reduced carbon footprint, while the vamp, collar, and tongue mesh are crafted from 100% recycled polyester.
With ENCAP midsole cushioning for all-day support and a rubber outsole containing 5% recycled rubber, these sneakers blend comfort with sustainability.
Available in extended width sizes, the 574 Green Leaf embodies New Balance's commitment to classic design and environmental responsibility.

The visible leaf icon on the website distinguishes Green Leaf Collection products, ensuring transparency for consumers.

New Balance 574 Shoe

The NB 574, New Balance's trademark sustainability shoe

With prices ranging from $65 to $160, these sustainable options are accessible to a wide audience, making eco-conscious choices practical and stylish.

NB574 Shoe Colors

In addition to its enhanced sustainability, the NB574 is available in a variety of colors.

Overall, New Balance's Green Leaf Collection reflects its commitment to responsible manufacturing and environmental stewardship without compromising on performance or aesthetics.

New Balance Sustainability Strategy

New Balance's sustainability strategy is aligned with the emerging trend among brands to prioritize eco-consciousness.

Allbirds’ Sustainability Strategy

Allbirds' sustainability strategy revolves around three key pillars:

  1. Reducing raw materials usage
  2. Sourcing 75% of materials sustainably
  3. Cutting carbon intensity by 25% by 2025.

They prioritize using natural and recycled materials to combat the negative environmental impacts of synthetic materials, which are derived from fossil fuels and contribute to climate change.

Allbirds Men’s Tree Dasher 2 Active Sneakers

Allbirds Men’s Tree Dasher 2 Active Sneakers

Allbirds Men’s Tree Dasher 2 Active Sneakers

Specs

Material - Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA)
Closure Type - Lace-Up
Sole Material - Rubber
Color - Natural Black or Blizzard (More options available on the official website)

Product Description

The Tree Dasher 2 by Allbirds epitomizes sustainability with its innovative use of eco-friendly materials.
From the FSC-certified TENCEL™ Lyocell upper to the SweetFoam® midsole made from sugarcane-based green EVA, every aspect of the shoe is designed with the environment in mind.
With natural rubber outsoles, bio-based nylon eyelets, and recycled plastic bottle laces, each component reflects Allbirds' commitment to responsible sourcing.
Comfortable, stylish, and eco-conscious, the Tree Dasher 2 is the perfect choice for those who prioritize sustainability in their footwear.

Allbirds innovates by creating alternatives like SweetFoam® and Plant Leather, as well as incorporating recycled synthetics to enhance durability where needed.

Options are great for both men and women such as the now almost trademark Allbirds Wool Runners Sneakers. The latter are great sustainable womens sneakers. 

Allbirds Women’s Wool Runners Sneakers

Allbirds Women’s Wool Runners Sneakers

Allbirds Women’s Wool Runners Sneakers

Specs

Material - Wool
Closure Type - Lace-Up
Sole Material - Rubber
Color - Natural Grey (Light Grey Sole), Savanna Night, True Black (Cream Sole)

Product Description

Allbirds' Women's Wool Runners stand as a testament to sustainability with their use of eco-conscious materials.
The ZQ certified Merino wool upper meets rigorous standards for animal welfare, environmental care, and social sustainability, ensuring comfort without compromise.
Paired with a SweetFoam® midsole crafted from sugarcane-based green EVA and recycled plastic bottle laces, these shoes exemplify responsible manufacturing.
Engineered for all-day comfort and versatility, they feature a cozy, ethically sourced Merino wool upper that regulates moisture and body temperature naturally.
With an emphasis on natural materials, including castor bean oil-based insole foam, Allbirds continues its commitment to environmental stewardship.
As a carbon neutral business certified by Climate Neutral, their dedication to reducing emissions is evident, making the Merino Wool Runners a sustainable choice for eco-conscious consumers.

Additionally, they focus on extending product lifetimes through lean manufacturing, circular economy initiatives, and designing for longevity.

Allbirds Sustainability Strategy

Allbirds' website aims to be as transparent as possible the manufacturing of its footwear

Through these efforts, Allbirds aims to minimize their carbon footprint, promote transparency, and lead the fashion industry towards more sustainable practices.

Allbirds is quite transparent in providing a comprehensive methodology on the carbon footprint of its products.

For brands' sustainability ratings, we highly recommend consulting 'Good On You'.

According to their assessment, while Allbirds has commendable policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its supply chain, it falls short in ensuring the payment of a living wage for its workers.

Nike’s Sustainability Strategy


When you use the Nike shop to shop for shoes, you’ll realise they have a sustainability policy, but also more specifically for shoes where they indicate the number of models that have at least 20% sustainable material.

In 2022,  Nike introduced two new pairs of shoes designed to be taken apart and recycled, marking a significant step towards circularity in product design. The Nike ISPA Link shoe, available in June, features interlocking modules that can be disassembled for recycling or donation at Nike stores.

Nike ISPA Link

Nike ISPA Link

Nike ISPA Link

Specs

Material - 100 percent recycled polyester Flyknit
Closure Type - Lace-Up
Sole Material - Rubber
Color - Black/Medium Olive/Enigma Stone

Product Description

Don't get puzzled. Zero glue, two pieces and a whole lot of comfort.
Constructed with interlocking components, the ISPA Link was designed for disassembly and with the intent to use as few materials as possible.
Spotlighting comfort, it places you directly on top of an ultrasoft foam midsole.
The engineered knit upper keeps it airy and lightweight, while the bootie-like fit gives your foot a hug with every step.
Get going, keep going—it's as easy as 1, 2.

The Nike ISPA Link Axis, which arrived in early 2023, builds upon this concept with a 100% recycled polyester upper and 100% recycled TPU tooling.

Nike Sustainable Shoes

While shopping online, Nike offers the option to filter shoes crafted with a minimum of 20% sustainable materials.

Nike emphasizes the need to scale these innovations to make a real impact and highlights the shift towards circularity in footwear design. Traditional shoe construction methods often involve glue, making disassembly for recycling challenging.

Nike Air Force 1 Crater Flyknit Next Nature Men's Shoes

Nike Air Force 1 Crater Flyknit Next Nature Men's Shoes

Nike ISPA Link

Specs

Material - Lightweight Flyknit material conforms to your foot for support.
Closure Type - Lace-Up
Sole Material - Rubber
Color - Black/Black - WHite-Pure Platinum

Product Description

Step into the spotlight with these b-ball originals, where hardwood comfort meets off-court flair.
These sneakers redefine timeless style with bold details and a featherweight design.
The Flyknit upper adds a fresh take on AF-1 style, feeling airy and intricately textured.
But it's not just about looks – they've been responsibly designed with recycled materials, including a Crater Foam midsole for stability and a unique speckled appearance.
Plus, with an encapsulated Air-Sole unit for superior cushioning and a rubber outsole with heritage-inspired hoops pivot circles and star design, you get traction and durability in every step. And here's the best part: they're made with at least 20% recycled content by weight, so you can feel good about your style choices. Join the Move to Zero journey and help protect the future of where we live and play.

By creating shoes that can be easily taken apart, Nike aims to reduce the carbon footprint of its products and open up new possibilities for their life cycle.

These initiatives align with Nike's broader commitment to embrace circular design principles outlined in its Circular Design Guide.

Addidas Sustainability Roadmap

Adidas is stepping up its sustainability game with a clear roadmap and ambitious targets for 2025 and beyond.

They're aiming for nine out of ten Adidas products to be sustainable by 2025, reducing greenhouse gas emissions per product by 15%, and achieving climate neutrality across their entire value chain by 2050.

Adidas Men's X_PLR Boost Sneaker

Adidas Men's X_PLR Boost Sneaker

Adidas Men's X_PLR Boost Sneaker

Specs

Outer Material - Synethic Upper (Mesh, Neoprene and Suede)
Closure Type - Lace-Up
Sole Material - Rubber
Color - Core Black / Grey Five / Cloud White (in addition to other color options)

Product Description

Step into sustainable style with our BOOST sneakers, where fashion meets eco-consciousness.
Engineered with a soft, recycled material-lined upper and a responsive BOOST midsole for unparalleled comfort, these kicks prioritize sustainability without sacrificing style.
With at least 50% recycled content in the upper, every step you take is a step towards reducing plastic waste.
You can truly embrace the future of footwear with our environmentally friendly and stylish sneakers!

But it's not just about the environment. Adidas is also committed to fair wages, gender equality, and ensuring a safe working environment throughout their supply chain. By 2025, they aim to have systems in place to identify and manage high-risk human rights issues in 100% of their value chain.

Adidas Men's Nmd_R1 Shoes

Adidas Men's Nmd_R1 Shoes

adidas Men's Nmd_R1 Shoes

Specs

Outer Material - Plastic, made in part with Parley Ocean Plastic yarn (at least 20% recycled materials)
Closure Type - Lace-Up
Sole Material - Rubber
Color - Black/Black/Gum and others (advertised as Black/Black/Gum. We also really like White/Blue/Red!)

Product Description

Embark on your urban adventures in style and sustainability with the adidas Originals Men's NMD_R1 Sneaker.
Drawing inspiration from an '80s runner, these progressive trainers feature a stretch knit upper and Boost cushioning for enduring comfort throughout the day.
Crafted with at least 20% recycled materials and a yarn blend including 50% recycled polyester and 50% Parley Ocean Plastic, these shoes not only offer style but also contribute to combating plastic pollution.
Providing a supportive, sock-like fit and boasting signature midsole plugs, they make a bold statement wherever you tread. Lace up, step out, and make a tangible impact with every stride.

To make this happen, Adidas is teaming up with suppliers, investing in innovative materials and technologies, and empowering their employees to become sustainability ambassadors.

Adidas Sustainability Strategy

Adidas offers a thorough evaluation of products incorporating recycled materials.

With a focus on both environmental and social impacts, Adidas is proving that sustainability isn't just a buzzword – it's the future of business.

For the environmentally savvy shopper, their website provides more detail

For eco-conscious consumers, their website offers detailed information on products crafted with recycled materials:

1. Primeblue: Utilizing recycled material sourced from Parley Ocean Plastic.

2. Primegreen: Featuring a range of high-performance recycled materials.

3. Vegan: Providing animal-free alternatives.

4. Better Cotton Initiative: Collaborating for more sustainable cotton farming practices.

5. More recycled materials: Prioritizing the elimination of virgin materials.

3. Environmentally Friendly Shoes: Other Factors

In life as in shopping, things aren't always what they seem.

When it comes to shoes, it is important to consider not only transportation but also the entire lifecycle of production.

This lifecycle includes "raw material extraction, processing, manufacturing, assembly, packaging production, transport, and ultimately, disposal" (Milà et al., 1998).

LCA of Footwear

Life Cycle Assessment of Footwear should be the primary resource for optimizing sustainability.

Closing Thoughts 💭

In conclusion, the discussion surrounding sustainable footwear with materials like recycled polyester underscores the growing importance of ethical consumerism and environmental consciousness in the fashion industry. The question has been posed from consumers to shoe brands, and that is already a significant step in the right direction.

Brands like Allbirds, New Balance, Nike and Adidas have made significant strides in adopting sustainable practices, from incorporating recycled materials into their products to reducing waste and minimizing their environmental impact.

However, there are still concerns and debates surrounding the sustainability of certain materials and manufacturing processes, emphasizing the need for continued efforts towards transparency, innovation, and accountability within the industry.

As consumers, making informed choices and supporting brands that prioritize sustainability can drive positive change and contribute to a more environmentally conscious future for the fashion and footwear industry. So, next time you purchase a shoe, fulfill your duty as a responsible citizen by seeking to understand the marketing process and the materials used in its manufacture!

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FAQs❓

1. What Are the Benefits of Using Recycled Materials in Shoes?

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The benefits of using recycled materials in shoes are multifaceted. Firstly, it helps eliminate waste and reduces the demand for virgin materials, contributing to the reduction of waste sent to landfills and incinerators while conserving natural resources and energy.
Additionally, recycling prevents pollution and creates job opportunities, leading to economic benefits.
Recycled footwear often utilizes natural materials, avoiding harmful chemicals and promoting non-toxicity, while also providing humanitarian benefits by assisting those who lack resources to purchase new shoes.
Furthermore, the use of recycled materials in shoe manufacturing reduces water consumption and employs humane methods, thus protecting animals and minimizing harm to living creatures.

2. Does Adidas Use Recycled Polyester?

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Yes, Adidas uses recycled polyester extensively in its products, with 96% of all polyester now being recycled across its entire product range.
The company is committed to further increasing its use of recycled polyester and aims to replace all virgin polyester with recycled polyester in its products by 2024, demonstrating its dedication to sustainability.

3. How Sustainable Are Nike Shoes?

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Nike has made significant strides in sustainability since 2008, implementing practices that reduce waste and minimize environmental impact.
For instance, the soles of their shoes are now composed of at least 25% recycled manufacturing waste, and their facilities are powered by 100% renewable energy.
Additionally, Nike has developed innovative materials like the Nike Flyknit, which produces 60% less waste compared to traditional footwear upper manufacturing.
These efforts showcase Nike's commitment to sustainability and reflect their ongoing efforts to reduce their ecological footprint.

4. Why Is Recycled Polyester Good for Shoes?

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Recycled polyester is beneficial for shoes because it utilizes existing plastic materials, reducing the need for new resources like coal and petroleum.
This conservation of resources leads to lower energy consumption and decreased environmental impact compared to virgin polyester production.
Additionally, using recycled polyester helps divert plastic waste from landfills and oceans, contributing to the reduction of pollution and promoting a more circular economy.
Overall, incorporating recycled polyester into shoes offers a greener alternative to traditional manufacturing methods.

5. What Are Recycled Sneakers?

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Recycled sneakers are footwear items that are created by repurposing various materials found in old or unused sneakers.
These materials, including rubber, fabric, foam, leather, and sometimes plastic bottles, are salvaged and processed to produce new shoe components.
For instance, recycled PET fibers, derived from plastic bottles, are used to create the upper part of the shoe, offering a sustainable alternative to traditional materials.
Additionally, other recycled materials such as nylon, EVA, and rubber may also be utilized in the production of recycled sneakers, contributing to environmental conservation efforts.
Furthermore, some shoe designs, like Nike's Space Hippie collection, incorporate scrap materials from factory floors and other recycled materials, highlighting innovative approaches to sustainable footwear production.

6. Is Recycled Polyester Good to Wear?

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Yes, recycled polyester is safe to wear.
Scientific research has shown that recycled polyester fabric is hypoallergenic, making it a suitable choice for individuals with sensitive skin or allergies to certain fibers.
Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that recycled polyester poses any harm to human health.
Therefore, wearing clothing made from recycled polyester can be considered a safe and environmentally conscious choice.

7. What Is the Purpose of Using Recycled Polyester?

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The purpose of using recycled polyester is to prevent non-biodegradable plastics from ending up in landfills, incinerators, or oceans.
By repurposing old plastic bottles into polyester material, recycled polyester helps divert waste from landfill and reduces the demand for virgin materials.
This not only conserves resources but also contributes to mitigating the environmental impact of plastic waste, which amounts to approximately 400 million tonnes globally each year.
Additionally, recycled polyester finds applications in various products such as synthetic fabrics, industrial fibers, yarns, and ropes, offering a sustainable alternative to traditional materials.

8. Is Recycled Polyester Good Quality?

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Recycled polyester offers almost identical properties to virgin polyester, including durability, lightweight feel, crease resistance, colorfastness, quick-drying capability, stain resistance, and eco-friendliness.
Despite being derived from recycled plastic, the fabric maintains its softness and resilience, dispelling the misconception that recycled polyester is stiff or uncomfortable.
Moreover, its production consumes significantly fewer resources, requiring 59% less energy compared to virgin polyester.
Therefore, choosing products made from recycled polyester not only ensures quality but also contributes to sustainable consumption practices.

9. What Is Made from Recycled Polyester?

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Recycled polyester, also known as RPET (Recycled polyethylene terephthalate), is a sustainable material made from recycled plastic bottles, textile waste, and old fishing nets.
It is commonly used in various products, including sportswear, loungewear, and outdoor garments.
The production process involves melting down existing plastic and re-spinning it into new polyester fiber, contributing to environmental conservation efforts by diverting plastic waste from landfills.

References 💡

  1. How Sustainable Is Recycled Polyester?
  2. Shoe Waste: How Consumption Became Culture
  3. Where & How To Recycle, Resell, or Repair Your Old Shoes
  4. Milà i Canals, L., Rieradevall, J., Domènech, X., & Fullana-i-Palmer, P. (1998). Application of life cycle assessment to footwear. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, July. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02977570"