The so-called “post-petroleum” shoe, Veja’s new sustainable running shoes, join the growing number of eco-friendly running trainers.
But wait, does that mean your current running shoes are made from petroleum? It’s highly likely the answer is yes.
In fact, sneakers have one of the heaviest carbon footprints of anything we wear. A study conducted by MIT found a typical pair of running shoes generates approximately 13.6 kilograms of CO2 emissions. “Unusually high,” comments Randolph Kirchain, one of the co-authors of the research, for a product that does not use electricity or require power-driving components. The bulk of emissions come from manufacturing, which is unsurprising considering the production processes and materials involved.
In fact, the footwear industry as a whole relies on petroleum as it’s essentially the source of plastic, with running shoes, in particular, dependent on the greasy, goopy stuff. In order for running shoes to do their job by stabilising the foot and soften the impact, the typical shoe ends up being made almost entirely from plastic and foam.
Although we know these materials are a calamity, the truth is that they are cheap and practical. Beyond the cool designs and endless colourways, running shoes have to have flexibility, strength, and memory; with plastic being the best and cheapest material to deliver on this.
“The typical running shoe is completely made of plastic,” Veja co-founder Sébastien Kopp explained to Vogue. “And what is plastic? Ninety-nine per cent petroleum.” Petroleum-derived plastics include polyester, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). “Our society’s dependence on plastic and oil is an ecological and social disaster,” he adds.
The difference here with Veja’s first ever performance running shoe, the Condor, is that it’s made from 53% natural or recycled materials including wild Amazonian rubber, jute, and banana oil. The sole is a combination of wild Amazonian rubber, rice waste and synthetic rubber, whereas the upper is made from a mesh created using plastic bottles picked up on the streets of Rio and Sao Paolo.
Whilst 53% of the shoe is made from natural and recycled materials, the remaining 47 percent is rubber and virgin plastic, specifically ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), much to the makers’ frustrations.
Image courtesy: Veja | Arthur Wollenweber
It’s a number that co-founder Sébastien Kopp says is an honest, if improvable, entry point for a running shoe made by an independent, self-funded company. Afterall, they are competing against the likes of Everlane and Allbirds, who have both received huge amounts of funding to develop trainers that are more fit for stylishly hitting the city pavements, while Adidas has been pumping millions into R&D projects around sustainable footwear.
Designed for long runs (but not serious marathons), the goal was to incorporate more bio-based ingredients while ensuring that the shoe could reliably pound the pavement for a couple of years without falling apart. They quickly realised that replacing virgin plastic was much easier in the shoe’s superficial components. A mesh upper made entirely from recycled plastic bottles comes in gray, white, neon yellow, and black. The brand’s signature V decal is constructed from 100 percent castor oil, while the lining on the inside of the shoe is made from organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles.
However, the main structure of the shoe was more difficult. The outsole, the inner sole and the midsole are all commonly made from plastic, and every company has its own tightly held recipe for its foam’s fit and feel.
Nevertheless, since the Condor is less performance-based than something like Adidas or Nike’s marathon-ready trainers, it meant Veja could experiment with some of the materials in its sole. According to Veja, their material scientists spent three years searching for a mix of ingredients that would create a strong outsole that wasn’t pure synthetic rubber. They landed on a mixture of 30 per cent wild rubber, 39 per cent synthetic rubber, and 31 per cent rice husk that makes the sole light but firm.
Image courtesy: Veja | Arthur Wollenweber
The midsole, too, is a combination of bio-based and synthetic materials. Fifty-five percent of the midsole is made from regular EVA—a modern, if environmentally destructive, marvel of material science known for its lightweight bounciness. For the other half, Veja created a bio-based foam made from banana oil (for flexibility), rice husk (for firmness), and sugarcane, the latter of which is quickly becoming a common replacement for petroleum-based materials like EVA. For the insole, Veja concocted a mixture of regular EVA, jute, wild rubber, recycled plastic bottles, and recycled EVA that comes from the scraps generated during production.
The end product is still a shoe made with plastic, but less so than before. This incremental approach is the most realistic—and honest—way to banish virgin plastic from the shoe production cycle, Kopp says. “The best way to prevent greenwashing is to talk about the present,” he says.
Thanks to Veja transparency, it’s possible to see areas like this where there are limitations in the availability of sustainable materials that perform well enough for these important pieces of sports equipment. Absorbing shock is vitally important in performance footwear and, whilst Veja have managed to reduce the quantity of EVA in their shoes it is still essential to their running optimisation.
EVA is not currently a commonly recyclable material.