Ethical Trainers

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 50 brands of trainers.

We also look at vegan trainers, the carbon footprint of trainers, recycling, fast footwear, forced labour, supply chains, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Puma, and give our best buy recommendations. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product 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:

  • Are they made of vegan and sustainable materials? Look for trainers that are vegan and those that use lower-impact materials – recycled plastic, organic cotton, and sustainable natural rubber.

  • Are they second hand? Buy used trainers where possible and look to buy from companies that are making an effort to elongate the lifetime of their products.

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

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying trainers:

  • Are they made of leather? Leather and non-organic cotton are best avoided due to their high environmental impacts.

  • Are they made of plastic? Many trainers are made up of a huge array of plastic parts. This makes repair and recycling even harder than it already is, and ensures a high carbon footprint from manufacturing. Stick to simpler models.

  • Do they respect workers' rights? Many of the most well-known brands continue to have inadequate supply chain management and are criticised for the treatment of workers in their supplier factories. Encourage better labour standards by steering clear of these companies.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Sports shoes have come a long way since the first rubber-soled plimsolls graced Victorian tennis courts.

From Converse’s Chuck Berry Allstars to Nike’s Air Jordans, sport and popular culture have been closely connected throughout the history of trainers. And for years now, trainers have been experiencing a steep rise in popularity, part of the broader ‘athleisure’ trend that has seen sportswear become increasingly common in all settings.

This guide to trainers covers running and general sport shoes as well as casual trainers. Particular attention is paid to the environmental impacts –  trainers are a high-impact product.

The guide will then take a look at what solutions companies are coming up with to address product ‘end-of-life’ issues. We also get an update from the Boycott Puma campaign. Finally, supply chain practice in the context of COVID-19 is put under the spotlight.

Image: Nike Trainers

The mass production of trainers

In 2017, the global trainer market was valued at over $62 billion, more than the entire national income of Costa Rica or Croatia. Unsurprisingly, it is the sportswear giants that dominate this sector – Nike’s worldwide footwear sales brought in $24 billion in 2019 and Adidas bagged a cool $15 billion.

Other leading brands, such as Asics, Puma and Under Armour, don’t come close to the figures of the ‘Big Two’.

Nike and Adidas retain this collective monopoly in the UK. It was estimated that in 2018, 11.7 million people bought either Adidas or Reebok shoes (both part of the Adidas group) and a further 11 million bought either Nike or Converse, another Nike-owned brand. A survey in 2019 revealed that British teenagers own, on average, six pairs of trainers each.

As with clothes, fashion trends push us to replace trainers more frequently than we would otherwise need to, and trainers also wear out quickly. They are hard to repair, reuse, and recycle. This all adds up to an enormous global trainer production level – this comes with an equally enormous environmental price tag not to mention workers' rights abuses.

Score table highlights

 

Supply Chain Management and Workers' Rights

Since the previous guide to trainers in 2016, a number of leading brands have improved their Supply Chain Management rating, which reflects better auditing practices and stronger supply chain policies. Skechers, Asics, New Balance, Salomon/Arc'Teryx (Amer Sports Oyj), Vans/Altra (VF Corporation), Under Armour, Mizuno and Brooks (Berkshire Hathaway) are all moving in the right direction.

However, there is still a long way to go. None of the above companies improved their score for Worker's Rights - Skechers and New Balance actually get worse ratings than last time out.

The only three large companies to score best in the Supply Chain Management category, VF Corporation, Under Armour and Brooks (Berkshire Hathaway) all receive worst ratings for Workers' Rights. Numerous instances of worker mistreatment at supplier factories means almost all big brands do poorly in this aspect of our rankings.

It seems that, like in the clothing sector, much more work is needed if trainer companies are to move beyond improving policy and actually stamp out poor working conditions for good.

Vegan trainers

Four companies were fully vegan – Ethletic (Fair Deal Trading), Eco Vegan Shoes, Vegetarian Shoes and Wills Vegan. All running shoes from Topo Athletic, Inov-8 and Xero Shoes were vegan, though the companies were not entirely vegan, using materials such as wool and leather in other products. Other companies that provided a good selection of vegan trainers included Po- Zu, Veja, Vivobarefoot, Gola, ASICS, Vans (VF Corp) and Skechers.
 

Political Activity and Anti-Social Finance

This sector had its fair share of unethical financial activity. Sportswear giants Brooks (Berkshire Hathaway), Under Armour Inc, Nike Inc., Adidas AG and VF Corporation all received worst ratings in both Political Activity (lobbying and political donations) and Anti-Social Finance (tax avoidance and excessive director pay).

Other notable offenders included Skechers USA Inc., whose highest paid executive officer received over $27 million dollars in 2018. Anta Sports, the ultimate parent company of brands Salomon and Arc’teryx, had its headquarters in China, but was registered in tax haven Cayman Islands and listed its "principle place of business" as Hong Kong, another tax haven.
 

Environmental Reporting

A clear trend, compared to the last review of trainers in 2016, is how some popular ethical brands have been downgraded in the Environmental Reporting category. Veja, Vivobarefoot and Inov-8 were all small companies (with an annual turnover of less than £10.2 million) last time out and got best or middle ratings for their efforts. This time, the companies have grown but their environmental reporting has not developed beyond thoughtful but unquantified discussions of sustainability issues.

Examples from the other end of the table that show improvements include VF Corporation, whose inclusion of two or more quantified, future-dated environmental reduction targets sees it get a middle rather than a worst rating. Going even further is Adidas, which demonstrates best practice by adding independent verification to the data in its environmental report.

Cotton

Will's Vegan used only recycled cotton and Ethletic, Po-zu and Veja only source organic and GM-free cotton. Ethletic’s cotton is Fairtrade and Veja’s all comes from Brazil and Peru. Eco Vegan Shoes and Allbirds did not appear to be using cotton. Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Puma and VF Corporation commit to avoiding Uzbek or Turkmen cotton. These companies still received worst ratings but did not lose marks in Workers’ Rights for their cotton sourcing.

The remaining companies had either an inadequate policy on cotton sourcing or no policy at all.

image: rubber tapper working on rubber tree sustainable solution ethical trainers guide
Natural rubber, produced from latex milk which is ‘tapped’ from rubber trees.

The environmental footprint of manufacturing trainers

Leather and synthetics

As described in our guide to ethical shoes, leather produces, on average, over double the greenhouse gas emissions as synthetic leather and also generates chemical pollution during the tanning process.
 

Cotton and polyester

Trainer uppers are often made of textiles. Cotton is known for its high water, GMO and pesticide usage and it has a moderately high carbon footprint due its heavy reliance upon fertilisers. It is also associated with forced labour in certain parts of the world (see our guide to shoes).

For every kilo of cotton fibre, around 28 kg of CO2e emissions are produced. Some estimates put it at more, and some as less than polyester. Polyester’s other main impact is, of course, plastic waste.

Sustainable alternatives – Producing cotton organically not only eliminates GMOs, but also reduces global warming potential by around 46%. Alternative fibres such as hemp, jute and flax require less water than cotton and have a lower carbon footprint owing to their decreased need for inputs. Many trainer companies are aiming to increase their use of recycled polyester, which comes with a 32% carbon reduction compared to virgin polyester.
 

Synthetic rubber and foam

These days, most rubber is synthetic and unless marketed as natural, you can assume your rubber soles originated in the petrochemical industry. The rise of sports shoes also made ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA foam), which provides cushioning in trainers, a common ingredient in modern footwear.

Sustainable alternatives – Natural rubber, produced from latex milk that is ‘tapped’ from rubber trees, is not necessarily a sustainable option. The vast majority is produced on plantations in Southeast Asia. Increasing demand for natural rubber, mostly for vehicle tyres, is predicted to drive deforestation in coming years.

Ethletic trainers address this issue by using FSC-certified rubber, and Veja work with traditional rubber tappers to source wild rubber from the Amazon.
 

Manufacturing footprint

A 2013 study from MIT estimated that the total life-cycle emissions of a pair of mostly synthetic trainers was equivalent to 14 kg of carbon dioxide. That’s roughly the same global warming impact as a 50-mile trip in an average petrol car and half a day’s worth of an average UK citizen’s carbon footprint.

What was particularly interesting is how manufacturing made up 68% of synthetic trainers’ carbon emissions. This means that, when extensive animal products like leather aren’t included, it is the complexity of production that contributes the most to trainers’ carbon cost. Hundreds of manufacturing and assembly steps means the energy used in production is very high.

There are substantial differences between models. According to Nike, its best performing trainer had a footprint equivalent to 4.3 kg of carbon dioxide, while the production of its Air Force 1 model emitted 16.8 kg per pair.

Solutions

For a huge consumer sector like shoes and trainers that uses so many synthetic materials, moving en masse to natural products is incredibly hard to achieve. It would also not really be desirable – mass-produced cotton, natural rubber and leather all come with considerable environmental downsides.

This trade-off can be circumvented by opting for sustainable materials where possible: organic cotton, recycled polyester, hemp and other woody plant fibres, and well-sourced rubber.

However, according to the MIT study, the extraction and processing of materials only makes up one-third of the life-cycle emissions of a pair of synthetic trainers.

So, for further carbon reductions, manufacturing processes must be altered. A major issue is that coal use for electricity generation is common in China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia – countries that, together, produce over 75% of the world’s footwear.

Energy demand in production, and thus carbon emissions, could also be reduced by making designs simpler and manufacturing easier and faster. The company Allbirds produces many of its trainers with a ‘one-piece’” upper, and big brands are beginning to move in this direction too. Nike’s ‘Flyknit’ model follows a similar idea which also cuts waste – the ‘Free Flyknit’ ends up with an impressively low carbon footprint of 5.4 kg per pair.

However, while a number of companies have either adopted, or begun work on, science-based carbon-reduction targets, and might claim notable carbon reductions for certain lines, there are no signs of them cancelling their more damaging products.

Image: material labels

 Vegan Trainers

If you want to avoid leather it is best to check for the leathermark.

However, animal-based glue can also make a trainer not suitable for vegans. To make sure you are avoiding animal glue, our list below ensures which trainers are vegan certified. 

100% vegan trainer companies:

Ethletic (Fair Deal Trading), Eco Vegan Shoes, Vegetarian Shoes and Wills Vegan - these companies sell only vegan products. All the footwear made by Ethletic, Eco Vegan and Wills Vegan is certified by either PETA or the Vegan Society.

Large range of vegan footwear:

Po-Zu, Veja and Vivobarefoot all offer a broad selection of vegan trainers.

Gola also have a vegan range which comes with Vegan Society certification.

The other large companies that offer vegan options, either with a separate vegan product range or a "vegan" search result filter, are ASICS, Vans (VF Corporation), Hoka ONE ONE (Deckers Outdoor Corporation), Skechers, Merrel and Saucony (both Wolverine World Wide Inc). However, these provide less information than the smaller companies.

The rest:

The majority of big companies had very few, or zero, offerings when it came to vegan trainers.

For some brands, such as Fila, it is possible to find one or two products listed as vegan among several hundred or even thousand of items on sale. But on the whole, the remaining companies provided no assurances that any of their products were suitable for vegans.

Everlasting Trainers and Recycling

Reportedly, about 90% of all shoes are sent to landfill. The plastic that makes up so much of modern trainers does not readily break down – an EVA midsole can take 1,000 years to do so.

Promises of circularity

Many brands speak eloquently about the need for circularity and a desire to ‘close the loop’. But most recycled materials don’t seem to be coming from former trainers. More likely is parts of the shoe being made from recycled PET from plastic bottles. The Nike Flyknit and Adidas Parley are examples of this. And on the other end, recycled trainers tend to go towards astro-turf, racetracks and basketball courts instead of back into the trainer factory.

There are rare instances of companies trying to overcome this recycling mismatch, but they aren’t really happening yet. The Adidas ‘Futurecraft Loop’ trainer – set for release in 2021 – is made entirely from thermoplastic polyurethane and is designed to be 100% recyclable into new trainers.

Repair

The complexity of modern trainers, with processes such as injection moulding, makes it hard if not impossible to repair them in any traditional sense.

La Sportiva – a mountain gear specialist that sells trail running shoes – does have authorised resolers in Burnley and London.

Vivobarefoot advertises a repair service for its ‘Handcut’ collection, though at the time of writing this collection contained no products on the company website.

However, the company states that it will soon extend a repair service to all its models.

Biodegradability

Biodegradability is difficult for a product type that is so heavily reliant on plastic components. Ethletic, which makes casual trainers  but not running trainers, uses only natural rubber and cotton to make its shoes, aside from lace tips and metal eyelets. However, even this company calls complete biodegradability a “goal”.

Reebok is experimenting with biodegradability using cotton and corn.

Durability

The elephant in the room, when considering the difficulties with the end of a trainers life, is why this end comes so quickly, even when the UK’s top factor when choosing between footwear retailers is quality.

Inov-8 stresses that making products that last is a key consideration – it uses graphene to improve the strength of its soles. Vivobarefoot also states that it is one of its major concerns. Its simpler, barefoot-style trainers contain less of the padding that gets worn out in most trainers. But most companies didn’t discuss product durability in any meaningful way.

Fast footwear – meet the retailers

As well as what you buy, it’s important to consider where you buy. According to one estimate, 50% of the final sale price of trainers is the retailer’s share.

In the UK, trainers are the most popular footwear style and according to the Footwear Retailing Market Report from Mintel (April 2019), the top three UK footwear retailers, by 2018 market share, were JD Sports, Clarks and Sports Direct.

Sports Direct is the most popular: 20% bought footwear from them in the last 12 months. JD Sports is attempting to corner even more of the market, but its takeover of competitor trainer retailer Footasylum was blocked in May 2020 by the UK’s competition watchdog, the CMA.

Frasers Group plc (owner of Sports Direct), Pentland Group (majority shareholder of JD Sports) and Clarks (see Shoes guide) are all rated for their footwear in this magazine – this gives a good indication of the ethics of these retailers. Other top footwear retailers listed in the Mintel report that we rank in this magazine for their footwear are:

The rest of the most popular retailers fall into three categories:

In our 2019 Fast Fashion issue, Amazon, Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Primark and John Lewis all scored under 5 in the Clothes Shops rankings table. M&S, Next, New Look scored 5/5.5 and ASOS scored 8. As the magazine highlighted, fast fashion is highly damaging for the environment and social welfare – these top footwear retailers are some of its leading proponents.

The above retailers also manufacture a large amount of own-brand footwear. Though not included in the footwear scores tables this time, their rankings as clothes shops means none of them scored highly enough to be sure of a recommendation in this guide.

When buying shoes and trainers, you could avoid these retailers by buying them online from our Best Buy and Recommended companies.

image: ethical trainers guide uighur muslims takwang factory china

Forced Uyghur Labour

A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in March 2020 estimated that over 80,000 Muslim minority Uyghurs from Xinjiang, China had been forced to work in factories that supply leading western brands including Nike.

Between 2017 and 2019, the Chinese government had been detaining Uyghurs in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang where, under the guise of combatting extremism, people are subject to indoctrination and torture. Now that the government claims the detainees have “graduated”, they are being put to work in factories both within and outside the Xinjiang region.

The ASPI report found 27 factories outside Xinjiang where at least 80,000 Uyghurs had been sent and forced to work. Workers are under constant surveillance and risk detention if they refuse to work.

One factory in particular in eastern China was a manufacturer of Nike footwear – Uyghurs faced barbed wire fences, watchtowers, and the inability to return home for holidays. Other companies in this guide, Adidas, Fila, Puma, Skechers and VF Corp, were also linked to factories with Uyghur labour. However, unlike with Nike, these were indirect, low-tier supply chain connections.

The factory that supplied Nike was also visited by the Washington Post who confirmed the prison-like conditions. Nike committed to reviewing its supply chains in light of the matter.

Sportswear giants dragging their feet on supply chain management

The footwear industry has a history of poor supply chain practices. Whilst some things have improved, the move in the last decade away from China, where wages are rising, towards cheaper countries such as Vietnam suggest that cost-cutting is still companies’ highest priority.

Leading trainer brands have codes of conduct and carry out some form of auditing on these factories. However, most codes of conduct comply only with the bare minimum stipulated by International Labour Organisation.

Reports, in 2017, of mass fainting at Cambodian factories supplying Nike, Asics, Puma and VF Corporation, further demonstrate the shocking worker conditions that can slip through the net of such companies’ supply chain management.

Responsible supply chains in the COVID-19 era

The companies reviewed for this guide almost all made some kind of statement on their websites regarding COVID-19.

However, notably lacking from the statements were assurances that the suppliers in less-developed nations were being cared for. Only New Balance and VF Corporation had clear statements about how they were working with suppliers during this time.

Considering the steep fall in demand many of these companies are currently experiencing, suppliers are in a precarious position. Evidence from Bangladesh suggests that manufacturers and their workers are suffering financially due to global brands cancelling or delaying payments.

According to Fiona Gooch, Senior Private Sector Policy Advisor at Traidcraft Exchange,

“By failing to honour their contracts, some of the UK’s biggest fashion brands have left thousands of vulnerable workers destitute at a time of global crisis.”

Traidcraft Exchange, as well as the Workers’ Rights Consortium, are tracking which companies have committed to honouring their orders. Adidas, Nike, Pentland Group, Under Armour and VF Corp have done so. UK companies Sports Direct (Frasers Group plc) and Clarks are both being monitored but as yet have not made any commitments. Keep your eyes on the following websites for the latest updates:

Company behind the brand

Puma was previously majority owned by Kering, the company group of the Pinault family which now specialises in luxury brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen. Puma left the Kering group in 2018 but both the Pinault Family and Kering retain large stakes in the company.

Puma is currently subject to a boycott call from Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) over its sponsorship of the Israel Football Association (IFA). Formerly sponsored by Adidas, the IFA includes teams in illegal settlements on Palestinian land and Puma’s Israel licensee, Delta Galil, also has branches in occupied territory.

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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