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Ethical Trainers

Guide to ethical and sustainable trainers; ratings for 44 brands of trainers, for their ethical and environmental record.

We also look at leather including use of kangaroo leather and plant based alternatives, vegan trainers, use of recycled plastic bottles, workers' rights, whether you can wear secondhand trainers, pitch Adidas and Nike in a head to head on ethics, and give our best buy recommendations. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a shopping guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying trainers:

  • Fewer trainers. If you have trainers with plenty of life still in them, avoid buying a new pair.

  • Secondhand. Buy used trainers where possible to avoid the environmental and social impacts associated with new trainer production.
     

  • Are they made of vegan and bio-based materials? Look for bio-based (made from plants) and vegan trainers where possible and those that use lower-impact materials such as organic cotton and sustainable natural rubber. These are better than plastic and materials which rely on fossil fuels.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying trainers:

  • Synthetic fossil fuel-based trainers. Many trainers are made up of a huge array of plastic parts. This makes repair and recycling even harder than it already is and relies on non-renewable fossil fuels. Stick to simpler models with bio-based materials. 

  • New leather trainers. Leather is best avoided due to its high environmental impacts and association with poor animal welfare.

  • Do they respect workers' rights? Many of the most well-known brands have been criticised for the treatment of workers in their supplier factories. Opt for brands that have higher labour standards.
     

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 100) Ratings Categories

Our Analysis

Trainers have become status symbols in popular culture as much as practical items, with some trainers selling for millions at prestigious auctions like rare artworks.

Over 20 billion shoes are produced annually worldwide with around 300m pairs of trainers alone thrown out every year, which are mostly made from problematic and complex combinations of materials that barely degrade.

Ultimately, we need fewer trainers in the world. But while some trainers are an "affordable luxury treat" and trainer company profits continue to rise, what does buying an ethical trainer look like?

What are ethical trainers?

To find ethical trainers we looked at the materials used to make trainers, including use of animal leather, synthetic materials and plant based vegan options. We also looked at workers' rights and supply chain issues, and whether you can recycle or repair your trainers. 

This guide features the biggest names in trainer footwear like Nike and Adidas, alongside secondhand retailers and small specialist vegan and vegetarian brands. 

Unsurprisingly, some brands score very badly, with over half the brands scoring under 25 points (out of 100). However, there are some high scoring ethical brands available.

Read on to find out where your favourite brand comes in our guide to ethical trainers. 

How ethical is Nike Inc and its empire?

Nike towers over its competitors, with its dominance visible everywhere from professional sports to streetwear. The overwhelming majority of the world's most expensive collector's item trainers are Nikes, largely thanks to its partnership with Michael Jordan.

Although Nike’s popularity is indisputable, what about its ethics? Nike has repeatedly faced criticism for the treatment of workers in its supply chain.

Nike, among others including Puma and M&S, has sourced from factories in India which pay below the legal minimum, where workers have said that they cannot feed their children and they sometimes only receive half of what they need to survive.

Nike has also been accused of sourcing from Chinese companies using or benefitting from Uyghur forced labour, although it says it no longer sources from Xinjiang.

In 2020, it failed to pay Cambodian workers $1.4m in compensation and damages after a factory suddenly closed during the COVID pandemic. Although Nike has said it didn’t source from the factory, labour groups have evidence to the contrary showing that the factory was producing for Nike. Labour and human rights NGOs have issued a joint statement to Nike in support of the workers. Nike has also refused to compensate workers who were denied legally owed pandemic furlough pay by a factory in Thailand employing mostly migrant workers.

Nike had also been part of a lawsuit dating back to 2018, with over 5,000 pages of records detailing a culture of sexism, bullying, and fear of speaking out for female employees. One female employee said that Nike was “a giant men’s sports team, where favouritism prevails and females couldn’t possibly play in the sandbox."

How ethical are Samba trainers?

Should you wish to 'shop the look' of the UK's current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and buy some Samba trainers, you might want to look up the ethics of Adidas who makes this brand. 

Adidas scores poorly in many of our ratings including climate, animals, workers' rights and tax conduct, and languishes near the bottom of the score table. 

Head to head: the best selling trainer brands 

How do two of the biggest selling brands of trainers, Adidas and Nike, compare in a head to head on ethics?  

Comparing Adidas and Nike on ethics
  Adidas Nike
Ethiscore Ethiscore 10/100  Ethiscore 20/100
Revenue £19.18bn revenue £42bn revenue 
Size Largest manufacturer of sportswear in Europe, second in the world Largest sportswear manufacturer in the world
Ownership Headquartered in Germany. After selling Reebok, it now only owns the Adidas brand Headquartered in the USA and owns brands Nike, Jordan, and Converse
Sustainable materials Over 95% of its cotton is responsibly sourced* 78% of its cotton is responsibly sourced 
Climate rating Scores 50/100 for Climate: accused of greenwashing by NGO Zero Waste France and does not address its main impacts Scores 100/100 for Climate: hasn’t been criticised for its climate related activities and has a detailed plan to address its impacts 
Workers' rights No action on living wages in its supply chain Living wages in some of its supply chain
Workers' rights Union busting at Myanmar factory supplying Adidas and wage theft at Cambodia factory Wage theft at India and Cambodia factories 

*Better Cotton, organic and recycled

What footwear materials are sustainable?

The main materials used in trainers are leather and suede, natural textiles (cotton, wool, and silk in sports trainers), synthetics (polyester, nylon, spandex), rubber, foam, and plastic.

We awarded points in our sustainable materials column for action on reducing impacts, such as:

  • designing trainers for recycling or repair
  • biodegradable uppers
  • plant-based options
  • organic or recycled cotton
  • use of recycled materials
  • taking steps to reduce the impacts of leather, polyurethane, and PVC.

Which brands of trainers score best for sustainable materials?

The top scorers (100/100) in this category were the secondhand brands of Depop, Oxfam, Preworn and Vinted

These were followed by:

  • Veja 90/100: all cotton used was organic or recycled, it made vegan shoes, has a repair scheme and its leather shoes were made from chrome-free leather.
  • Po-Zu 80/100: all cotton used was organic, it used recycled materials, including some leather and the majority of its materials were sustainable e.g. flax and pineapple leather.
  • SAYE 70/100: sustainable materials were core to its business: it did not use leather, it used plant-based leather all cotton used was organic.
  • Ethletic 70/100: sustainable materials were core to its business: did not use leather but used organic cotton, natural rubber and recycled PU.

Which trainer brands had poor ratings for sustainable materials?

Disappointingly, 40% of brands scored 0/100. These were: Altra, Arc'Teryx, ASDA George, Calvin Klein, Champion, Fila, Hoka, Karrimor, Lonsdale, Reebok, Sainsbury's TU, Salomon, Skechers, Slazenger, Tommy Hilfiger, Topo Athletic, Under Armour, and Vans.

Recycled components in trainers

We found that recycled polyester was the most popular material to come from a recycled source. 

Some brands used more recycled polyester than others. Of polyester used, the following brands used the following amounts of recycled polyester

On its website, Hoka lists how much of each polyester component per trainer was made from recycled polyester.

Other companies said that they use recycled polyester but didn’t say how much, such as Hanesbrands (Champion), PVH Corporation (Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), and Wolverine World Wide, Inc (Merrell and Saucony).

Less commonly used was recycled cotton

All of the cotton used in Ethletic, On Running, and Veja trainers is recycled or organic. Nike uses very small amounts of recycled cotton.

Recycled rubber is used for Fila insoles, one of Po-Zu soles, 70% of SAYE soles, and 10% of Vivobarefoot soles.
Pangaia uses recycled plastic tips for its laces as well as selling a trainer which is 100% recycled polyamide.

SAYE also uses recycled polyurethane from mattress waste, recycled PET yarn, and Seaqual® yarn from “fishing communities to transform post-consumer plastic and upcycled marine plastic into high-quality yarn.”
 

View of runners feet and legs as they warm up

Use of leather in trainers

Most of the companies we rated sold leather trainers. In 2023, Deckers alone used “approximately 45.77 million sq. ft. of leather and suede”. 

As well as animal rights and animal welfare issues associated with leather, the leather industry is highly polluting and a large source of materials-based emissions. We were looking for companies that were taking action to reduce these impacts. 

Chrome-free leather is processed without the use of chromium, heavy metals, and particular acids. It also means that water use is reduced and water is recyclable after use, which is not possible with chrome leather. Brands that use chrome-free leather include New Balance, Vagabond (not all of its collection), and Veja.

Vegetable-tanned leather uses tannins from trees or other organic fibres during processing, compared to animal-based oil. Veja was using vegetable-tanned leather up until 2015 but said that the costs were too high, so it’s looking to replace leather with bio-based materials. Vivobarefoot says that it aims to source chrome-free vegetable-tanned leather in future.

Adidas, Deckers Outdoor Corporation, New Balance, Nike, Vagabond, and Veja use leather that is Leather Working Group (LWG) certified, meaning it’s audited for environmental impact and traceability.

Deckers Outdoor Corporation (Hoka) also had a detailed policy for leather originating from the Brazilian Amazon and requirements for suppliers to provide documentation that the skins were not originating from cows in regions associated with deforestation. 

See our separate article on leather versus synthetics in footwear.

Are there any alternatives to leather?

A number of companies are using or developing plant-based innovations to find alternatives to fossil fuel and leather-based trainers:

  • SAYE uses bio-based vegan leather made from corn, apple, cactus, and mango
  • Pangaia uses grape leather
  • Veja is experimenting with rice waste, uses Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), a foam-like rubber from sugarcane, and has developed a vegan alternative to leather which is currently 54% bio-based
  • Will’s Vegan Shoes mostly uses bio-based vegan leather as well as majority bio-based coating oil
  • Hylo uses sugarcane and corn which make up around 40% of each trainer.
Image: material labels

Vegan Trainers

If you want to avoid leather it is best to check for the leather mark (see image of materials symbols used on footwear).

If you want to steer completely clear of all animal-based products – including in overlooked components like glue – then check if the product is certified vegan, rather than taking a company’s word for it. Also beware assuming that a trainer labelled ‘faux leather’ is wholly vegan.

Scores in our animals column reflect the use of animal products (mainly leather). 

Are there any fully vegan brands for trainers? 

We found some fully vegan footwear companies making trainers, along with brands who have vegan bio-based options, and brands offering vegan synthetic trainers. 

Brands of trainers and vegan options
Footwear type Brands
100% vegan companies Fair Deal Trading GmbH (Ethletic), Hylo Athletics (Hylo), Vegetarian Shoes, We Are Wado S.L (SAYE), Will’s Vegan Shoes.
Brands with vegan bio-based options

Ethletic, Pangaia, SAYE, Will’s Vegan Shoes, Vegetarian Shoes. 

Hylo, Po-Zu and Veja have a bio-based mix with synthetics.

Brands with vegan synthetic options Adidas, Allbirds, Gola, Hoka, Hylo, M&S, New Balance, Nike, Po-Zu, Reebok, Skechers, Under Armour, Vans, Veja, Vivobarefoot.

How eco friendly are trainers made out of recycled plastic bottles? 

The perception of plastic as a problem is now mainstream, and recycling is mostly seen as a win-win. Companies are talking more about how many bottles they are recycling and turning into garments. For example, Deckers Outdoor Corporation says that in 2023 it “utilised over 6.59 million lbs of rPET, which is the equivalent of over 176 million PET water bottles.”

An undercover Channel 4 investigation in the Maldives about recycled plastic used in trainer brands including Adidas and Nike found that the idea of ‘ocean plastic’ was incredibly misleading as companies were not fishing plastic out of the ocean or diverting it from the ocean but instead seemed to be collecting it directly from hotels. This incentivised hotels to continue to give plastic bottles to customers.

Turning plastic bottles into clothes and trainers also means that they’ll still end up in landfill after they’ve been used as clothes, and does nothing to address the issue of microplastics when they’re disposed of. It also means that they’re not being recycled as plastic bottles, so bottle makers need to make new bottles out of new plastic which requires more fossil fuels.

Although recycled may be better than virgin plastics in the short-term, go for natural fibres which biodegrade like cotton and bio-based leathers where possible. For more on synthetic fibres in the fashion industry, read the 2023 Synthetics Anonymous report by the Changing Markets Foundation

Are there any ethical football boots?

As a sport to both play in local groups and to watch, it doesn’t get much bigger than football. A lot of the brands in our guide sell football boots, with the same companies who dominate the trainers market dominating the football market (including advertising). That means Nike and Adidas.

Kangaroo leather in football boots

It might surprise some that kangaroo leather, also known as k-leather, is commonly used in football boots. The issue was made famous when David Beckham wore kangaroo leather shoes in the 2002 World Cup, and the topic is now back with NGOs led by Eurogroup for Animals putting pressure on Adidas to drop kangaroo leather in its trainers, following commitments in 2023 from Nike and Puma.

As an alternative, Nike is making its football boots from synthetic materials instead, which has invited criticism by some. 

When searching for ‘ethical football boots’ one brand comes up again and again: Sokita. It’s a relatively new brand with a variety of vegan options and claims that its football boots are made from 56% “eco-friendly” and “earth-friendly” materials. It uses recycled plastic, castor oil, and … kangaroo leather.

While there are some bio-based innovations happening in the trainers market as a whole, it looks like football boots aren’t keeping pace.

Football Rebooted

Football Rebooted is a national campaign where anyone can donate or claim used football boots from points across the UK. This is not only great for environmental reasons, but also means that football gear can be accessible for more people.

What are trainer brands doing about their climate impact?

Most of the carbon emissions of footwear companies come from their materials, with leather coming at the top due to the impacts of cattle farming and the processing of animal skin into a wearable material. Collective Fashion Justice estimates that a pair of shoes made from cow leather has a carbon impact of 40.7kg CO2e compared to 5.8kg CO2e for a pair of PU shoes.

Themes from companies’ sustainability reports included the use of renewable energy, reducing air freight, increasing recycled content, reducing plastic-based packaging, reducing water use, and some were researching alternative bio-based materials. Companies scored better for climate if they had a focus on their main impacts from their supply chain and products (rather than talking about trivial ones), and had not only targets but also detailed plans of action to achieve them.

The low scorers on our table either had very little action or were making misleading statements about their emissions.

For example, in 2022, NGO Zero Waste France filed a court complaint against Adidas and New Balance for greenwashing, with slogans such as “solution against plastic waste”. 

Will’s Vegan Shoes claims that "Everything we make and do is Carbon Neutral" but this appears to be based on offsetting, with no acknowledgement of the need for it to cut its primary emissions. Similarly, Allbirds is advertising "the world's first net zero carbon shoe" despite the company as a whole still having large emissions. 

Which trainer brands scored best for climate? 

Only 7 brands got top marks (100/100) in our climate rating category. These were:

Which brands scored worst for climate?

At the other end of the scale, two brands scored no points at all: Topo Athletic and ASDA George.

ASDA was one of three clothing brands investigated by the UK Competition and Markets Authority which was concerned about a range of issues including that "the statements and language used by the businesses are too broad and vague, and may create the impression that clothing collections – such as ‘George for Good’ – are more environmentally sustainable than they actually are." Following this investigation the clothing brands committed in May 2024 to make any green claims clear and accurate.

In additional ASDA was still using global warming HFCs which have a warming impact 2,088 times higher than CO2. in its new cooling units.

Is it possible to recycle trainers?

It’s not always clear what companies mean when they say that they ‘recycle’ trainers. The way that trainers are made in the first place and the combinations of materials makes them very hard to recycle. Multiple companies were talking about circular principles, but only a handful were doing meaningful things.

The average trainer contains 65 components (according to Hylo) and each component can be made up from a complex mix of materials. 

Drawing of a trainer labelled with different parts
Anatomy of a trainer: The average trainer contains 65 components (according to Hylo) and each component can be made up from a complex mix of materials. (C) Drawing by Louisa Gould for ECRA.

Hylo says its trainers are made up of around 16 materials, making it easier to break down for recycling.

Vivobarefoot sends some of its trainers to a footwear recycling company in the Netherlands called Fast Feet Grinded, which separates the materials to produce footwear or to sell on for other use. 

Some of Ethletic’s trainers are made largely from cotton and rubber and have very few components, which can be separated more easily. Ethletic says it’s in the process of creating a recycling system.

Will’s Vegan Shoes has a service where old pairs of trainers can be returned and used for new soles and uppers.

Thousand Fell (not ranked here) has made a fully recyclable trainer where every component is recyclable, however it only ships to the US and Canada.

Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.

How to extend the life of your trainers

You can now find cleaning products in the form of specialist trainer brushes, wipes, and sprays just for trainers. Cleaning tips found online also often involve selling you something. But are these necessary to keep your trainers in good shape?

People have been cleaning their shoes long before ‘trainer wipes’ came along. There is mixed opinion about putting trainers in a washing machine or not depending on what they’re made from, but less controversial are things including:

  • using an old toothbrush or cloth with soapy water to get to stains
  • appropriate storage in a dry place
  • brushing off dry dirt
  • cleaning your laces and soles regularly

More obvious things include not wearing light cotton trainers on muddy walks (we’ve all been there).

You might also want to try a gentle laundry bar. Ethique, featured in our guide to make up, sells solid laundry and stain remover bars that come in plastic-free packaging, are vegan, and are not tested on animals.

Can you repair trainers?

Companies that offer repair services: Hylo, Veja, and Vivobarefoot.

Can you wear secondhand trainers?

Many fungi and bacteria lurk on feet and in shoes, with some things being contagious. This might be a reason that secondhand trainers might feel intuitively less appealing than a secondhand jumper.

Spraying a small amount of disinfectant inside and letting your newly bought secondhand trainers have an air dry outside for a few days is generally a good idea, as is letting your trainers dry from sweaty feet in between uses. 

Lots of secondhand trainers for sale are still in good condition and often haven’t been worn much, so they should still have plenty of wear left in them.

Aerial view of someone cleaning trainers
Image by Veja

Which brands of trainers score best for workers' rights?

We look for policies to protect workers’ rights in company supply chains and also for evidence of action (or inaction).

Ethletic was the only brand to score top points (100/100) in the workers category. All its products were Fairtrade certified so there is a Fairtrade supply chain and it employs full-time workers in its factory rather than temporary or subcontracted workers. Its full-time employees in Pakistan are guaranteed a monthly wage which is 20% above the minimum wage in Pakistan.

All of Veja’s factories are located in Brazil, with its raw materials from Brazil and Peru. Veja calculated how much its trainers cost to produce compared to those made in China and concluded it cost five times more due to its fair trade and organic materials and principles. On its organic cotton it says, “At the beginning of the year, we agree on the price of cotton signing a contract valid for two years with the producers. That way, the producers know how much they will earn from the harvest before planting a single seed.”

Chinese giant Anta Sports (Arc'Teryx and Salomon) made headlines for publicly saying that it would keep sourcing its cotton from Xinjiang, despite its association with human rights violations and forced Uyghur labour. NBA legend Kyrie Irving became an executive of Anta Sports in 2023 and has been facing increasing public pressure in the face of Anta’s association with human rights abuses.

Which trainer brands score worst for workers? 

Ten brands of trainers in our guides scored no points at all: ASDA George, Depop, Gola, Hylo, Karrimor, Lonsdale, Reebok, Skechers, Slazenger, and Topo Athletic.

Price comparison of ethical and big brand trainers 

We looked at the price of trainers from a sample of brands at the top, in the middle and at the bottom of our score table. We compared the prices when buying new from their websites, versus buying secondhand from Preworn and eBay. Preworn had far fewer items across all of the brands compared to eBay which is why we included both platforms.

Prices vary a lot for secondhand trainers, so we took the first five items we found to make an average. The more ethical brands were much harder to find secondhand, due to producing far fewer trainers in general.

Average price for a selection of brands of trainers for new and secondhand, by A to Z of brand
Brand (A to Z) Cost (new) Cost (secondhand)
Calvin Klein £65 to £180 £11.75
Ethletic £85.40 to £111.05 £29
New Balance £55 to £260 £39
Nike £59.95 to £289.95 £43.80
Pangaia £100 £43
Puma £70 to £315 £14
Reebok £35 to £270 £10.80
SAYE £129 to £179 £40
Sketchers £60 to £140 £17.40
Under Armour £60 to £225 £14.80
Vans £52 to £145 £12.50
Veja £115 to £165 £33.40

Big pay for directors of trainers and sports brands

Our company ethos column includes directors’ pay. Not all of the companies we rated disclosed annual salaries, but the highest we came across were: 

We always highlight the pay cheques of company directors because of the massive inequality between them and the salaries of workers in their supply chains. 

This guide appears in the digital and print version of Ethical Consumer Magazine 208.

Company behind the brand

Reebok was founded in 1958 in Bolton, with the business originally called Mercury Sports Footwear. Reebok gained its brand name in 1960, the name of a small South African gazelle. It was bought by Authentic Brands Group LLC in 2022, having been under the ownership of Adidas before.

The largest shareholder of Authentic Brands Group is BlackRock, Inc., although we couldn’t find an exact percentage in any company documentation. Authentic Brands Group lists its other shareholders as including a large mix of private equity companies, including CVC Capital Partners, General Atlantic, HPS investment Partners, among a list of others. From its ownership alone, it’s clear that the company’s interest is in maximising profits. 

Authentic Brands Group owns a huge global portfolio of brands which extends even to people, including David Beckham, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali. Reebok had basically no information at all on its website and we found very little information about Reebok in the reporting of Authentic Brands Group.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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