Ask a sustainable sneakerhead how the category’s changed in the past five years, and they’ll tell you: “It’s like night and day,” as was the response of Daniel Navetta, founder of Futurevvorld, which is essentially the Hypebeast of Earth-friendlier streetwear. “It's evolved so much,” he adds. “Back then, if someone came up to me and started talking about regenerative materials on sneakers—or the idea of mushroom leather or biofabricated materials being a practical option for sneakers at scale—it would’ve felt equivalent to talking about space exploration or something.”
But flashforward to today and all of that innovation is not only very much a reality, it’s helping propel this once obscure section of the sneaker industry more into the mainstream than ever. At last projection (which was 2019), the global sustainable footwear market was valued at $7.5 billion, and it’s expected to grow by six percent annually over the next five years. That’s according to a recent market analysis report by Grand View Research. What’s more, 70 percent of the footwear manufacturers surveyed in a poll sponsored by the FDRA (Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America), which represents 95 percent of the U.S. footwear industry, cite sustainability as a top priority.
That includes major players like Nike (which holds a 62 percent share of the athletic footwear market, more than double that of its closest competitor, Adidas). In September 2019, Nike announced its new Move to Zero sustainability initiative, a pledge to be carbon-neutral and eliminate all production waste by 2025. Materials currently make up 70 percent of the brand’s carbon footprint, and Nike plans to expand the initiative in 2022 as it paces toward its ultimate goal. At the moment, reps for the brand say its footwear teams are working on increasing the usage of recycled material in what they call “B layers” (i.e. linings and laces) across all offerings.
Nike’s hardly the only one making strides in its sustainability initiatives, though. In its effort to end plastic waste, Adidas is switching its production over to using entirely recycled polyester by 2024. Meanwhile, our contacts at Reebok have confirmed that next year the brand will be increasing the ratio of plant-based materials in its [REE]GROW shoe line (already at 50 percent) in order to bring its ultimate goal of a sneaker that contains zero plastic that much closer.
"We're all racing against the clock, against climate change...That means being able to replace existing materials in a supply chain such that we are having an impact on the world." David Breslauer, co-founder of Bolt Threads
A big part of what’s propelling this progress is the evolution and iteration of regenerative and biofabricated materials—as in, threads and textiles made out of plants or cellular materials that the environment is capable of breaking down itself. “Nature is the perfect recycler,” says David Breslauer, PhD, a Well+Good Wellness Trends Advisor and chief scientific officer and co-founder of Bolt Threads, a company that develops and scales the use of next-gen renewable materials.
“We're all racing against the clock, against climate change,” Breslauer says. “That means being able to replace existing materials in a supply chain such that we are having an impact on the world. We are constantly iterating in order to meet the [manufacturer] specs we need to be as broadly utilizable as possible.”
To do this, his team’s been working closely with a consortium of brands like Adidas and Lululemon, as well as designers like Stella McCartney, to fine-tune their biofabrication of a leather alternative called Mylo, which is made out of mycelium, the thread-like vegetative part of fungus. As a result, next year Bolt Threads plans to make its mushroom “unleather” accessible on a global scale after teasing out pioneering product drops over the past year: The creation of the very first sneaker made of the material, an iteration of Adidas’s iconic Stan Smith tennis shoe, was announced back in April, and is scheduled to release by the end of this year. And on a decidedly non-sneaker (yet still fitness-related) front, last July, Lululemon announced that it’ll launch the only yoga mat made out of Mylo in early 2022.
“One of the most interesting outcomes of our development process is that we've been working with our partners very aggressively and getting a peek behind the curtain [by communicating directly with design teams and receiving feedback on their product tests], and that is really what enables us to build Mylo toward a durable, performance product,” Breslauer says.
What makes this step toward sustainability at scale so exciting is that up until now, sustainable sneakers felt like they were either only being released in limited quantities or they were primarily relegated to the lifestyle category, i.e. sneakers that are designed for brunch not bootcamps. But as brands who’ve been working closely with manufacturers behind the scenes to develop the exact types of materials they need to swap in for less eco-friendly options—without compromising quality—begin to roll out the fruits of those partnerships, we’re starting to see more and more sustainable performance sneakers hitting the market, and that will only continue into 2022 and beyond.
Harbingers of what’s to come? In September, Nike dropped a version of its elite running shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next Nature, which it calls “its most sustainably minded performance shoe to date.” Each pair is made of at least 70 percent recycled foam scraps, 50 percent recycled carbon fiber waste, and the flyknit upper was 3D-printed to reduce waste. Stella McCartney just co-created the first-ever vegan soccer cleat, the unisex Predator Freak, with pro footballer Paul Pogba, which Adidas releasedin October. And finally, Allbirds launched its first technical trail shoe, the Trail Runner SWT in November, the same month it announced its initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange.
For anyone who’s been watching this space for signs that real change is on the horizon, consider this permission to get excited. Because as eco-conscious sneaker companies scale their businesses, biodegradable materials become mass produced, and established brands like Nike and Adidas retool their current production models responsibly, it feels like sustainable sneakers haven’t just finally found their footing—they’re off to the races. It’s just important for everyone to remember: This is a marathon and not a sprint.
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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Nike, Reebok