Like all the items I review, I’m looking for products that can hold their own against their less earth-loving competitors because environmental impact is rarely a primary motivating purchasing decision. It’s possible with shoes that may be different. Women on average own 20 pairs of shoes; nevertheless they only keep about 5 in their regular rotation. One might be more inclined to buy an environmentally friendly pair of shoes, as it will not be their only pair. I will admit I have several pair of shoes that I might wear once a year (or realistically at least hope to wear at least once after kids, someday, maybe), but for that one time I want to wear them they’re perfect! The goal of Rothy’s is that they become one of those regularly rotating 5 pairs.
Fashion is subjective so it’s a little harder to evaluate these in such a way that tells you whether you should buy them or not. The factors I looked at for my specific pair were comfort, durability, and style.
ABOUT THE PRODUCT
Rothy’s product is flats for women. From their website, they state that their shoes “are made from recycled plastic water bottles. The bottles are hot washed, sterilized, then fused into fiber that is knit into yarn.” The insoles are “recycled plastic from water bottles and recyclable foam” and the soles are from “environmentally-friendly recycled carbon-free rubber.” When you’re done with the shoes you can donate them to their partner PLUSfoam via free shipping. I usually have a general idea that a product might be a good item to review before I dive in, but wow! I was seriously impressed after looking into these. And I’m resisting the urge to buy another pair – you know, just for research purposes.
They offer 3 styles with 20 different colors for the ballet flat, 24 colors for the point, and 7 colors for the loafer. They are available online and they just opened their first store in San Francisco. They offer free shipping and free returns.
Comfort: They were shockingly comfortable from the moment I put them on. The material feels soft on your feet and sometimes I feel like I’m wearing socks – which is good and bad. Good because, well that’s obvious. Bad because sometimes I feel my feet look fuzzier than I’m used to which can make them look less dressy. Socks because they’re super comfortable and also maybe because of the knitting process they have that knitted look. I wonder with the white and grey pairs if they might feel even more sock-like? Mine are bright red and I felt like a rockstar the first time I put them on. I also usually wear tennis shoes and athleisure wear so that might play a small part. Since getting my Rothy’s I have been wearing jeans more. I know, woah, what’s next – dresses? The big test though was wearing them to Disneyland. I took my kids there for their birthdays and wore my shoes the second day. I wore them from about 8am until 6pm. To be fair, there was some sitting time while we watched a parade and on a few slow-moving boat rides. The only issue I noted was my big toes on top of my nail started hurting as if they were a little too small around 2pm. I’ve noticed this about 4 different times I’ve worn them and can’t really figure out what’s going on – if my feet get hot and swell, or if the shoes get hot and shrink. That could happen given they’re plastic! But after sitting for about 30 minutes they were okay and I ended up wearing them all day, curling my toes in for a quick break now and then. But no blisters, no rubbing, no sore feet, no sore knees, no sore hips or anything. I was pretty impressed!
Durability: They’ve held up very well in the month that I’ve been wearing them. They still seem fairly new. Even the soles look like they’re holding up well.
Style: It turns out red is not the new black, but I tried to work them into my wardrobe almost every day while reviewing them. Some days were more successful than others. I wore these with various outfits and my favorite is to dress up jeans with that added pop of color. And interesting because back in my heel days that’s kind of what I would do as well. Nowadays I’m on trend with my I’m-on-my-way-to-workout wardrobe, which is officially called athleisure wear. I love that it’s a thing and not just me being prepared to sweat at any moment hauling my double stroller back into my car. Sadly, I didn’t like the Rothy’s shoes with my workout clothes – felt too dressy for me. Wearing workout pants with sneakers is acceptable but somehow wearing them with cute flats makes them feel more like I’m wearing leggings as pants, which doesn’t work for me.
Their shoes range from $125 to $165. Phew. This is a hard one to really evaluate – maybe because $125 is on the high side for shoes for me. I’m pretty sure I’ve only paid over $100 for running shoes. But there are certainly higher end brands that are way more than that. According to one article, they seem to be about the middle of the road in price. One magazine listed them as an answer to the burning question “What are the most comfortable flats under $200?” So there you have it. I’ll just duck out here. It’s really personal preference.
BUT DO THEY LOOK GOOD?
Yes, yes they do.
I would like it if they carried more sporty designs. I have a pair of (gasp!) Naturalizer flats I’ve had for over 10 years and they are super cute. A good alternative to tennis shoes – still casual but cute. I would like to see more designs like that, personally.
Flats are really on trend right now so you can’t go wrong. So are casual sneakers. Heels are on the decline. Net net is comfort is key. But Rothy’s thinks comfort shouldn’t mean you have to sacrifice the cute factor. (Not to say heels are going away, because they’re still awesome in their unpractical-ness).
They are washable! What? Yes. The key is to wash them in cold water because they can shrink in warm or hot water. I washed them in cold water and they did fine. They didn’t get quite as clean as I hoped but were still a bit cleaner and pretty neat you can wash them.
One question that is unanswered for me still is how would they react in hot weather. If they could shrink in the wash with hot water, could they shrink if they sat out in the sun? And on the flip side, if they could shrink could they also stretch? Mine haven’t so far.
WHAT PROBLEM ARE THEY HELPING TO SOLVE?
“The Ease of a Sneaker Meets the Polish of a Pump.” When evaluating the potential environmental benefits of a product I try to look at what it would replace. What polluting or less eco-friendly items would come off the market if you bought this product instead? As I mentioned before, we own quite a few shoes on average. So it’s safe to say that they won’t be replacing your entire shoe collection nor will they be replacing your sports shoes. For real sports like tennis, running, hiking, soccer, biking etc. But for all other casual, dress up and work purposes? That’s really open to personal taste.
There will be an estimated 970 million pairs of women’s shoes sold in 2018. With a caveat that covers all types of women’s shoes – not just the “Rothy’s replacements”. It’s expected to grow 2.6% each year. There are impacts on the front end (manufacturing) and the back-end (disposal). For the front end of the shoe life cycle, the environmental impact isn’t the number of shoes (ok ok wishful thinking), but the materials they are made from. Shoes are made of a variety of materials such as rubber and/or polyurethane (soles), foam such as EVA, synthetic materials and leather. The majority of women’s shoes are leather.* Therefore, in this particular area I’m going to focus on leather because the majority of women’s shoes are made from it and if you’re comparing Rothy’s to other comparable alternatives many of those will be made from leather. Especially in this price range. I am also focusing on the environmental impacts of leather, not the process of obtaining the leather or any ethical issues surrounding that.
More than 90% of leather produced globally is tanned with chromium III. The process can “accidentally” change it into chromium VI which can cause cancer and can also damage the respiratory system, kidneys, liver, skin and eyes. It can also cause reproductive damage and developmental harm. Tanneries are often located in poor countries with little regulations for the environment (wastewater, dumping) and worker protection. We have over 100 tanneries here in the U.S. and one would be surprised to learn that we too have wastewater concerns. The Erin Brockovich movie was about chromium IV levels in drinking water in Hinkley, California. There are also health concerns with inhaling particles but I’m focusing more on the non-tannery worker. Of course, in considering leather one might also consider the impact to the workforce.
Since chromium VI raises a public health concern, the EPA has established acceptable levels in our drinking water. Because chromium III and chromium VI can switch back and forth in various circumstances, today recommended levels in tap water are based on the total chromium levels and doesn’t separate out the one our body needs (chromium III) and the one that can kill us (chromium VI). As with many issues, California has set more stringent limits on chromium. Now if you read here about the public health goal they will state that drinking water above those levels doesn’t necessarily present a health risk. However, they also state that public health goals are “based on avoidance of potential carcinogenic effects”. In 2008, due to new concerns, the EPA started researching chromium VI and plans to release new recommendations once they’ve finished (supposed to be a 6 year plan). Cue crickets chirping. In 2014, California became the only state in the nation to set standards for chromium VI alone at 10 ppb, but not everyone is happy and in 2015 the state was sued and the court ruled in favor of industry to get rid of the chromium VI recommended levels and start over with their research, taking into account the economic feasibility. Currently in the works now and the report is due in May or June of this year. Stay tuned. I’ll update this page once I hear the results.
Meanwhile, EWG found levels above the health standards established in dozens of cities in 50 states. To read more check here and here. To find out if your tap water is safe check here. If you are concerned or have higher than desirable levels of chromium VI in your drinking water, the EWG site recommends a reverse osmosis filter to remove it. Bottled water is not necessarily any safer. Going back to leather tanneries, I was not able to find out what percentage of chromium VI is in our drinking water due to natural occurrences vs industries. And I think that is part of the problem with better regulations; there isn’t a lot of information about that widely available.
Chromium VI is bad for the workers, bad for people who drink water, and it is also potentially bad for allergy sufferers as well who wear shoes that contain chromium VI because it’s reported to cause dermatitis. To read more about chromium VI, click the link for a great Q&A by EWG. This is not even going into the greenhouse gases produced by cattle, which I will explore in a future product review. There are lots of sneaker options out there without leather. But many of our flats and heels are made from leather, so this is something to consider.
Transportation is another aspect of shoes to look at. Of all consumer products really. Shoes are often made in Southeast Asia and require the transport of raw materials, transportation of finished goods and transportation to stores. I wouldn’t even mention this as it seems like a common denominator across all sectors, so much so that there really isn’t an alternative. However, Rothy’s uses carbon credits to help offset the impact of their shipping and transportation. And so how awesome and responsible is that!?
However, the real magic about Rothy’s is not what material they doesn’t use, but what material they do use. As of this publication they have used 11,236,118 water bottles. That’s impressive!
Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. However, the U.S.’s recycling rate for plastic is only 23 percent, which means 38 billion water bottles – more than $1 billion worth of plastic – are wasted each year. – BanTheBottle.net
*Side note on my research: I recognize that many of these topics involve important and complex environmental issues and I don’t want to do a disservice by summarizing an issue after spending just hours trolling around the internet. I go to direct sources myself when I can (government and education preferred) versus reciting claims made by the very companies I am evaluating and try to minimize going to parties that are on the far outskirts of opinions. Realistically I don’t have the time to devote years of study and pretend I have a PhD in this subject. I also try to include links for further research if you are so inclined but just keep that in mind!
Founded by a former investment banker and technology expert and a designer who used to work in biotech and commodities trading, they are using technology to create “a wardrobe gamechanger.”
As someone who comes from manufacturing I am completely impressed with their manufacturing process. They use a 3D printing machine to knit the shoes and because of the process they produce almost no waste! Yaaaas! If I ever have the chance I would love to visit their factory. Just putting that out in the universe (thanks Amy Schumer for ruining that expression but I’m still using it!) In cut & sew toy manufacturing there is a lot of waste involved. And not a lot of automation. I saw my first 3D printer in early 2000 and it’s amazing the inroads it’s made. It now makes all of my other shoes seem low-tech and so last century.
The thing that really fascinated me about them is all of the marketing I’m seeing is focusing on portraying them as a fashion brand. I’ve seen virtually nothing about sustainability. Marketing 101. You need to position yourself in the market with a strong brand message. Too much information and your message gets diluted. And again, sustainability is not a primary purchase driver. BUT if you want to buy them because they’re cute and then you learn they’re also good for the environment? Bam! I learned about them on my FB feed. And since getting this on my feed it now appears on pretty much any website I visit (which is kind of annoying and creepy).
In other noteworthy news, they are green in their headquarters, relying 100% on wind energy to run their offices!
There are a few companies making shoes with a small carbon footprint, including two major brands. Allbirds makes comfortable sneakers and loafer-style shoes from sustainable wool and trees. Planet Flops sells flip-flops made from real rubber. Patagonia has partnered with PLUSfoam (remember them, the company that will take your Rothy’s and recycle them?) to use their recycled materials for their new line of flip-flops. Simple Shoes. Adidas has made great strides in using mostly sustainable and recycled materials, does not test on animals, and is working towards figuring out a solution to the microfibers problem in their shoes. They also introduced a new line of shoes made from ocean plastic. Nike has a recycling program for their shoes and uses that material, Nike Grind, for various performance surfaces including shoes. They currently have a challenge for participants to come up with innovative uses for Nike Grind and material waste.
DO I RECOMMEND THEM?
Absolutely! If you have the disposable cash and they fit your style profile, I would highly recommend them. As I mentioned, I am trying hard not to buy another pair just yet. If you are interested, PM me and I can save you a few bucks too. One of the big questions of this blog is do these reduce the sales of other less-eco friendly shoes? That I’m not so sure of. If I saw a cute pair of black pointy flats I would definitely opt for the Rothy’s pointy black shoes instead. And I think these might become part of my regular rotation. They’re just so comfortable! But there’s still a time and place for my heels and sneakers. My hope is that other companies will be inspired by what they are doing and try to innovate as well. And if you like technology and/or manufacturing, you can own a pair of 3D printed shoes! How cool is that?