8 Ethical + Sustainable Running Shoes—from a Marathoner

the Brooks Launch 6

As a marathoner and sustainability blogger, sustainable running shoes are a topic close to my heart. In this post, I’ll go over the current running shoe brands and models that are easier on the planet and made with fairer labor. 

This post contains affiliate links, meaning that I may earn a small commission on any purchases through those links, at no extra cost to you. 

What Makes a Running Shoe Sustainable?

True sustainability is holistic, and these are the main pillars I’m prioritizing in this list:

Materials: Most running shoes are made from synthetic materials, which don’t break down easily and can shed microplastics. Sustainable running shoes should be made from recycled or natural materials where possible.

Circularity: While you can use your worn running shoes for walking, going to the gym, gardening, and mowing the lawn, they’ll eventually fall apart completely and end up in a landfill. It’s ideal when brands have a recycling program for their shoes so the materials can be renewed.

Fair Labor: A product can only be sustainable and ethical if the workers making it are being treated fairly. All brands listed have a code of conduct that covers no forced labor, fair wages, and safe conditions (this is just the start—ideally, we also want to see specific information about wages, benefits, and conditions). Companies should trace their suppliers and audit them regularly to ensure fair labor conditions. 

Performance: A running shoe has to work well to be used. It doesn’t work well, it’s ultimately a waste of resources, which isn’t sustainable at all. Unfortunately, most sustainable running shoes don’t yet meet the performance of traditional shoes. So, if you run a lot of miles or are chasing PRs, you may want to still stick with your tried-and-true models (and maybe buy them lightly used).

8 Ethical + Sustainable Running Shoes

1. Lightly used mainstream shoes

The most sustainable running shoes are the ones that still have life in them and need a new home! While you don’t want to buy super used shoes since they won’t last long and may lead to injury, you can find new or nearly-new shoes on secondhand apps and sites. In fact, I’ve bought at least 5+ pairs of my favorite running shoe—the Brooks Launch—lightly used on eBay or Poshmark. 

Buying used also allows you to keep wearing the mainstream model that you already use and love. That way, you won’t have to experiment and potentially lose money and time on returns. And, you’ll likely be able to get a great deal—I usually pay $60, which is 40% off retail.

To find lightly used running shoes, check platforms like:

  • eBay
  • Poshmark (get $10 off your first purchase with my referral link)
  • Mercari (get $10 off your first purchase with my referral link)

Carefully check the images of the traction and the item description for the condition of the shoes. Avoid any shoes where the traction is noticeably worn, as those shoes are already past their prime.

2. Allbirds Tree Flyers ($160)

Side of the Allbirds Tree FLyers with an angular outsole

What makes them sustainable:

The upper of the Tree Flyers is made from FSC-certified eucalyptus trees, the insole from castor beans, the midsoles from sugarcane EVA and natural rubber, and the laces from recycled water bottles. The external heel counter is even made entirely from scraps from the midsole production process. 

The shoes are unfortunately not vegan because they have some wool padding near the heel to keep your foot secure, but Allbirds does use ZQ Merino wool, which is certified for humane practices. If you’re looking for vegan shoes, you may like the next model in this post instead.

The shoes are carbon-neutral, and before offsets, the carbon footprint of the shoes starts at 9.92 kg, which is still about 27% lower than the industry average.

Allbirds is a B Corp, which is a company-wide social responsibility certification that reviews a brand’s supply chain, materials, employee benefits, impact on local communities, and more. Allbirds shares their suppliers, has a code of conduct, and expects suppliers to undergo third-party audits, but it would be helpful to see more specific infomation about the wages they pay and the working conditions.

How they perform:

This is the first pair of sustainable running shoes I’ve tried (I’ve tried 3) that has felt comfortable enough to replace my Brooks Launch. The Tree Flyers feel responsive to me and offer just the right amount of cushioning. I wish they’d be just a tad bouncier and lighter, but they still do the trick.

The outsoles also have a good amount of rubber traction that keep the shoes from slipping on smoother surfaces. While the upper is like a sock and doesn’t have a tongue, there’s a heel cup that holds your foot steady. I actually like the fully-knit upper because it’s easily to slip the shoes on and off.

The Tree Flyers are also pretty sweet-looking, with the angular heel counter and outsole. I’m impressed by this development in sustainable running shoes and hope to see more shoes like the Tree Flyers! See my full Tree Flyers review for more info.

Shop the Allbirds Tree Flyers (this link will get you a free pair of socks with the purchase of a pair of shoes, while supplies last; just add both to your cart).

3. Hylo LIGHT ($135)

What makes them sustainable:

Hylo checks many boxes when it comes to sustainability. Their shoes are made from mostly natural, renewable materials like corn fiber, organic cotton, and algae bloom (and they’re vegan!). In fact, they even list the materials and composition on the insoles of the shoes.

The Hylo LIGHTs are carbon-neutral, but even before carbon offsets, the carbon footprint is 6.56kg CO2e, which is 52% less compared to the average running shoe.

They conduct third-party audits on their supplier in China, and it was found that 100% of workers are paid above the regional average, the lowest paid worker is paid 23% above the regional average, and working hours are 18% less than the regional average.

Once your Hylo shoes are too worn, you can also send them back to be recycled, and get $10 credit for a new pair of shoes. You can even send your non-Hylo sneakers for recycling and credit.

How they perform:

While I wanted to love Hylo so badly because of their holistic approach to sustainability, I personally didn’t like the way the shoes performed. They were much firmer and less bouncy/cushioned than my Brooks Launch, and the back of the heel digs into my ankle if I’m not wearing socks with a heel tab. Because the laces are made from organic cotton (which is great!), they aren’t stretchy, so you can’t slip the shoes on and off easily—you need to unlace and relace them to get them on.

The sneakers look stylish, are true-to-size, and are comfortable otherwise, so I’m perfectly happy to wear them on walks and to the gym, but I won’t be using them for running. If you like firmer and more minimal running shoes though, then these could work for you. I think the Hylo LIGHTs would be ideal for folks who do more gym cardio and lifting, and run some miles here and there. I could also see them working for people looking to transition to barefoot running shoes, which aren’t very bouncy either. 

While the shoes weren’t for me, I love the rest of what Hylo is doing, and they’re the most sustainable option on this list. I hope to see them come out with a more cushioned and bouncy model in the future. 

Shop the Hylo LIGHT. Get $20 off with this referral link.

4. Brooks Ghost 14 ($140)

Brooks Ghost 14
image by Brooks

What makes them sustainable:

Brooks is one of the most popular mainstream running brands, which aren’t usually known for being sustainable. That said, the Ghost 14 is Brooks’ first carbon-neutral shoe, with carbon offset projects including wind farms and forest management in the US. In terms of materials, most of the upper is made with at least 30% recycled content, and many of the shoe’s components are made from 100% recycled polyester.

Brooks has a code of conduct, traces their suppliers, and requires third-party audits, but with would be helpful to see more specific info on worker wages and conditions.

How they perform:

This is Brooks’ flagship shoe, and it currently is rated 4.2 stars out of nearly 1,600 reviews. The shoe is neutral and cushioned, making it a favorite for many runners. The Ghost 14 are a great option if you’re not ready to experiment yet with smaller brands and want a more traditional shoe.

To be completely honest, I’ve found that sustainable running shoes from smaller brands don’t yet match the performance of mainstream options, so I’m personally still inclined to keep buying lightly used Brooks (or new, if I can’t find them used).

Shop the Brooks Ghost 14.

5. Veja Condor 2 ($175)

Veja Condor 2
image by Veja

What makes them sustainable:

The Veja Condor 2s not only look like stylish streetwear; they’re also made from 57% bio-based or recycled materials such as recycled polyester, sugar cane, and natural rubber and latex. They contain no animal products and are vegan-friendly.

Veja is a B Corp based in France with suppliers mainly in South America. They trace their supply chain down to raw materials, buying from their rubber and cotton producers directly to ensure fair, market-decorrelated prices. Their finished product manufacturer is based in Brazil, and their workers are paid above the living wage for their 44 hour work weeks and 4 weeks of vacation. 

I especially like how Veja is also transparent about their shortcomings and areas they’re working to improve upon.

How they perform:

Veja says the shoes are “ideal for daily runs and recovery sessions.” Users found the midsole firmer than most traditional running shoes, however, making longer runs tougher on the legs. The general consenus around the Condor 2’s fit, comfort, and traction was positive, however. 

Shop the Veja Condor 2.

6. Allbirds Tree Dasher 2 ($135)

What makes them sustainable:

Like the Tree Flyers, the Tree Dashers are made from mostly natural or recycled materials. They’re again not vegan because they contain some wool at the heel for stability. 

These shoes are also carbon-neutral, and before offsets, the carbon footprint of the shoes starts at 10.7 kg, which is lower than the industry average.

The main difference between the Tree Dashers and Tree Flyers are the distances they were made for. Allbirds recommends the Tree Dashers for “short distance runs, walks, and light workouts,” while the Tree Flyers are for longer distances.

How they perform:

I tried the original Tree Dashers (pictured above). The new Tree Dasher 2s are improved, especially when it comes to the traction, as the original Tree Dashers had didn’t have much traction. Some people say that running in the Tree Dashers feels like running on clouds, but I actually found them less bouncy than my Brooks Launch. If you like shoes that are cushioned but not super bouncy, you may like these.

The upper is extremely flexible and feels almost like a sock, so these would be ideal for light road runs where you don’t need a ton of ankle support.

See my full review of the Tree Dashers for more info.

Shop the Allbirds Tree Dasher (this link will get you a free pair of socks with the purchase of a pair of shoes, while supplies last; just add both to your cart).

7. On Cloudneo ($30/month)

On Cloudneo
image by On

What makes them sustainable:

On is known for its distinct styles and high performance, and Cloudneo is their first fully recyclable running shoe—in fact, it’s probably the first fully recyclable running shoe by any mainstream brand.

The Cloudneo is made from bio-based polyamides and is made in Vietnam. On has a code of conduct and visits its suppliers several times per year. To ensure ethical practices, it would be great to see them release more details about their wages and working conditions.

The Cloudneo is sold on a subscription basis, which costs $30/month. You can send them back for a new pair every 6 months or 600km run (373 miles). If you run more than that, you can manually request a replacement earlier.

How they perform:

The shoes are not released yet, but are expected to be out by the end of Summer 2022. 

Sign up for the Cloudneo subscription.

8. Vivobarefoot ($140+)

Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III
image by Vivobarefoot

What makes them sustainable:

Vivobarefoot offers minimalistic running shoes made from some natural and recycled materials. You can choose from a variety of models for both trail and road running, and they also have a vegan collection.

While Vivobarefoot is a B Corp and has a code of conduct, it’s unclear if they audit their suppliers regularly. It’d be useful to get more information around their factories and working conditions.

How they perform:

Vivobarefoot is for runners who are accustomed to minimal shoes, which help you feel closer to the ground and can strengthen your leg and foot muscles. If you’ve been running in traditional shoes, you’ll want to transition slowly to “barefoot” shoes. Vivobarefoot does have an 100-day trial period, so you can take your shoes for a few spins before deciding if they’re right for you.

Shop Vivobarefoot.

Hopefully you find a pair of shoes that suits your needs! Don’t feel bad if you ultimately need to purchase from a mainstream brand. We live in a complicated world, and we can only do our best. And, it’s important to prioritize your health and well-being (being injured is not very sustainable for yourself).

Let us know in the comments if there are any other brands or models you’d add to the list!

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  1. I bought a pair of tencel sneakers by Lanius a few months ago. I don’t run, but joined a gym and wanted to have a decent pair of shoes. But I don’t know how they’d do for a runner.

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