One of the first pair of sneakers I bought myself were these black Vans Old Skool sneakers, and four years later, I’m still wearing them. What stood out to me then was the reasonable price for such a trendy shoe, compared to the $100 price tag on the Air Force 1s that were also super trendy at the time. You can’t deny Vans’ typically high quality and durability, which indirectly makes it sustainable because you don’t have to buy a new pair very often which prevents tossed out shoes from building up in landfills. While the brand has taken a lot of good steps towards sustainability, as the percentages above show they can push further, and, while they acknowledge their plan to improve, they need more transparency in their plans for achieving that improvement. Under the VF corporation they seem in good hands to continue making progress, as the corporation has championed Vans’ participation in sustainable programs. It’s also worth noting that maintaining this fair price probably makes going more sustainable a challenge, as reaching higher goals like becoming carbon neutral may force Vans to charge more than the current $60. Overall, this is a more budget-friendly sneaker that you can trust to last, coming from a brand with a promising commitment to sustainability—you may just want to consider the Canvas Old Skool for a vegan option.
These sneakers are made of cotton canvas, rubber outsoles, and suede—so in terms of animal welfare, Vans falls short in its use of leather. There is an Old Skool version that’s vegan called the Canvas Old Skool which only comes in black and white, but vegan materials overall have yet to become the company’s norm. 82% of the leather is certified by the Leather Working Group (LWG) which certifies that leather-processing facilities are reducing their environmental footprint including water use, energy consumption, air pollution, and waste—Vans’ goal is to be 100% certified by 2018, but their site has yet to update if that goal was reached. In terms of the cotton used for the canvas, 48% is sourced from the BCI— Better Cotton Initiative which works to reduce the environmental impact of cotton production and support community and economic development in the areas where the cotton is produced. Vans claims to be committed to increasing this percentage in “2018 and beyond” but does not outline how and if that percentage has increased as of 2020.
Efforts are being made to improve packaging by replacing previous footwear boxes with ones that use less ink, use soy ink, and are 80% post-consumer recycled paper. However, other shoe brands like Everlane have been able to make eco-conscious shoe lines with packaging that is 100% recycled, so Vans has room to improve in packaging as well. A smart tactic they use though to prevent waste is reusing as many inbound shipping boxes as possible for outbound shipping, which saves over 120,000 pounds of cardboard a year.
I was more impressed with what Vans calls their “Green Sole Operations,” acknowledging the impact of their facilities on the environment and making progressive change to improve. Throughout their supply chain they use the Higg Index-- which is a tool that enables brands to accurately measure and score their products’ sustainability performance—to assess and plan areas of improvement. The headquarters, moved to Costa Mesa, California in 2017, is LEED Platinum certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) which requires a score of at least 80 to attain, measured by nine categories, from transportation to innovation and water efficiency. Over 4,000 solar panels provide more than 50% of the headquarter’s energy needs, preventing 440 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. The lighting, heating, and cooling technologies make the building 48% more efficient than the building code requirements. Over 50% of the wood used in construction is Forest Stewardship Certified, and recycling and composting programs are implemented with the intention of becoming a zero-waste facility.
The Distribution Center in Santa Fe Springs poses challenges due to its size, but Vans’ efforts to make positive change shows a dedication to sustainable practices. The LED implemented puts the facility in the top 25% of distribution centers worldwide for energy efficiency (rated by the Energy Star rating system). The facility notably became a zero waste to landfill facility in 2013, and over 11,000 pounds of cardboard are recycled every day—which to put it in perspective is enough to power the average U.S. home for more than a year. Outside the U.S., the distribution center in Mexico is LEED certified.
Supporting the youth is a major aspect of Vans’ mission which they also highlight as their motivation for change in creating a more sustainable future. Vans parent company is VF corporation, and through VF, they are a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an industry-wide group of over 100 leading apparel/footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, non profits, and NGOs engaged in the reducing environmental and social impacts of products around the world. VF also provides audits and demands compliance with strict standards across the supply chains of all brands. In terms of transparency, it was pretty easy to find extensive information on how sustainability is being implemented throughout the company—though the information doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2018. I was impressed by their dedication to continuous future improvement, though I felt myself asking what their plans are to go about doing that.
Vans engages in community impact with programs like Trashquatch started in 2010 which helps their skate and surf shop partners reduce their environmental footprint. Every summer, Vans provides recycled trash bags, reusable water bottles, and giveaways to encourage participation in their partner shops’ clean-ups at local beaches. As for employees, through their Sustainable Living Environments program, Vans collaborates with the supplier and third party organizations to confront the needs of workers even outside of the factory, funding projects like a mobile medical clinic in Cambodia. Employees themselves also lead sustainability working groups to confront issues like recycling, paper use, and energy reduction at the Costa Mesa HQ. The HQ also has 38 vehicle charging stations free for Vans employees, encouraging them to reduce air pollution.