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The Monday Shakeout: Sustainable is Only Going to Work if It's Good
By Bach Pham

The Monday Shakeout is our opportunity to go a little outside of the box weekly with editorials from teh team. This week we get a little meta as we think about sustainability in the footwear industry.

It's hard to not dwell on the issue of sustainability and also be part of Doctors of Running. With 100+ shoes reviewed by the team annually, we're part of the unique problem that running footwear inherently creates when it comes to waste. Unlike most clothing, footwear has a very definitive end-of-life that for the most part is not salvageable. You blow through the outsole, you wear out the midsole and you call it quits. Compared to clothing, that when well-made can last years, shoes for high mileage runners in particular can have a shelf life of as little as a few weeks if you are a Matt Klein. The waste that a runner can make is significant and when compounded millions of times over with runners around the world, it is clear that the issues add up. This is not including all the waste that is involved in global production, from the build to the movement of footwear, or the fact that it takes a typical shoe decades to decompose.

It's Been Around

If you are one to keep an eye on these things, sustainability around 2019-2020 started becoming a focal point for the running shoe industry. Recycled uppers started becoming part of the the whole ecosystem, and soon sustainable midsoles suddenly knocked on the door and started forming a niche in the running shoe space. Some of the early ones I remember trying include Reebok's Floatride Grow and Asics Nimbus Lite. Nike introduced their Nature footwearlast year, creating a recycled ZoomX material that was introduced in their Alphafly Nature and Pegasus Turbo Nature. New brands like Zen Running tackled the issue head on, designing upfront with sustainability in mind and focusing on building all of their footwear from the ground up with as many bio-based ingredients as possible. There has been a lot of interesting innovation in a short amount of time that's laid the groundwork for the future.

The Problem So Far

With all that being said, there are a few problems with the sustainable attempts so far that have been on my mind and makes me concerned about the industry's directions so far:

  1. There's a lack of focus on designing around the material and overemphasis of trying to replicate something that's beloved. The trend for companies so far has been to take models that either exist and are popular or try to rekindle legacy lines. The Pegasus Turbo Nature for instance conjured the ultralight and versatile Turbo series, but delivered a shoe more in the vein of a traditional Pegasus. Material like recycled ZoomX is compelling, but really needs a design that best maximizes the midsole. The Pegasus Turbo series is one of the most beloved trainers in the past ten years, so it was no surprise the response was lukewarm when the Turbo Nature delivered something totally different from its predecessor. Mizuno's Wave Neo series is a good example of this, providing two interesting, thoughtful models built around their new technology. However they come with a problem that has been common with sustainable shoe attempts:
  2. Sustainable shoes so far have cost a lot. There is a series of elements that have to come into play for this all to work. The shoe has to perform, and it has to be able to be affordable so that consumers are willing to take the plunge. With high costs for sustainable shoes that don't meet the performance level of trainers in the market for lesser price, it goes back to the story that we're creating essentially a lot of waste in the face of a sustainable story. There have been a few exceptions like the Reebok Floatride Grow which came in marginally more than its regular counterpart, but the exceptions are otherwise few.
  3. If the shoes aren't good performers, we're just causing more waste. This is where the development of one-off projects has been disappointing to see when it doesn't perform. If we're being serious about both sustainable design and being environmentally friendly I would rather see companies wait and take longer to develop a shoe that is going to hit all the right notes and be a shoe that people want to pickup and run. If the reality is we're still one, two or more years away, instead of picking at pieces, let's just wait and not keep trying to develop this partial sustainable story as a marketing tool. Reputation has a big influence on runners, and if these sustainable attempts have a legacy of being uneven, it's a stigma that could make future shoes a harder sell as well.

It's Not all Murky

All this said, here is a lot of bold work being done that is noteworthy. Of the larger brands, Newton Running took an extra step and redesign not just one shoe, but their entire brand from top to bottom to be eco-friendly and highly bio-based from head to toe. Their Newton Gravity+ is a phenomenal shoe that is severely underrated, and their new technology which helps shoes biodegrade in landfills in a fraction of the time is compelling.

Asics took a quietly big step by making their Nimbus 25 model slightly bio-based. This is a big deal when a larger brand is willing to say we're just going to start going bio-based in their premier running shoe. The merger of sustainable design with everyday shoes and with quality performance is what is best going to push the movement forward so that sustainable design is as secondary as a heel counter when it comes to the creation of a shoe.


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*Using the link to purchase helps support Doctors of Running. Thanks so much!

Ultraspire Fitted Race Belt: The best way to carry your phone and goods on the run. No bounce and various sizes for waist. (Also recommend the Naked belt)
Saysky Running Gear: We were really taken aback by this Scandinavian company's ultra-thin, durable performance clothing
Skratch Recovery, Coffee Flavor: Mental and physical boost post run. Coffee flavor is excellent and goes great straight into a fresh brewed cup
goodr Sunglases: Run in style with goodr's super fun sunglasses.
Feetures Socks: Massively grippy socks that will make you feel more one with the shoe
Amphipod Hydraform Handheld Water Bottle: Perfect for long runs when you need hydration in the summer
Trigger Point Foam Roller: Help get those knots out post-run and feel better for tomorrow
Theragun Massager: This small version is great on the go for working tired legs
Ciele Hat: Our team's favorite running hat of choice!
Fractel Hats: Our team's wider fitting running hat of choice!


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