Consumer demand for vegan sneakers is being answered and with gleaming celebrity endorsements. There’s nothing like a dash of Billie Eilish or Kanye West to stoke the fanfare in searches.
Per shopping insights platform Lyst’s September report, demand for recycled sneakers, such as algae-made Yeezy Foam RNNRs, grew 55 percent year-over-year. Meanwhile, Billie Eilish’s latest partnership with Air Jordan on a pair of vegan trainers sent searches for vegan sneakers spiking 67 percent.
Searches for biodegradable sneakers were up a remarkable 348 percent, too.
Gen Z icons like Jaden Smith and Billie Eilish are “hugely impactful,” according to Dominique Side, a Houston-based business owner of The Luxury Vegan, providing luxury concierge services for clients seeking to transition to vegan lifestyles. These stars are impactful “because [Gen Z] has yet to establish themselves and incorporate [veganism] into their lifestyles,” in Side’s opinion. “I feel like [the Jaden Smith collaboration] brought New Balance a whole new audience and rejuvenated their appeal.”
The collection she references is the “Jaden 574,” which was released last year. The shoe uppers are made from 73 percent surplus materials (from New Balance’s scraps), 9 percent recycled content and 18 percent virgin materials, finished off with New Balance’s signature EVA foam.
In recent years, athletic brands with major market share — among them Adidas, Nike, Reebok, New Balance — have shown repeat interest in animal-free leather, dropping celebrity collaborations and pouring innovation dollars into buzzy biotech companies.
Side mentioned the pioneers that piqued her interest. “I’ve been following Stella McCartney’s collab with Adidas, that was one of my first introductions into fashion and into wearable items that I would entertain on a daily basis,” she shared. “It’s not hugely inaccessible, [and it] is fashionable and comfortable. [The collection] offered something different than the brand as the whole.”
As she is often credited, Stella McCartney may have led the herd her way. More than 15 years ago, McCartney forged her long-term partnership with Adidas, which would pave the way for more vegan collaborations like the Parley Ultra Boost X trainers (made from ocean plastic) and the first vegan Stan Smiths (which debuted in September 2018).
Adidas has been defining its stance on next-gen materials since. The brand recently one-upped those efforts by redesigning the ’70s classic this April, tapping mycelium-based Mylo, a natural material innovation derived from mushrooms courtesy of biotech company Bolt Threads.
Around the same time that McCartney was hammering away on her Adidas collabs, Reebok pushed out its “Cotton + Corn” collection, which debuted in 2018. The collection was another early stroke of the mass market’s move into vegan sneakers being, at the time, the only vegan footwear product on the market with U.S. Department of Agriculture props (with 75 percent certified biobased content).
In other mass moves, Piñatex (a pineapple fiber used by hundreds of brands) appeared in Nike’s “Happy Pineapple” collection roll out, which started to trickle to the mass market in June. The editions span five styles: The Free Run Trail Premium; the Air Max 90; the Air Max 95; Air Force One, and the Air-Zoom Type. Perhaps symbolic for Piñatex’s gravitas in the industry, Nike stamped pineapple graphics on the shoes’ tongues.
“On one hand, sneakerheads want Jordans no matter what they’re made of….[In many instances], they did not know they were buying into this [vegan] trend, and it doesn’t matter if they did,” Side said. “If it’s a great product, then it doesn’t matter if it’s vegan or not. Why not let it be vegan? It’s still sold out.”
Side argued sneakerheads, and Jordans fans, are “contributing to the demand for the vegan product without them even knowing.”
One Company’s Circular Vision, An Industry’s Gain
Technology is a quiet competency in the realm of vegan sneakers as brands strive to be compostable (Native Shoes), biodegradable (LDN Biodegradable Sneaker), and even circular (Thousand Fell).
Thousand Fell is an almost fully circular shoe, meaning 70 to 80 percent of the shoe can be taken back and repurposed.
A four-year-old circular shoe brand with stockists like Madewell, Thousand Fell recently nabbed Phong Nguyen, the former cofounder of both Gilt Group and Luminary, as its chief technology officer. Nguyen will manage the company’s tech stack, including its proprietary reverse logistics platform that is already banking thousands of shoes from customers for recycling into new shoes. The company also has a recent $3 million in seed funding to devote to this tech buildout.
While this circular vision was ingrained from inception, partnerships forged last year with recycling company TerraCycle and package delivery firm UPS, formalized the means of realizing a closed-loop shoe.
To incentivize customers’ cooperation in parting with their $120 minimal kicks that come in a dozen colorways for the sake of circular fashion, Thousand Fell customers get a $20 credit deposited into their account once packed in the pre-paid label and scanned into the system by UPS. The process is mostly digitized, giving both Thousand Fell and customers the ability to track and trace adoption and recycling throughout the full supply chain.
“By driving a continued drumbeat of conversation, it keeps customers engaged. They send it back and they stay with Thousand Fell,” said cofounder Chloe Songer, on how transparency drives customer loyalty. “The more units we’re able to drive through, the more efficient our systems can be.”
Where any component parts can’t be reclaimed (because recycling means are lacking) at one of the company’s many partners that dot its supply chain in New Jersey, Texas or Brazil, it is downcycled or industrially composted.
“One of the biggest costs is how you collect product back one for one. Fifteen years ago, no one did that. The next 15 years are really going to be the reverse of that,” said Thousand Fell cofounder Stuart Ahlum. “This isn’t like a resale or rental platform where you’re grading sneakers that come back…What we’re trying to figure out is this equation: How does it make sense for retail businesses to do this and drive top-line revenue?”
A life cycle assessment is underway, according to the company, for detailing the environmental impact of its reverse supply chain.
Next year, Thousand Fell is targeting the rollout of its recycled shoe and from here on out, the company is only producing tech-enabled shoes (meaning shoes come with a handy scannable tag) for streamlined uptake.
The Downsides of New Demand
The mass appeal for vegan footwear can drive interest in the market, but it’s not just benefits all around, according to Joshua Katcher, designer of vegan footwear brand Brave GentleMan, and Alfredo Piferi, founder of the luxury vegan shoe label Piferi.
In April for Fairchild Media Group’s sustainability summit, the two rattled off the tough truths in vegan footwear. They cited the limitations of scaling biobased innovations and exclusivity agreements between major brands and biotech companies that ostracize material access for smaller labels.
“I think it’s encouraging that it’s becoming exciting for celebrities and big-name brands to do a vegan shoe collaboration. I think it shows that there’s an increasing demand for alternatives to leather,” Katcher said in a separate interview with WWD.
“One of the problems is that a lot of the material innovators are signing exclusivity deals with major brands and celebrities, making it very difficult for smaller companies that have a sustainability mission or an ethical fashion mission, by pushing them out of the equation,” he added. “I understand why they do that, a lot of these companies are start-ups, too…but it’s a bit of a paradox.”
Katcher is also on the board of directors for Collective Fashion Justice and is entrenched in fighting disinformation in the leather sector, all while clarifying the nuances in vegan materials.
Quick to cite figures on leather’s outsized impact, even against synthetic, non-animal leather, Katcher believes, “We should be reducing land usage, rewilding grazeland…and moving in a direction toward materials that don’t require those things.”