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Sean Wotherspoon
illustration Callum Abbott

Sean Wotherspoon’s guide to sustainable sneaker design

Pin It
Sean Wotherspoon
illustration Callum Abbott

Sean Wotherspoon’s guide to sustainable sneaker design

Can the hype machine be used for environmental good? The sustainability-head and adidas collaborator has the answers 

In partnership with adidas originals

In 2021, it’s never been more urgent to think ethically (or at the very least pragmatically) about the products we consume. Thankfully, these considerations are starting to make in-roads into the worlds of design and fashion like never before, which means that it’s no longer necessary to sacrifice aesthetics in favour of sustainability. Long gone are the days when the only vegan shoes on the market either look like cheap leather, or the kind of hemp-based sandal that people might wear in the 90s. 

One of the most exciting designers to emerge into this field is Sean Wotherspoon. He first rose to prominence with LA vintage store Round Two, before going on to design a series of major sneaker collabs. His first shoe with adidas, the Super-Earth, was released last year to widespread acclaim. Now its follow up, the ZX 8000, is on the way. As well as being a designer, Wotherspoon is known for being an avid sneaker collector and connoisseur, a passion clearly evidenced in his own work. When I interviewed Wotherspoon, hunched over my laptop in grey and cold North London, he was (depressingly) sitting outside against a blazing blue LA sky with palm trees swaying in the background. Laid-back but ebullient, relaxed but prone to impassioned digressions, Wotherspoon seems totally sincere in his commitment to sustainable design, while remaining conscious of the ways that participating in a world defined by consumption might be contradictory. 

Right now, there’s no better person to offer insight into the burgeoning world of sustainable sneakers. As Wotherspoon says, “(It’) a fun time because before, it was really niche brands that were doing vegan, sustainable, plant-based sneakers, whereas now, it's your favourites.” Whether you’re a designer or simply an enthusiast, it’s important to know how to navigate this – and it’s only just starting to build momentum. With that in mind, here is Sean Wotherspoon’s guide to sustainable design.


Unless you want to go off-grid and live in a woodland cabin like Henry David Thoreau, it’s difficult to live an entirely sustainable lifestyle. But that’s not to say it’s not worthwhile thinking about our patterns of consumption. For most of us, this will be about finding a balance and accepting that there isn’t going to be an entirely eco-friendly way of participating in sneaker culture, while still trying to engage in better approaches.

Sneaker culture is built on hype and constant new drops, something which you could argue is at odds with a sustainable mindset. “It’s probably one of the grandest contradictions,” says Sean. “I feel like it's such a challenge to design sustainably in this category. The word 'sustainable' should actually never be used, unless you're talking about working towards it. But you can always take steps working towards it. Getting a message across, that’s a step towards it.”


The hype machine, while undeniably something which encourages consumerism, could be put to better use. The energy and excitement which the blog scene generates about new drops could be directed towards sustainable products, helping to usher in a wider cultural shift. Every single person who’s into sneakers could play a part in this, no matter how small.

“I think the industry should be shedding more light on vegan sneakers,” says Wotherspoon. “I kind of hate how political the whole blog scene is. I think it used to be a thing where interesting new products were posted, but now you almost have to pay for the space and the products featured have to be so viral, which typically isn’t the case for vegan products – they’re not a super-viral mainstream product. So I think it would be nice if these platforms, that are essentially narrating this entire community of sneakerheads and impressionable young kids, posted about this stuff more.”

“It takes a while to get something into the hype machine," he adds. “But Pharrell is creating really dope, sustainable vegan products, NOAH is doing vegan and sustainable stuff. There is some fire out there and it's not getting enough attention.” 


Designing with sustainability in mind can be an interesting and fruitful creative exercise in itself. It means that certain materials and practices are off-limits, which can feel inhibiting, but operating within these parameters can lead to better and more original work. 

“I think if you look back in history,” says Wotherspoon, “anyone who's put a limitation on themselves has created something unique. It’s not the only way to create something, but I think that's the way to truly create something that's original. In a way, it restricts your creativity. But once you're past that stage, it opens you up to new realms. On my first project, I thought, 'Man, I've really limited my buffet of ideas here, because I can only do vegan or sustainable things.’ But once you start digging into what that is, you realise that you’ve ended one chapter, but opened up ten more.”

“An artist who only works with one colour could open up a thousand shades of that one colour,” says Wotherspoon. “You wouldn’t necessarily have that if you were using a thousand different colours to begin with. So it's super interesting, seeing how much you can limit yourself and then how much you can dig into that limitation to find other avenues. I would one hundred percent recommend it to young young designers. Put yourself in a box and then find a way to think outside it.”


As Wotherspoon says, sustainable design can be limiting in a positive way. But at the same time, it doesn’t  even have to be that limiting. There is a whole world of vegan-friendly or sustainable materials out there, some of which are rarely thought of in those terms. Recycling can also be a great way of putting to good use materials which might not be sustainable in origin. Avoiding waste is a good outcome, regardless of what you’re using.

Wotherspoon’s new collab with adidas, the ZX, provides a taste of the wide array of materials which are up for grabs. “It differs from the Superstar in the sense that with the Superstar, we tried to keep things super basic,” Wotherspoon  says. “We knew we wanted to use a vegan alternative to animal derived materials, along with the string and yarn, but those were really the major materials we used. As I think people will notice, the ZX is a little crazy. I tried to show people there's more vegan material options than just the vegan leather. It’s got burlap, it's got plaid, it’s got denim, it’s got stuff hanging off of it! Adidas have these books filled with just endless amounts of material swatches. I went through them and picked as many dope vegan ones as I possibly could. We were also evaluating what materials were still left over from past lines, so we didn’t need to produce more stuff. With this shoe, I wanted to show a sense of possibility and craziness. I wanted to express the ability to do anything.”

Wotherspoon is looking forward to further exploring the possibilities of sustainable design, even when it comes to unlikely materials. “I think the next material for me is mesh,” he says. “I’m excited to figure out how to make it more sustainable, as it’s made out of plastic. I’m hoping we can figure out a way to make it from recycled plastics, which I think there’s a few techniques for already. I went through these mesh books at adidas and dude, there’s like a thousand different types of mesh. It’s incredible.”


There’s a conception that sustainable design necessitates a more difficult or expensive process but according to Wotherspoon, this doesn’t have to be the case. It might, however, require a bit of patience and long-term thinking. “I don't think sustainable design is necessarily more expensive,” he says, “but it can be more time-consuming on the research end of things. Instead of just picking a material, we have to dig into it. We have to find out exactly where it’s coming from, how it's being produced, its effect on the Earth, whether it’s recyclable and what it’s going to look like in twenty years. We have probably sixty questions we have to ask about each material before it passes through to even a sample period. So we’ve extended our lead time on things.”

“I think my best advice to people is: just slow it down. Don’t be afraid of putting in time. It's not a race, and I think you learn so much more by taking it slow. Give yourself a reasonable pace and don't rush it. In reality, I think every idea should be a five-year idea.” 


By this stage in the game, you definitely should care about the environment. But it’s not a prerequisite for appreciating genuinely interesting and forward-thinking design. It’s possible to appreciate these products purely at the level of aesthetic, even if you’re a climate change denier or subsist of an entirely meat-based diet.

“You know, there’s so many food products that people eat that they don't even realise are vegan,” says Wotherspoon. “It’s just like that: you don't have to define these sneakers as vegan shoes. There’s tons of shoes that are vegan. Just because a product doesn't label itself as vegan, doesn't mean it’s not.


This one is complicated, because there are so many levels of how seriously you can take sustainability. Besides, some sneakers are sustainable, but not vegan, and vice versa – to make things even more complex, there are sustainable ways of consuming non-vegan products. It’s about finding a balance that works for you. 

“You don’t need to just completely disregard leather sneakers,” says Wotherspoon. “For example, I know we have Sambas coming out with adidas that we used real leather on, but they were leftover materials which we didn’t want to become trash. Beyond that, I'd say really do your research and find out what brands are doing. A lot of people are doing a good job with upcycling their own materials, so look into that. Do your initial research, don't feel bad, and don't shame yourself for accidentally buying a shoe with a little bit of leather on it.”

“Just be practical about it, you know? No one's asking you to do a cold-turkey change or anything. Do what makes sense for you. And you do want to go hard and switch over cold-turkey, there’s research to be done, because a lot of stuff that is vegan isn't sustainable and vice versa. I'm still learning so much every day.”