By Brian Metzler
A high-performing eco-friendly shoe
I hate to break this to everyone, but the running shoe manufacturing business isn’t exactly an eco-friendly industry. No, this isn’t at all a tree-hugger rant. It’s more of a keen observation from a running shoe geek who knows that every shoe he’s run in over the past three decades is barely decomposed and buried in a landfill somewhere. Yep, that’s a rough reality to contemplate, especially when we know there are 50 million active runners in the U.S. alone.
While there have been plenty of very good green initiatives and a general shift among brands to create products with a more prominent focus on sustainability in recent years, the running shoe manufacturing process has an enormous carbon footprint. Shoes are mostly made with petroleum-based plastic materials in Vietnam and China and then shipped to distributors and eventually to retailers and consumers all over the planet. Because running shoes are a single-use, expendable commodity with a short shelf life – at least for the performance aspects of running – it’s easy to see that there’s a huge population of runners around the world buying new shoes and discarding them (or hopefully at least donating them) every year. And for most runners, that means several pairs annually.
There is hope, however, to break parts of that vicious cycle because things are changing. Brooks, On, Reebok, NNormal, AllBirds and now Saucony are among the many brands that have pushed forward major environmental initiatives that have resulted in more sustainably-made shoes. The movement to become more green seems to come from a three-part catalyst based on (1) public pressure demanding it, (2) revised corporate ethics that go beyond the bottom line, and (3) the greater availability and efficacy of recycled and bio-based materials that can mimic (and in some cases even surpass) the performance value of petroleum-based components.
For the past six weeks or so, I’ve been logging miles in a new Saucony shoe called the Triumph RFG, a neutral-oriented everyday trainer with an innovative bio-based midsole, a cotton upper colored with plant-based dyes and an outsole engineered from 80% natural rubber. It’s one of the most sustainable running shoes ever made, but the best part about it is that it looks, feels and runs almost identically to the Triumph 21 that Saucony released last spring. (Read my review of that shoe here.)
RFG stands for “Run For Good,” which might sound a bit cliché when you first hear it, but it doesn’t matter because this shoe isn’t about greenwashing marketing fluff. The Triumph RFG is built around a corn-based PWRRUN BIO+ midsole foam, which is essentially a more eco-friendly version of Saucony’s responsive PWRRUN+ that’s made from a variety of petroleum distillates. Roughly 55% of the PWRRUN BIO+ midsole material comes from bio-based Susterra propanediol, a 100% regeneratively grown, dent corn-based 1,3-propanediol compound.
I won’t claim to be smart enough to understand the material science behind it, but having tested thousands of pairs of running shoes over the past 25 years, I can definitely report on the shoe’s high level of performance as a versatile everyday trainer. While running 125 miles in it since mid-September is only a limited scope of the shoe’s long-term viability, I have found the ride of the Triumph 21 and the Triumph RFG to be virtually identical. Both shoes serve up a springy, lively vibe and the same “buttery smooth, long-haul comfort” that I found in other Saucony shoes with PWRRUN+ midsoles. I have enjoyed several long runs (10+ miles), a couple of up-tempo workouts and plenty of nondescript, average-paced runs in this shoe. Although I can barely differentiate the performance aspects, I have to admit I like the soft feel and enhanced breathability of the Triumph RFG’s cotton upper better than that of the synthetic materials of the Triumph 21.
Saucony Triumph RFG Specs
Weights: 8.8 ounces. (women’s size 8), 9.8 ounces (men’s size 9)
Heel-Toe Offset: 10mm (37mm in the heel, 27mm in the forefoot)
Saucony says the shoe is part of its revised sustainability goals to have 90% of its products contain organic, recycled or renewable materials by 2025 and 100% of its line be more optimally sustainable by 2030. The Triumph RFG follows in the footsteps of several other recent green innovations from shoe brands that all avoid controversial carbon offsetting and instead focus on using more sustainable materials and manufacturing processes:
In 2021, Reebok unveiled a shoe called the Floatride Energy Grow, a plant-based model featuring an upper made from eucalyptus, an insole made with bloom algae and a midsole made from castor bean oil.
On launched its Cyclon circularity program based on a model called the Cloudneo that not only utilizes midsole foams made from castor beans and bio-based, undyed yarns in its upper, but is also only available on a subscription basis (for $30/month) as a way to reduce the amount of old shoes going into landfills.
Asics soon-to-be-released Novablast 4 training shoe has been enhanced with a full-length layer of the brand’s new lightweight FlyteFoam Blast Plus Eco cushioning material that’s made from 20% recycled bio materials but equally responsive as the original FlyteFoam Blast Plus.
In 2024, Allbirds is expected to release a net-zero carbon shoe called MO.Onshot, a sneaker with a net footprint of 0.0 kg of CO2 emissions that’s made with regeneratively farmed merino wool, a sugarcane-based EVA foam and a bioplastic made from methane. It’s not a running shoe, but it’s an easy bet to expect athleisure models and legitimate running shoes will follow with enhanced sustainability values.
What’s the bottom line? Both versions of the Saucony Triumph shoes cost $160 and run with equal performance, but the investment in the Triumph RFG – both for Saucony and runners – seems like it could bring greater results and more positive change over the long term.