According to many posts and articles you can find all over the Internet, vegan shoes are more harmful to the environment because they are “made of plastic”. But is that really true? Can you be environmentally conscious and still avoid buying leather?
The above assumes that all vegan shoes are made of plastic and all leather shoes are made without plastic. It also assumes that leather is a “natural” product and is therefore better for the environment than vegan shoes, which are inherently synthetic.
As I’ll discuss below, these assumptions are not necessarily correct, though there are other factors to consider when buying shoes. Let’s start with an unpopular opinion, though, especially when presented as part of what is essentially a fashion blog: the best thing you can do for the planet is buy less stuff.
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Fashion in general is bad for the environment
You may have noticed that this blog has been quieter than normal over the past few years, even before covid. This is because I’ve seriously cut down on the amount of shoes (and clothes) I buy and have started buying things mostly second hand. With covid lockdowns keeping me at home most of the time, the only shoes I’ve bought in two years were excellent Keen Footwear sandals that I will undoubtedly blog about at a later date.
The whole concept of fashion is not eco-friendly regardless of what materials are used in production. Clothes and shoes are functional – they cover you up and protect you from the elements. Without the concept of fashion, you wouldn’t need that many of either. You’d need warmer clothes, and footwear for winter (assuming you don’t live in the tropics) and lighter clothes and footwear for summer. If you had quality clothes and footwear, you could be wearing them for a lifetime. The concept of fashion trends is what tells you clothes and footwear are not fit for purpose even when there’s nothing physically wrong with them. You can’t wear these perfectly functional shoes because they’re dated or not socially appropriate for the occasion. This means perfectly wearable, functional items need to be replaced or added to, essentially for made up reasons. So all of a sudden, instead of one coat, you have 10. Instead of one, two or three functional pairs of shoes or boots, you have 50, or 70, or 200. I don’t have 200 shoes in my house right now, but I’ve probably bought more than a hundred in my lifetime so far. One of the reasons this blog has been pretty dormant over the last few years (even before covid) is that I’ve pretty much just stopped buying new shoes.
Manufacturing new stuff costs a lot in terms of environmental resources, regardless of the materials used. Energy, pollution, waste, harmful chemicals – these are present even in the manufacturing of leather shoes. So before we get to whether or not vegan shoes are eco-friendly, we have to take into account that no new shoes of any kind are eco-friendly. If you don’t need them for survival, they’re technically a luxury the world increasingly can’t afford.
Of course, need and survival can mean all kinds of things nowadays. We’ve created a society where we’re expected to appear in a certain way in order to be able to work (so we can feed ourselves), attract a partner (so we can procreate) and make ourselves feel good (which can help our mental health). The important takeaway from this section, though, is that leather shoes are still harmful to the environment, because all new shoes are.
Are leather shoes more eco-friendly than vegan shoes?
Saying that leather shoes are more environmentally friendly than vegan shoes seems to imply that because leather is a natural material, this makes it better than plastic vegan shoes. But the manufacturing of leather on an industrial scale includes farming cattle, which we already know has a massive environmental impact.
It’s also worth noting that leather is not always a by-product of the meat industry. Sometimes animals are farmed predominantly or exclusively for their skins and the meat is the by-product.
While leather itself may be biodegradable (eventually, as this 5500 years old leather shoe would imply), the chemicals used to process and tan it are not. In fact, they are extremely toxic and have a massive environmental impact, including a more immediate impact on workers. In fact, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index that looks at environmental impact at the point of fabrication (as opposed to disposal), places the impact of leather much higher than both polyester and cotton. So while both cotton and polyester have their own issues, leather on the whole cannot be considered environmentally friendly. Its advantages are that it’s hard-wearing (so in theory will last a lifetime, reducing the need for producing more leather goods) and won’t specifically pollute the ocean / soil with microplastics. It’s worth noting, though, that many leather shoes do contain plastic (lining, sole, laces, etc.) anyway, but let’s assume for argument’s sake that we’re talking about 100% leather shoes.
Are vegan shoes better for the environment?
Ultimately, this depends on the shoes you buy. In general, the cheaper vegan shoes are often made of cheap plastic or unsustainable cotton, both of which are bad for the environment. Manufacturing anything new at all involves using energy and producing waste and the fast fashion industry (where many fashionable fake leather shoes come from) is one of the worst polluters in the world. Buying shoes that won’t last means you’ll need to buy more shoes, thus increasing the environmental cost. Using virgin plastic (new plastic, as opposed to recycling) means more plastic waste will end up in landfills or the oceans. But as you’ll see below, that’s not always the case. There are plenty of companies out there producing vegan shoes that are better (or at least no worse) for the environment than leather shoes.
Are vegan shoes always made of (virgin) plastic?
The short answer is that yes, vegan shoes are likely to contain some form of plastic, although that’s not always the case. Also, the plastic isn’t always virgin plastic. It can sometimes be recycled plastic.
The longer answer is somewhat more complicated.
Although leather imitations (especially the cheap ones) tend to be made out of various types of plastic, vegan shoes can be made out of a variety of materials. All of them are decidedly more environmentally friendly than leather at the point of fabrication, while some are biodegradable as well.
What are vegan friendly shoes made of?
Traditional materials used in the vegan shoe industry
Used for the body of shoes and popular with some high street and specialist vegan footwear brands. Comes from cork trees. When grown sustainably, the environmental impact is much lower than that of leather. It’s also biodegradable. You can find out more about cork here.
Obviously hugely popular in the fashion industry and heavily used in fabric shoes. Can come with a massive environmental and social price tag. Cotton is a very thirsty crop and growing it often involves using some very nasty pesticides. Workers in the cotton fields are often exploited and things like slave and child labour are not unheard of. Always make sure you buy only products made with sustainable cotton, which has a much lower environmental footprint. Find out more about cotton here.
Not as commonly used as cotton, but it probably should be, as the environmental impact of hemp is much lower than that of cotton. The versatile fabric is increasingly used by eco conscious fashion brands and many vegan brands use it in their fabric shoes. This is a good summary of hemp.
Recycled materials (tyres, plastic bags, Recycled ocean plastic, rubber, cotton)
Increasingly, brands are turning to recycled materials in a bid to become more environmentally friendly. Tyres are commonly used to make soles, and sometimes entire sandals. Plastic bottles or ocean plastic waste are now being collected and turned into a variety of materials that can be turned into footwear. While recycling is great, it’s important to keep a few things in mind before buying such product and thinking you’ve done your part for the environment:
- How much of the shoe is actually made of recycled materials?
A lot of companies want to jump on the eco-friendly bandwagon nowadays, but sometimes once you start digging, you find that only 10% of the shoe is made of recycled materials and that a significant amount of virgin plastic was used after all. This lip service doesn’t actually help the environment very much. I’ve seen this con in some big name brand products and it’s really annoying. I know there are practical reasons for this (you can only recycle plastic once and once turned into fabric, it can’t be recycled) but it doesn’t make these product environmentally friendly.
- What happens to the shoes once they’re worn out?
If the shoes are made of recycled fabric or other biodegradable materials, then the shoes will eventually biodegrade. However, if they’re made of plastic, the plastic would still end up in the bin once you’re done with the shoes. Prioritise companies that let you send back shoes to be resoled or recycled and find out in advance how this is done to make sure it’s actually possible.
For example, I recently emailed Melissa shoes (a brand whose shoes I absolutely adore) to ask how to send shoes back for recycling now that their flagship London store has closed down due to covid. I was told I can just put the shoes in the recycling bin, which is simply not true. In fact, if I put their shoes in my recycling bin, I’d be contaminating the recycling and be responsible for a whole load of waste going in the landfill. Recyclable? Not in the UK, it seems!
Emerging materials used in vegan shoes
The rise of the vegan, eco conscious consumer has brought with it a steady search for eco friendly vegan materials. These are the ones I know about who are currently being used or are in development. While most still use polyester in some way, they are certainly more eco friendly than pure virgin plastic. As they’re patented, time will tell how common they will become.
A by-product of the pineapple industry, “pineapple leather” is popular with high end vegan designer brands, but is increasingly becoming more accessible. Major Swedish high street fashion brand, H&M famously used it for some footwear in their “Conscious collection” a while back. It’s used for footwear, wallets, belts, fake leather jackets and other leather-look goods.
A recently signed deal will now see pineapple by-products from massive fruit conglomerate, Dole, used to make Pinatex in the Philippines. Hopefully this will make this material even more popular with designers and high street brands.
Pinatex is not 100% biodegradable, as it’s made of 80% pineapple and 20% PLA, which is degradable but not biodegradable. Also, the resin used to coat it is PU based.
Slightly less common than Pinatex, but also used by H&M in the past, Vegea, or “grape leather”, is a by-product of the winemaking industry. Some Italian designers use it for upmarket footwear and leather-look clothes. I couldn’t find information about whether the manufacturing process involves mixing this with plastic, though the fact that their website says the material is made with a “high content of vegetal / recycled raw materials” would imply some other materials are used.
A popular type of rayon derived from sustainably grown eucalyptus trees. Used a lot in fashion and in some fabric shoes. As a fabric, it’s reasonably sustainable, although apparently sometimes dyed with non-biodegradable dyes.
A type of EVA foam made from algae. Obviously very environmentally friendly. Used a lot in footwear, including by some major brands.
A Mexican invention of soft leather made from nopal cactus leaves. Not very common yet, but used by some high end vegan designer brands for footwear. I’m not sure whether any polyester is involved in the production of this.
Pretty popular, but apparently not entirely environmentally friendly. Apart from the environmental cost of industrial corn farming, corn leather is made of a combination of corn and PU, making it only around 60% biodegradable at best. You can find out more about the environmental impact of corn leather here.
A type leather alternative made from apple skins. A by-product of the apple juice industry. Used by a range of high end and high street vegan and eco friendly designer brands. As the process is a trade secret, I couldn’t find information on what other materials are used in the production of this, although one site said it’s “up to 30% apple”. I expect that, like corn leather, it involves using PU as well.
Not in use yet, but apparently some big name brands are interested, including adidas, Stella McCartney, lululemon and more.
A type of yarn made out of castor bean oil. Used in fashion and therefore sometimes in fabric shoes. Obviously sustainable and biodegradable.
Vegan footwear brands that use eco-friendly materials
If you must buy new shoes, it’s better to buy from companies that are making a real, conscious effort to be eco friendly. Here are a few brands I know of that use recycled materials, ocean plastic or plant-derived leathers in their footwear.
https://nothingnew.com/ – use a high percentage of recycled materials
https://oceanrefresh.com/ – made using ocean waste
https://indosole.com/ – recycled tyre summer footwear, simple and unbranded-looking
https://www.nae-vegan.com/ – some styles are made of Pinatex and other plant leathers
https://www.vegetarian-shoes.co.uk/ – offer some cork styles, as well as Pinatex and fabric shoes.
https://www.veerah.com/pages/organic-apple-leather – upmarket designer shoes made of apple leather.
https://www.veja-store.com/en_uk/ use recycled materials and some plant derived leathers.
https://en.bohemaclothing.com/collection/buty – a Polish designer brand that uses a variety of plant leathers. Also accepts worn out shoes for recycling.
The case for buying second-hand shoes (and everything else)
While the materials listed above are certainly a better choice than buying new leather / all plastic shoes in terms of environmental impact, nothing beats reducing consumption or buying second hand goods.
In terms of environmental impact, it’s best to buy shoes that will last as long as possible, so that you don’t need to buy any more for a long long time. Of course, such shoes often come with a higher price tag. My go to brand has always been Vegetarian Shoes. Even though the boots I own are basically made of plastic, they’ve lasted me more than ten years so far and have prevented me from buying countless pairs of other boots.
I do try to do most of my shoe shopping (and shopping in general) on ebay and in charity / vintage shops, though, as I no longer want to contribute to the environmental impact of excessive manufacturing. In terms of environmental impact alone, I’d be inclined to think that buying a used pair of leather shoes is better than buying a new pair of vegan shoes. Leather shoes, in theory, will last longer and will eventually biodegrade. If you’re buying them second-hand, you’re (in theory) preventing a pair of virgin leather shoes from being made.
However, as I’ve not worn or bought leather in around 30 years, this isn’t the right choice for me personally. I do think it’s perfectly valid as a choice for others, especially those who are vegan predominantly because of the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industry. I have, however, found plenty of used vegan designer shoes for sale online at a fraction of the price and many are in very good condition, which sadly means they were probably never worn that much. It would be great if such shoes are bought used instead of new.
Buying used footwear isn’t the best long term solution to the problem of excessive consumption, as it relies on other people buying stuff and discarding it while it’s still in good condition. The best thing is, of course, to just limit your consumption altogether. You can even say that knowing you could sell off a pair of shoes if you decide you don’t like them can encourage excessive consumption (one reason why buying from charity shops / thrift stores might be better, as those are donated to the shop, rather than sold). Still, considering the fact that most people in the western world are still buying too many things and then getting rid of them mostly unused, I think this is a good temporary solution for our generation.
In reality, no new shoes are truly environmentally friendly because they all come with an environmental price tag in terms of pollution, waste and energy use. The question we should be asking is not “which new shoes are better for the environment?” but “do I really need these shoes in the first place?”. The best thing you can do for the environment is buy less stuff.
Following that, the next best thing is to buy used stuff instead of new stuff. Following that, buy stuff that’s made well enough to last a long time, so that you won’t need to replace it in a year (easier said than done when you’re poor, though).
In terms of overall environmental impact, though, vegan shoes are no worse than leather shoes and can actually have a lower impact than leather shoes. If you only look at one part of the equation (plastic waste), leather shoes may come out on top, but if you look at the big picture, leather shoes may actually be worse. This is especially true if you buy from companies that use predominantly plant-based and recycled materials and those that are working to reduce their carbon footprint.