Everything You Should Know About Vegan Shoes

Read Time:   |  17th December 2020

Looking for a new pair of vegan shoes? Here is a handy guide to refer to when choosing, purchasing and wearing vegan footwear.

As vegan fashion moves from niche to mainstream trend, vegan shoes are a fashionista favourite. The sector is constantly growing, and new vegan footwear brands are launching every year. Be it trainers, hiking boots or stilettos, vegan shoes are gaining ground with both companies and consumers.

If you’re in the process of creating a vegan wardrobe, shoes will be a key component. So here is a handy guide to refer to when choosing, purchasing and wearing vegan footwear.

Why aren’t all shoes vegan?

Good question – in our world, they certainly would be. But as we don’t (yet!) live in a vegan world, many shoes that you will find on the market are unfortunately not vegan. This is because many shoe designs, from boots to heels, are made from leather.

Leather is the biggest killer of animals in the fashion industry: it claims over one billion lives every year. Most of these animals are cows, but leather can also be made from sheep, pigs, goats, and other animals.

A little-known fact is that leather can also be made from dog and cat skin. Over two million animals are killed every year in China’s dog and cat leather industry, sometimes making it into the UK and European markets due to a very murky supply chain that’s incredibly difficult to trace.

Mislabelling is common, and often, there is no way to know exactly what – or whom – you are wearing when you buy leather.

Far from a sustainable choice, leather is also a huge environmental hazard. Animal agriculture is one of the main contributors to climate change, and leather is a part of animal agriculture just as much as meat is. 80% of the deforestation rates in the Amazon are linked to cattle ranching, which also includes leather.

Aside from the main material, shoes can also contain smaller components, such as glues, which can in some cases derive from animals. This is a tricky one, as many times not even the company itself can be 100% certain whether glues were animal-derived.

Some certifications, such as the PETA-Approved Vegan logo, guarantee that products are free from any animal-based materials and substances.

How can I tell if my shoes are vegan?

Well, you shouldn’t generally have a hard time, as many brands love to brag about their shoes being  “genuine leather”.  Commonly, leather products will have a tag, a label, or some form of indication that the product is made from animal skin. These labels make it easier for vegans to identify non-vegan materials and steer clear.

Other times, the shoe will have little symbols on the label that could help you find out whether it’s vegan. If you see a symbol that looks like a cowhide, it was made from animal skin.

If, instead, there is a diamond-shaped symbol or a symbol that looks like a net, that stands for human-made materials.

What are vegan shoes made of?

Human-made vegan leathers have played a part in shoemaking for many years. Petroleum-based faux leathers such PVC – a highly toxic plastic material – or polyurethane (PU), which is slightly less harmful, are widely used to make vegan shoes.

While these materials are less damaging to the environment than animal leather, they are still not an ideal choice. These materials aren’t biodegradable and will release toxins in landfill for many years after being produced. Many toxic chemicals are also used in their production chains, harming workers and nearby communities.

Luckily, today we live in a world where we no longer have to choose between animal skins and plastic. Natural, sustainable vegan innovations include Piñatex, a pineapple-leaf fibre material that provides pineapple farmers with an additional stream of income.

This eco-conscious leather, created by material innovation company Ananas Anam, has already been used in a range of shoes by Hugo Boss. It has also appeared in collections by Chanel and H&M, making it the most prominent new vegan leather on the market.

H&M have also used leather made from wine grapes in their Conscious Exclusive Collection. Wine-grape leather, made by Italian company Vegea, is crafted from leftover grapes from the wine-making industry.

Other innovations include apple leather, a material made from dried apple peels. This non-toxic, animal-free material is mainly used for accessories made by niche vegan brands.

Cactus leather, sold in the UK by vegan handbag brand Luxtra, is another new kid on the block: this bio-based material is made without toxic chemicals or PVC.

Shoe brand Clae has collaborated with DESSERTO to create vegan sneakers made from cactus leather.

Shoe brand Clae has collaborated with DESSERTO to create vegan sneakers made from cactus leather.

Are vegan shoes eco-friendly?

While everything we produce will have some form of impact on the environment, vegan leather, especially if it’s the plant-based kind, is a more sustainable choice than animal leather.

Cow leather was found by the 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report to be the most polluting fabric in fashion, scoring much worse than nylon, polyester and polyurethane. The environmental cost of raising animals for human consumption is sky-high, which is why leather cannot be considered a planet-friendly choice.

This is not to say that PVC or PU are particularly green. The toxic chemicals involved in their production cannot be disregarded, just like the fact that these materials don’t biodegrade.

If we want to make a sustainable purchase, we should opt for a plant-based vegan leather, such as Piñatex, apple leather, wine-grape leather, cactus leather, or cork.

The good news is that these materials are gaining popularity every day, leading to increased availability on the market. You can even find pineapple and grape leather in H&M now – something that would have been unheard of only a few short years ago.

Unveiled as part of H&M's Conscious Collection, the soft vegan leather alternative, which is made by Italian tech company Vegea, is made from grape pomace, which H&M discovered in 2017  through its Global Change Award.

Unveiled as part of H&M's Conscious Collection, the soft vegan leather alternative, which is made by Italian tech company Vegea, is made from grape pomace, which H&M discovered in 2017 through its Global Change Award.

Best vegan shoe brands for…

Vegan Trainers

Veja is not a vegan brand, but their much-hyped vegan collection deserves recognition for its carefully sourced material choices and sleek, versatile designs.

Vegan Boots

Look no further than everyone’s old-school favourite, Dr Martens. One of the first mainstream brands to launch a vegan range, Dr Martens has received much acclaim for its vegan collection, which has also been a commercial success.

Most recently, the brand collaborated with Marc Jacobs on a high-end, decorated version of their classic vegan boot.

Luxury vegan shoes

Former Jimmy Choo designer Alfredo Piferi recently launched his own brand, Piferi, which has already gained traction with luxury-fashion lovers and been presented with the Vegan Luxury Award at the 2020 PETA Fashion Awards.

Women’s vegan shoes

Beyond Skin is one of the top vegan fashion brands in the UK. Having offered high-end, sustainable footwear since 2001, they are true leaders of the movement. Their selection of designs, from ankle boots to stilettos, makes them every vegan fashionista’s go-to.

Men’s vegan shoes

British label Will’s Vegan Store has now expanded to apparel and bags, but shoes are their core business and trainers are among their top ranges. Their men’s selection is varied, versatile and high in quality.

Kids’ vegan shoes

Ethically minded company Vivobarefoot offers a range of vegan shoes for kids, handmade in Ethiopia, empowering local makers and incorporating materials such as recycled plastic bottles.

Sascha Camilli is author of Vegan Style: Your Plant-Based Guide to Fashion + Beauty + Home + Travel (Murdoch Books), out now

Looking to buy a new pair of eco-friendly vegan shoes?

Here are our favourite sustainable vegan trainers

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