ECO-FRIENDLY VEGAN SUSTAINABLE FOOTWEAR
Vegan-friendly, planet-friendly, natural, non-toxic, low impact, ethical and committed to doing the best they can.
I want to start by saying that this article is specifically for brands that have Vegan options AND are working to lower their impact by using recycled, repurposed, natural and responsible materials. If you are simply looking for Vegan options, then head on over to Summer Anne Burton’s article which has a tonne of other cool alternatives.
I have worked in the Footwear industry for almost fifteen years. Two and a half years ago, I made the transition from being vegetarian for 27 years to be entirely plant-based. I went from seeking out the most beautiful leather shoes to the rather more difficult task of trying to hunt down options that do not contain any; this is not as easy as you might think and often means I resort to vintage or second-hand alternatives.
‘But wait — there are tonnes of vegan footwear options now…’
Well, yes, there are.
It is much better than it has been in the past, some of them are even options that I might consider wearing, but there is one fundamental issue. The Vegan Footwear industry is currently dominated by footwear made from virgin synthetic materials.
Virgin means it’s the first time it has ever been used and synthetic means it’s made from things like PU which is polyurethane and PVC which stands for Poly Vinyl Chloride.
Not only are materials like that (on the whole) completely unbreathable, so not great for your feet, but they are also plastic-based, which means they will not degrade. Once they reach ‘end of life’ they will sit in a landfill for hundreds maybe even thousands of years before they eventually disintegrate. This will then quite probably create microplastics, causing yet more damage to the environment, and possibly even the animals you are hoping to protect.
Footwear is arguably one of the worst culprits of waste in the fashion industry. A shoe contains so many different components that it’s really hard for them to be broken down to recycle, reuse or compost. For example, a basic sneaker can contain more than 60 parts; they can be made from leather, rubber, foam, synthetics, multiple textiles, plastics and metals. It means deconstructing the shoe before even contemplating doing anything with the remaining parts; as you can imagine, this is time-consuming, complicated and, as it stands, relatively unusual.
What is the solution to this?
Well, the solution is to stop consuming. (sorry but it is)
I am a realist, however, and I know that people will still buy things even if they are not essential. I think most of us are guilty of the excitement of a new purchase, and shoes, somehow (to me at least) generate more excitement than most.
So what else can you do?
If you do need to buy something you could always take the second-hand or vintage route. You can also look for things made from natural materials; in laymen’s terms, if it came from the ground, it has a much better chance of decomposing once it is returned there.
When we do buy something new, we can all just be a bit smarter about who we give our money to.
There are some great brands out there that are working hard to produce footwear that is not only Vegan-friendly but also Planet-friendly.
I have spent quite some time (about two and a half years) researching brands just like this and want to share with you (in no particular order) my top ten from pocket-friendly to premium.
A grassroots handmade sandal and accessories company founded by Chris Anderson, in the late ’90s, which was run out of a 1969 VW bus. I have ordered many a sandal from this brand and can tell you that Chris is still very much the heart of this business. Chris was introduced to a small community in Nicaragua that needed reliable income, so he taught them how to make rope sandals and helped to establish a culture rooted in fair trade and ethical practices. Nomadic State Of Mind is now sold all over the world. They only use materials that are organic, durable, recycled or recyclable, a minimal amount of packaging, are all vegan friendly, they reckon their sandals are around 90% recyclable at this stage. I live in these, perfect for hot climates, they can be thrown in the washing machine indefinitely, do not fade and will have people squealing ‘where did you get those sandals?’ wherever you go!
Best known for their low profile footwear, but what is also impressive about this British brand is their commitment to doing things right. They are not afraid to admit they are far from perfect and yet are incredibly transparent about their journey to minimise the impact of their products on humans and the planet. They offer a range of vegan styles where they use recycled materials. As I write this, 50 per cent of Vivo’s vegan shoes are made of recycled polyester. In 2019, they launched the Primus Bio made with “susterra propanediol” — remnants of the corn industry processed into a substitute foam. This uses 42 per cent less energy than petroleum products and generates 56 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. A practical, comfortable range of lifestyle and sports products; easily sortable by Vegan options — my personal favourite is the Primus Bio in both photos.
In 2019 Native launched its first-ever small production run of the bio-based degradable ‘Plant Shoe’. This shoe was made of pineapple husk, olive oil, corn, cotton, and lactae hevea natural rubber that could begin to break down after only 45 days in a compost bin. This style sold out fast. The good news is they have not stopped there, by 2023 every single pair of Native shoes will be 100% life cycle managed! The first step of this initiative is ‘The Remix Project’ which recycles used Native Shoes by giving them new life as part of community projects. What is not to love about this company?!
For all you sneakerhead fashionistas who want something extraordinary, then how about a custom pair from the critically acclaimed Royal College Of Art Graduate Helen Kirkum. Helen specialises in repurposing discarded sneaker components, the rescue of unusable odd trainers, and can even take some of your old kicks, break them down into raw materials to regenerate into something new and completely unique. I think it’s fair to say that with Helen’s shoes you are wearing something a bit more special than a pair of mass-produced sneakers, you are walking around in a regenerative piece of art.
Have been around since 2005, and are well known for their fair trade practices and exclusive use of organic, raw materials from the start. Over the past 15 years, the brand has gone from having a small, loyal, cult following to opening a flagship store in New York City, collaborating with high profile designers such as Rick Owens, and the recent launch of their critically acclaimed performance running shoes. Their range of minimal, everyday sneakers has gone from strength to strength; they have a big Vegan following, and Veja goes a long way to prove that planet-positive doesn’t have to be ugly!
Have been making simple rubber-soled shoes for nearly 100 years in Slovakia. They source sustainably grown natural rubber, cotton, linen, and each pair is hand-finished. Their eco-friendly production process ensures all materials are certified with no toxic chemicals. They have an extensive vegan range and are also super affordable with a basic canvas pump setting you back a very reasonable €50!
A sneaker startup born in 2019, their sneakers are 100% recycled — hence the name. The upper is 100% post-consumer plastic, with the other components coming from recycled cotton, fishing nets, rubber, and cork. Nothing New are also firm believers in the value of circularity and offer a $20 credit to anyone that returns their used sneakers. They then clean them up and donate them or break them down and put the materials back into their supply chain!
Their shoes are made from only natural and sustainable materials that are good for your feet, have a low environmental impact and are safe for their workers. They want to stop the damaging practises that modern footwear manufacturing causes to people and the planet. All of Po-Zu’s shoes are hand made in Portugal or Sri Lanka at an eco-friendly factory. No toxic dyes are used, almost all waste is recycled, and the shoes are shipped by sea rather than air.
I think by now most people will be pretty well versed with this brand. The brainchild of New Zealand native Tim Brown and San Francisco-based renewables expert Joey Zwillinger, has gone from strength to strength since their launch in 2015. Their shoes are made with recycled plastic, merino wool, eucalyptus, castor bean oil and sugar cane. They patented their ‘SweetFoam’ sugar cane outsoles but made the patent public so that other brands could access it as a better alternative. Their minimal packaging is a shoebox, mailer and shopping bag combined made from 90% recycled cardboard. They make their shoes from materials that are renewable and as low impact as possible, then offset any carbon footprint that remains. They even label their shoes with the carbon footprint, and the methodology behind this is published on their website.
When Andrea Verdura discovered the European Union had banned narrow-gauge fishing nets, he had the idea that perhaps he could use them to make something both beautiful and beneficial to the environment. So in 1997, Verdura Shoes was born. The recovered nets go through 150 steps before creating the finished product. Verdura only works with recycled or low impact materials such as hemp or pineapple fibres. He also believes in a short supply chain, with the shoes being made entirely in Tuscany, just a few miles from his home. Soles, insoles and heels come from local suppliers with hardware produced by historic Tuscan factories. Here is the sophisticated low impact option for your closet.
They didn’t quite make the list because I cannot establish what is in each of their products. Their message is that they will strive to create iconic items using recycled, biodegradable, vegan and environmentally-friendly materials. I love this label as it is unapologetically fashion-forward, and there are not many premium independent brands that are promoting this ethos.
I have contacted them to clarify, and if they do reply, I will update accordingly.
The footwear industry is beginning to wake up to the destruction that has been caused and is finding new and innovative ways to make change.
There are some really exciting advances in bio-based materials; with leather made from pineapple husk, apple waste, mushrooms, fruit and even discarded grapes from the wine process. Until now, these materials have been hard to get hold of, but are gradually becoming more widely available.
Couple that with the fact that brands are starting to realise that they need to set the precedent and that if they do, their customers will buy into it. Only then do we have the foundations of positive change. Until that happens as standard, it is down to the consumer to challenge, push and put pressure on the brands that we love to do things better.
If I had written this article a year ago, I would have struggled to find ten brands I was comfortable championing; this time I had way more than ten which is fantastic and goes to show how fast things are changing for the better.