How sneakers became the new vegan trend item

Author: Sascha Camilli

Read Time:   |  3rd September 2020

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They’re on the feet of every fashionista, vegan or not: leather-free sneakers are a hot trend, as Sascha Camilli discovers.


A few years back, the words ‘vegan fashion’ would mainly bring up question marks – the animal rights movement and the fashion industry were two worlds that never collided. But following the unmissable onset of the ethical fashion movement, consumers are questioning the use of animal-derived materials.

Today, vegan leather is a well-known concept – predicted to be worth $89 billion by 2025 – and animal-free designs are reaching icon status.

What used to be the exclusive domain of Stella McCartney and her design, the Falabella, is now a more ample realm of vegan items coveted not only by vegans, but increasingly by the fashion set.

When it comes to trends, one vegan product category, in particular, is standing out: sneakers. Shoes, in general, are among the first forays of mainstream brands into vegan territories – New Look, Marks & Spencers and Topshop are some brands that have recently launched vegan products, and they were all shoe collections.

But it was sneakers that emerged as a must-have vegan item over the last few seasons. The sneaker market is growing – and vegan designs are becoming a key factor.

A 2019 study by market research firm NPD examined the “future of footwear” to find that Millennials and Generation Z – the primary consumer group interested in athletic shoes – are “very concerned” about environmental issues. So brands are stepping up their game to make sure to appeal to this lucrative demographic.


Stella leads the way

Once again, Stella McCartney led the way with her collaboration with Adidas for a vegan version of the iconic Stan Smith style. French ethical fashion label Veja, completely focused on sneakers, also offers a vegan collection popular with bloggers and street-style stars.

Last year, the brand unveiled a range of vegan shoes made from biodegradable materials. Made from a waxed canvas incorporating 50% corn waste from the food industry, the design is sustainable and chic – fit for the feet of many an ethically minded fashionista.

Veja’s design is an indication that the industry is moving towards new, innovative materials when it comes to footwear, and sneakers in particular.

Adidas collaborated with Parley for the Oceans to create a vegan sneaker design incorporating plastic waste from the oceans.

Part of the materials used in this design derived from so-called “ghost gear” – discarded and lost fishing nets and other fishing materials that end up in the oceans every year, showing once again just how harmful fishing is to our planet.

In fact, Adidas has announced that it will make five million pairs of the shoe, which should serve as a reminder of the sheer quantity of plastic to be found in the world’s oceans. The design is 100% recyclable.

And Adidas is far from the only big-name brand to dabble successfully in creating vegan sneakers. In 2019, Gola launched a vegan range of its Gola Classics – prompted by the fact that many of their customers got in touch to ask which of their existing designs were vegan (using our consumer power works every time!).

Approved by the Vegan Society, the Gola range is not only completely free from leather but in addition, the brand has also ensured that all the glues, dyes and chemical components involved in the range are 100% animal-free, which is a rarity when it comes to sneakers: when asked, many brands have to admit that they can’t guarantee that no animal-derived glues or finishing components went into the shoe.


Algae and Eucalyptus

2019 was also the year that saw the launch of Reebok’s Forever Floatride GROW – a performance-driven design made from algae, castor bean oil, eucalyptus fibres, and natural rubber.

A far cry from conventional faux leather shoes, this vegan style was created as part of Reebok’s commitment to reducing petroleum-based plastics in its range – the brand has committed to eliminating virgin polyester from its collections by 2025. Reebok also offers a vegan version of its Newport Classic sneaker, made with cotton and corn.

Once again, this is proof that we don’t need to be choosing between leather and plastic. These days, it looks increasingly like both of these harmful materials are set to be left behind as cutting-edge natural vegan fabrics take their place.

Another up-and-comer among the most innovative new materials is apple leather – a vegan leather made with dehydrated waste from apple juices and apple-purées in the food industry. Independent ethical designers making sneakers from apple leather include Po-Zu, Womsh, and Caval – all smaller, sustainable labels that are putting ethics first and refusing to use animal leather.

Like the wine leather Vegea used in the H&M Conscious Collection, apple leather is still an up-and-comer, and the brands championing it are niche.

But, as we have seen with the vegan launches of bigger labels, mainstream fashion may just follow where they lead. Watch this space.

Written by

Sascha Camilli

Sascha is a writer, an award-winning author, and the founder of the world’s first digital vegan fashion magazine, VILDA. She's also a professional animal rights activist and podcast host.

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