What are sustainable and fair trade sneaker shoes? And why a rethink is important

Was sind nachhaltige und faire Sneaker Schuhe? Und warum ein Umdenken wichtig ist Ratgeber & Guides

Sustainability is on everyone's lips and we encounter the term in all areas of life these days. There are countless great innovative sustainable products, but unfortunately also many that on closer inspection are not sustainable at all or which are just greenwashing by the manufacturer.

So how does it compare with sustainable sneakers? What exactly are sustainable sneaker shoes and how do they differ from conventional sneakers? In this article, we want to give you some guidance, give you some background and show you what sustainable and fair sneakers are all about and why rethinking and making more conscious purchasing decisions makes sense when it comes to our sneaker buying.


According to the Duden dictionary, sustainability is defined as "an effect that lasts for a longer period of time", distinguished into 1) forest ry "forestry principle according to which no more wood may be felled than can grow back at any one time" and 2) ecology "principle according to which no more may be consumed than can grow back at any one time, regenerate, be made available again in the future".

In everyday usage we associate the term sustainability predominantly with longevity and environmental protection, i.e. dealing with existing resources in a way that preserves them in the long term and ensures their renewability and regenerability in a natural way. In principle, it is about using resources in such a way that the systems involved, such as living beings or ecosystems, can endure it in the long term without suffering damage. Projected to the fashion industry, this basically includes a) consuming less and b) consuming more consciously ("Slow Fashion" & "Sustainable Fashion") and c) using existing resources instead of using or producing new resources ("Circular Economy"and "Re-use").

The Conventional Footwear Industry:

So what is the reality in today's footwear industry? Even though we often tend to think of e-cars or even sustainable clothing when it comes to sustainability, when it comes to sneakers or even shoes we continue to mindlessly reach for the established, large and conventional manufacturers without giving much thought to the origin of the materials, the production or even the delivery. The topic of sustainability in shoes is rather 'under the radar' and is not yet as present in the media as it is in other areas. But there are all kinds of reasons to change this!

To put it in perspective, we have to consider the sheer size of the industry and the amount of shoes produced. The global footwear industry is a market worth billions, Europe alone has a market volume of 66.8 billion euros in 2019, this year alone the Germans spent about 13 billion euros on shoes (source: IFH Cologne).

Approximately 24.3 billion shoes are produced worldwide per year (source: Statista), according to estimates, between 25-30% of this is accounted for by the sneaker segment. This means that with around 6-7 billion sneakers produced worldwide every year, sneakers have definitely become an everyday shoe.

In the foreground of the conventional industry and the leading sneaker manufacturers, however, are often efficiencies through cheap production and cost savings, realization of high margins and an increase in shareholder values and the stock market values of the companies, rather than a sustainable economy, workers' rights or possible environmental damage. In this context, the discussion here about and, in some cases, the dragging out of an effective supply chain law speaks volumes.

90% of the world's produced shoes are made in Asia, half of them in China alone, with Vietnam, Indonesia and India accounting for other large shares. Even though this is not necessarily bad (there are many exemplary factories in Asia), the working conditions in these countries are often inhumane, overtime is not paid, child labour is used or the workers are exposed to unnecessary health and safety risks.

But that's not all. The footwear industry is the world's largest processor of leather, which has negative environmental consequences as the animals consume huge amounts of feed, pasture, water and fossil fuels. In addition, the majority of cowhide comes from Brazil, where large areas of rainforest are cleared for cattle farming.

However, there are several other problems associated with the use of cowhide. The necessary tanning of the animal skins consumes large quantities of water and also involves the parallel use of a large number of environmentally harmful chemicals. A well-known example is the tanning with chromium III, which is used in 85% of all tanning processes and can turn into highly toxic chromium VI if not used properly. The chemicals used not only pollute local rivers, lakes and groundwater, but also the air surrounding the factory, leading to respiratory illnesses, skin diseases and, in the worst cases, can also be carcinogenic, especially if workers come into direct contact with the substances. Tanneries are the fourth most polluting industry in the world. Moreover, animal skin and leather have long since ceased to be a 'waste product', an argument often used in the leather industry with a sustainable veneer. According to estimates by animal protection organisations, more than one billion animals lose their lives every year solely because of leather.

The textile industry is also a climate killer. It is considered the second dirtiest industry after petroleum, and the fashion industry also accounts for a total of 8-10% of global CO2 consumption, which is more than is produced by all air and sea travel combined. The footwear industry alone generated almost as much CO2 as all of Germany in 2019. Experts estimate that the textile industry causes 20 percent of global wastewater and is responsible for around 25 percent of all insecticides consumed and 10% of all pesticides used. Unnecessarily long transport routes in the value chain do their bit to exacerbate the problem.

Sustainable sneaker shoes:

But luckily there are now stylish, fair and sustainable alternatives to the conventional mainstream that not only score much better than the big boys in terms of their eco-balance, but are also in no way inferior to them in terms of styling and are even the better choice for the trendy and environmentally conscious. A selection of particularly stylish sustainable sneaker labels can be found in our blog "Sustainable & Fair Eco Sneakers - The 7 Coolest Sneaker Labels!.

So what are sustainable sneakers or sustainable shoes and how do they stand out from the crowd?

1) Materials:

Firstly, sustainable sneakers are made from new, innovative materials. These are often vegan alternatives to leather and are made from either natural or synthetic materials. For example, we carry sneakers made from corn waste, pineapple leaf fiber, cactus leather and organic cotton in the upper and bamboo, cork and natural rubber in the remaining components, such as the inner and outer soles. These materials are not only lightweight and breathable, but also robust and durable, and are almost indistinguishable from leather in terms of feel and function. For example, cactus leather is actually much softer and more comfortable than leather, and corn fiber is more resistant to rice. These natural materials are all renewable and sustainable and just plain exciting too!

When animal leather is used, it is important that the leather is produced in an environmentally friendly way, which is confirmed by a certificate from the Leather Working Group (LWG), for example. And, of course, the process of tanning and the absence of chemicals and heavy metals such as chromium, as well as wastewater treatment and recovery, are essential. Tanning with vegetable tanning agents ("vegetable tanning") such as oak bark, rhubarb roots, mimosa bark, quebracho wood or tara pods, mineral salts or even synthetic tanning agents are suitable here. But here again one has to take a closer look as e.g. also vegetable tanning is not completely free of criticism. The quebracho tree, for example, is now threatened with extinction in its native habitat, the Chaco forest in South America, and is on the Red List of the World Conservation Organization IUCN. And chemical tanning processes based on aluminium, zirconium salts or synthetic substances such as phenol can also have negative consequences for the environment and health.

Sneakers made of synthetic materials, or "artificial leather" in everyday parlance, are usually made of a textile fabric such as polyester and cotton that has been coated with PVC or polyurethane (PU). While PVC is often used for cheap products, contains carcinogenic softeners and is also not breathable, PU is one of the modern, breathable plastics, which is very popular as a synthetic material for sneakers and shoes. However, these can also release harmful substances and pollute the environment due to the microplastics produced with time and decay. In addition, the plastics are also based on the fossil fuel petroleum and are therefore not to be classified as sustainable.

It is therefore much better to use recycled textiles (e.g. recycled polyester) and recycled plastics, as this keeps the materials in the cycle and ideally they can be reused in a higher quality product in the process of "upcycling". Sneakers or sneaker elements made from P.E.T. bottles, for example, are harmless, are the most pure and are also very suitable for sneaker production. Also important is the fact whether the products themselves are recyclable or recyclable.

By the way, the OEKO-TEX 100 seal is the most widely used mark for testing hazardous chemicals and pollutants, which can provide you with some security and orientation.

2) Ecological production

In addition to the environmentally friendly materials and various tanning processes already mentioned, ecological and sustainable production is important. This includes minimizing material waste or reusing it, minimizing the ecological footprint through renewable energy, reducing water consumption and effective wastewater treatment and recovery.

3) Short transport distances:

In general, short transport distances of raw materials to the production site and from there to the customer are also important. Only about 3% of all sneakers produced worldwide are made in Europe, but for sustainable sneaker labels this is the majority. Popular production locations are Portugal and Spain, which, in addition to a long textile and shoe production history, also specialize in the field of sustainable fashion. Production abroad (China, Vietnam, etc.) can also make sense depending on the material origin and production capacities, but this should then be designed to be largely emission-neutral, e.g. through transport by rail or at least be offset through CO2 emissions trading or similar.

4) Fair working conditions:

Fair working conditions, fair payment, work safety, payment of overtime and regulated working hours are often the standard for sustainable and fair sneaker labels, in contrast to conventional manufacturers who often hide behind sub-suppliers and display a lack of transparency. Here, everyone should ask themselves if they want to support exploitative and profit-driven practices of big manufacturers or if they want to set a sign to rethink by consciously buying sustainable products from sustainable brands.

Various fair trade seals such as that of the Fair Wear Foundation, Fair Trade or even BSCI will give you good guidance in this area.

5) Voluntary Social Action:

Sustainable sneaker labels and brands are often driven by dedicated and motivated founders who want to make the world a better place and put overall well-being and sustainable business practices above profit. Social action, such as actively removing waste from the oceans, reforestation projects, tree donations, environmental and social projects, and voluntary profit contributions to a good cause are the rule rather than the exception here.


It wasn't that long ago that there were few sustainable sneaker labels and even fewer exciting sustainable sneaker models. A lot of it was more reminiscent of health food stores and "eco," without meaning that disrespectfully. But that has fundamentally changed in recent years. Today, there are a multitude of great, innovative sustainable sneaker brands that also set trends in terms of design, styling and workmanship. In principle, there is actually no longer any reason to forgo sustainability in sneaker shoes, as high fashion demands and sustainability are no longer at odds with each other.

In addition, it also gives consumers and buyers a good feeling to know that they have not only bought a stylish, fair and sustainable sneaker, but have thereby also directly participated in improving the environment, animal welfare or social measures.

The only thing missing now is a greater awareness of sustainable sneaker labels and a change in people's thinking. This will take some time, but from our point of view the train has already left the station and the new generation of sneakers is unstoppable!

The Choice is Yours!

In our blog "Sustainable & Fair Sneakers - The Ultimate Guide & Eco Guide A-Z"you will find an orientation to the 15 best and most beautiful sustainable sneaker labels that are currently available. We will (have to) keep updating this list! 😊 )

Do you have any questions or suggestions? Feel free to contact us, we'd love to hear from you!!!

Copyright @Sneakers Unplugged


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