These days it feels like buying sustainable sneakers requires a master’s degree in environmental science. Did you want those in vegan leather or fruit leather? Chrome-free or vegetable-tanned? Prefer your outsoles made of recycled plastic, corn foam, or algae, perhaps? (Hell, why even buy sneaks, when you could rent them?) It can feel exhausting when all you want is a new pair of shoes.

But there’s a reason behind footwear’s sustainable makeover. With so many of us (rightly) freaking out about the climate crisis—and increasingly aware of fashion’s impact—designers are racing to improve their eco-credentials. That’s particularly true when it comes to shoes, because of their outsized environmental, well, footprint. According to a 2013 study by researchers at MIT university, the average pair of sneakers generates around 13kg of CO2 emissions (a stat made crazier when you consider that a pair of size 12 Converse weighs around 0.78kg.) By one estimate, sneaker manufacturing generates about 1.4 per cent of all global CO2 emissions. “In 2019, 66.6 million pairs of shoes were being manufactured every single day,” says Tansy Hoskins, author of Footwork: What Your Shoes Are Doing to the World. “Which adds up to a total of 24.3 billion pairs every year. When you make anything at that scale, it’s going to have a huge environmental impact.”

Unlike, say, your favorite merino sweater, sneakers are complicated and material-intensive objects, not so much one piece as several—leathers, cottons, plastics, foams—stuck together, often with toxic glues. The result is that sneakers are some of the least environmentally-friendly products that we wear. “And at the waste end, experts estimate that 90 per cent of that 24.3 billion pairs are not being recycled, so [they’re] being burned or put into landfill,” says Hoskins.

Which is why sneaker brands have been noisily launching greener alternatives over the last few years. Shoes like Adidas’ “fully recyclable” Futurecraft.loop series, or Nike’s grungecore ISPA line, which features detachable soles. We’ve seen shoes made from factory scraps (Converse Renew), corn-based materials (Hylo) and even a fully biodegradable “regenerative sneaker” (the Degenerate by Unless Collective). Puma just announced the Re:Suede, its first biodegradable suede sneak. Meanwhile, materials have expanded from the once radical vegan leather to include a whole bowl’s worth of fruit and vegetable-based alternatives, from apple to grape, pineapple, banana, even cactus. You only need to look at the continuing rise of brands like Veja—whose vegan leather sneakers have become ubiquitous among climate-conscious suburbanites—to see why bigger brands are worried.

But amid all these competing claims, it can be hard to know which of these new products are actually better for the planet, versus which just sound better. “Vegan leather” and “fruit leathers” are just plastics—for a fact that led the Portuguese government to ban the term in 2022.

“The problem with most of the alternative leathers is that they still have some form of polyurethane [in],” says Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at Pangaia, an eco-clothing brand beloved by very famous guys like Harry Styles. “This is a coating that basically allows them to stay together as a solid, and have any level of durability.” (Pangaia is now moving from plant leathers to Mirum, a rubber-based material that has no plastic content.)

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