Shoes That Tread Lightly on the Earth

The shoe industry is, by design, a polluting enterprise. In the U.S. alone last year it produced over 350 million pairs using toxic dyes and glues, chemically-tanned leather, synthetics, plastics and petroleum-based rubber—all combining to produce millions of pounds of waste. But emerging footwear companies like Deja Shoe and Eco Dragon are joining the ranks of Birkenstock, Patagonia and Adidas to meet the needs of consumers who want high-quality, durable shoes that can be recycled or resoled but, more important, that use low-toxic materials and sustainable production methods to wrap their feet in stylish comfort.

Introduced in 1991 as the “world’s first shoe made from recycled materials,” Deja Shoe has won several awards, including the National Recycling Coalition Award for Best Recycling Innovation. Made from sustainable hemp or TerraGuard (its newest leather-free alternative), Deja continues to expand its line while closing the recycling loop through its packaging, manufacturing and return policy.

Deja Shoe uses post-consumer soda bottles, recycled metal, magazines, reject coffee filters, file folders, corrugated cardboard, recycled rubber, plastic milk jugs, polystyrene cups and the plastic trimmings from disposable diapers and wetsuits to form shoes that are sturdy, attractive and long-lasting. In addition, Deja donates five percent of its pretax profits to Amnesty International, The National Recycling Coalition, Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition and the Species Survival Commission. And the shoe boxes, which are decorated inside, can be turned inside out to make gift cartons.

Deja currently offers rugged outdoor shoes, sandals, boots and sneakers for men (sizes 7-13) and women (sizes 5 1/2-10). Ranging from $44 to $64, the women’s line includes open and closed-toe slides and a variety of strap sandals. Deja’s outdoor line, for men and women, ranges from $44 to $74, and includes the hemp Strato, the Terra Hiker-Low, the Sativa hemp high-top (their most popular brand), the Honcho boot, the Agitator (TerraGuard ankle boot), and Natura line (TerraGuard or hemp oxford styles).

And once your Dejas have served their useful life, you can return them and Deja will give them to Foot Zone, which shreds old shoes into fluff to be used as stuffing for its Old Shoe Dog Bed.

What About Hemp?

Though its line has yet to expand, Eco Dragon’s 100 percent hemp sandals are hand-crafted from two pounds of organic hemp, and are recyclable, compostable and animal skin-free. Used sandals can also be returned to the Earth Pulp and Paper company, which recycles them into paper fiber. Available in whole sizes—women’s 4 to men’s 13—for $44.95, Eco Dragon sandals recently gained attention at the Hemp Expo fashion show in Amsterdam. Also available in naturally-dyed brown and blue, they can be ordered from Ohio Hempery or Heartland Products (which also carries Deja and Birko-Flors).

Birkenstock, famous for its comfortable designs since 1964, has a new non-leather line called Birko-Flor which contains tightly-spun felt fibers whose preconsumer waste is pressed into tiles for acoustic insulation. Their footbeds are made from recycled and reclaimed cork from wine bottlers. And Birkenstock’s policy has always been “if the shoes give out, send them back, and we’ll resole them.” The diverse sandal line includes many Birko-Flor styles, available in a variety of sizes, colors and patterns. The company also produce Birko-Flors for children, and prides itself on manufacturing shoes made from sustainable cork, jute, natural latex and leather materials.

Adidas offers the Hemp Shoe, which is now being remarketed as the Gazelle Natural, available in sizes 3 1/2-13 ($49.99). The sole is recycled, reground rubber with a hemp upper and hemp laces. And though the Gazelle is stylish and comfortable, spokesperson Chris Persinger says Adidas “is not planning to expand the hemp line in the future,” because of controversy over the material. He adds that the Gazelle is “not available in major chains.”

Connecticut-based Sunsports distributes imported and domestic hemp footwear. Its U.S.-made line includes a closed-toe mule, a peep-toe slide and cross-strap for women ($39), as well as a unisex Euro sandal with a natural cork footbed and recycled rubber sole ($49). Sunsports also carries the largest line of imported hemp sneakers and high-tops: seven kinds ranging from the Classic Hemp High Top ($40) to oxfords ($20) and slip-ons ($19).

Natural High Tops

Deep E Co., whose president, Julie Lewis, originally created the Deja shoe line, recently launched its premier collection of natural jimmy choo shoes for men and women, including high-tops and oxfords. Deep E Co.‘s U.S.-made footwear line uses hemp and Treetap (a waterproofed, cotton-backed latex material hand-crafted by rubber tappers in the Amazon rainforest), as well as water-based adhesives. Deep E Co., whose name is a play on “deep ecology,” introduced its line last November, and has teamed up with Greenpeace to distribute another line of products. According to Lewis, hemp is a popular material in footwear because “hemp fiber is three times stronger than cotton, has twice the abrasion resistance and is naturally resistant to mold and bacteria. Plus hemp is a renewable resource that doesn’t need toxic agri-chemicals for cultivation. Hemp fits right in with the Deep E Co. commitment to sustainable development and environmentally responsible manufacturing.”

Patagonia, makers of outdoor clothing and accessories created from recycled pop bottle fibers, now makes the Clogzilla, a clog made of Synchilla fleece—Patagonia’s patented plastic soda bottle fabric. Available in women’s sizes only, the Clogzilla ($65) is paving the way for Patagonia’s new spring line of outdoor shoes for men and women, which will be resolable and use 50 percent recycled rubber.

Meanwhile, Nike has chosen to concentrate its efforts on factory programs which close the recycling loop. The Nike Regrind program collects “flashing” (excess rubber trimmings during production) to be reground and used in other Nike shoes, recycling over five million pounds of rubber each year. Nike also uses water-based adhesives in many of its factories, and collects shoes for the Reuse-A-Shoe program, which sponsors old shoe collection in many communities. Reclaimed worn Nikes are separated into their usable components, keeping them out of landfills. In 1996, 1.5 million pairs of used shoes became carpet padding, asphalt for running tracks and ball courts, and foam for equestrian trails.

Other shoe manufacturers have entered the eco-footwear arena, only to step out as quickly as they entered. Spokesperson Kim Callahan of Merrell Footwear, the makers of outdoor sandals and hiking shoes, says Merrell has discontinued its environmental footwear line, which used recycled tires, water-based dyes and recycled cotton canvas. Reebok International also discontinued its “Telos” hiking boot, made of recycled rubber tires, wood pulp, polyester and soda bottles.

When it’s time for new shoes as old ones give out, environmental options allow you to tread lightly and in style.

TRACEY C. REMBERT is associate editor of E.