Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For creating a sneaker brand with a remarkably small carbon footprint—and a big following

Fashion’s ugly secret: Clothing manufacturing accounts for up to 10 percent of global carbon emissions and has the dubious distinction of being the second largest consumer of water, according to the U.N. Environment Programme. Brazilian fashion exec David Python envisioned a new way: What if a footwear brand ruthlessly adjusted its processes—from sourcing to manufacturing to shipping—to minimize the environmental impact of shoes? Python turned to his best friend and fellow fashion cognoscente Fernando Porto to help turn that vision into reality. And in 2016, the pair began working on Cariuma, with a mission to "reinvent the sneaker game." "We knew the industry-standard 'cool-classic' sneakers were really uncomfortable and that the big corporations weren’t socially responsible and didn’t really care about sustainability in an active way," Python says.

Designing sneakers that met the co-founders' exacting style and environmental standards took two years—and a willingness to rethink every part of the standard process. Rather than cutting footwear pieces from large sheets of cloth, for instance, the team found that weaving the fabric into the required shapes slashed wasted materials from 45 percent to just 2 percent. Raw materials are harvested using sustainable methods, then the shoes are manufactured in factories that promise workers a living wage and delivered to customers’ homes in recycled, single-box packaging. 

When Cariuma released its first capsule collection in 2018, it quickly gained traction both among eco-fashion fans and social influencers. Even as the startup scaled, Python pushed to do more: In 2020, Cariuma launched an initiative to plant a pair of trees in the Brazilian rainforest for every pair of sneakers sold. The initiative couldn’t be more timely: The country’s portion of the Amazon recently logged its worst deforestation in 15 years, with some 13,235 square kilometers (5,110 square miles) lost. And in a sharp departure from brands that might want to outsource such do-goodery, Cariuma launched its Pair-for-Pair initiative in partnership with Brazilian nonprofit CEPAN and also appointed an in-house environmental project lead. 

No surprise that a brand obsessed with supply chain transparency is equally committed to quantifying its performance. When Cariuma commissioned a third party to calculate the cradle-to-grave impact of its shoes, researchers tallied just 5.48 kilograms (12 pounds) of carbon emissions across materials, production, use and end of life. Though there’s no industry benchmark, similar life cycle assessment studies estimate that traditional sneakers produce at least 14 kilograms (30.8 pounds). 

Yet Python isn’t content: "It’s not a number for us to put on the wall," Python told Fast Company. "It’s actually a number for us to go and beat again."

Last year, Cariuma earned a Best for the World designation from B Corp—meaning its environmental performance is in the top 5 percent of companies with the certification. And they’ve also done it without sacrificing their credibility: At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, two of the three skateboarding medalists wore Cariuma kicks.