Vegan Shoe Brands to Walk a More Ethical Path: This guide discusses the environmental and animal rights disaster that is the mainstream footwear industry, presents some of the disturbing key facts and trend of which all discerning shoppers should be aware, and highlights some of those shoe brands that are working towards a positive change, for makers, the environment, and animals everywhere.
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‘Why go vegan?’ A question many of us are undoubtedly asking ourselves as we bear witness to a small grassroots movement transform into a mainstream phenomenon. Whether your motive is to protect animals, improve your health, or save the planet, the reasons to switch to veganism have never been so compelling. But what about our footwear choices? In this modern age of ruthless consumerism, someone or something is invariably exploited along the way; our wardrobe being no exception.
The Ethical Dilemma that Demands Vegan Shoes
We live in a world where the mass killing of animals is perpetually normalised. From the shoes we slip on our feet and the satchel we carry to work, to the food we eat and the cosmetics we rub on our skin; death forever hides in plain sight. Our burgeoning capitalist industries are fiercely dependent on the killing of a small number of non-human species for profit, with the animal leather footwear market predicted to reach $208.6 billion by 2027.
Behind leather’s attractive suppleness lies a dark reality where animals, communities and the natural world endure senseless violence and devastation. Although leather footwear has been a continuous staple throughout humanity’s sartorial history, the once minimal pastoral practice has now transformed into a formidable industrial operation with overwhelming cruelty and suffering at its very core.
Identifying which shoes are animal and cruelty-free can feel like a Sisyphean task in the face of capitalist systems which are saturated with animal rights abuses. Nevertheless, infiltrating the belly of the beast is a growing vegan movement which is challenging the cruel standard historically perpetuated by the global footwear industry.
This guide highlights the untold injustices which taint the world’s footwear market and celebrates the many fantastic vegan shoe brands which are trying to make a difference.
Vegan Shoe Brands to the Rescue
So, choosing vegan footwear isn’t such a small step after all! With approximately 78 million vegans worldwide, and the vegan leather market set to surpass animal leather by 2025 (generating a revenue of almost $90 billion!), many fantastic brands are making great strides in designing vegan shoes to help people live a sustainable and cruelty-free lifestyle.
“Unique shoes designed by you.”
Based: Almansa (Albacete), Spain
Shoe range: Sneakers, high-tops, chelseas, slip-ons
Price range: €89 – €123
Ships to: Worldwide
Ethos: Custom-made, slow fashion, recycled materials, zero-waste, made-to-order, vegan
Strong advocates for slow fashion principles, Bullfeet creates custom-made, vegan-friendly shoes that are unique, sustainable and affordable. Determined to reduce colossal waste and pollution indicative of the fast fashion industry, Bullfeet has a zero stock philosophy and makes shoes from recycled materials such as PET fabrics, hemp fibres, cork scraps and clothing waste.
‘The closer people are to nature, the more they will protect it.’
Based: London, UK
Shoe range: Outdoor, active and everyday footwear
Price range: £45 – £160
Ethos: Vegan range, regenerative footwear, sustainable materials, zero -waste, refurbish and repair programmes, embracing nature
Replicating the ‘biomechanical masterpiece’ of the human foot, Vivo Barefoot restore humanity’s relationship with the natural world; connecting your feet to the earth through ‘super minimalist design’. Its vegan range is made from recycled plastic bottles and over 30% bio – based products. The algae used in every pair of Barefoot Ultras gives back 57 gallons of clean water and removes the equivalent of 40 balloons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
‘Since 2005, VEJA has been making sneakers differently infusing each stage of production with a positive impact.’
Based: Paris, France
Shoe range: Sneakers
Price range: €85 – €270
Ethos: Vegan range, zero advertising, fair trade, upcycling, sustainable materials, innovation, transparency
Rather than using leather alternatives riddled with plastic, VEJA strives to be part of the ‘ecological solution’ by creating a natural, bio – based material made from cotton canvas and a corn oil – based coating. 1 in 3 VEJA shoe models are 100% vegan and include a variety of renewable and naturally derived materials such as wild Amazonian rubber, certified organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles.
‘A thriving humanity means a thriving planet.’
Based: Los Angeles, California, USA
Shoe range: Slippers, espadrilles, alpargatas, sneakers, boat shoes, flip – flops
Price range: $49.95 – $89.95
Ethos: Vegan range, empowering communities, charitable causes, circular supply chain, sustainable materials
Fervently stepping into sustainability, TOMS is committed to reducing its waste and carbon footprint; developing end of life programmes so less shoes end up in landfill. TOMS is expanding its eco – friendly Earthwise range, plans to source 100% sustainable cotton by 2025 and has donated almost 100 million pairs of vegan shoes to community projects.
“Sustainable production. Responsible shopping.”
Based: Barcelona, Spain
Shoe range: Sandals, Boots, Espadrilles, Loafers, Heels, Flats, Sneakers
Price range: €59-€200
Ethos: Vegan range, on-demand fashion, carbon offset initiatives, sustainable materials, local craftmanship
Challenging overproduction which permeates the fast-fashion industry, ALOHAS established an on-demand production model in 2019; encouraging people to shop in an environmentally conscious way. Offering 100% vegan styles, ALOHAS prioritise sustainability by using plant-based leathers made from cactus and corn, employ local artisans to reduce CO2 and participate in carbon offset initiatives such as native forest regeneration and renewable energy projects.
‘Our products are made to last – and built to recycle.’
Based: New York City, New York, USA
Shoe range: Sneakers
Price range: $120
Ethos: Vegan, sustainable materials, zero-waste, recycling programme, circular supply chain (Soles4Souls)
Shipping: United States
With 90% of shoes ending up in landfill, Thousand Fell produce zero – waste sneakers that go ‘full circle’; using a sustainable blend of recycled, repurposed and biodegradable materials. From bio- leather made from plastic bottles to foam infused with castor bean oil, Thousand Fell is determined that no more sneakers should end up in landfill.
‘Thoughtful by Design.’
Based: New York City, New York, USA
Shoe range: Boots, heels, wedges, sandals
Price range: $99 – $345
Ethos: Vegan, cruelty – free design, sustainable materials, ethical fashion
Bhava prove you don’t need to use animal leather to achieve premium footwear, infusing ‘compassionate design’ into every product. Handcrafted by artisans in Spain and Mumbai, Bhava create ‘timeless elegance with a dose of ingénue charm’ with every pair of vegan shoes containing natural, recyclable and cruelty – free materials.
‘Nothing New. Nothing Ordinary.’
Based: New York City, New York, USA
Shoe range: Sneakers
Price range: $95 – $108
Ethos: Vegan, sustainable materials, upcycling, zero – waste, carbon neutrality, circular supply chain
In a world that is drowning in plastic, Nothing New is determined to stay afloat by transforming the planet’s waste into sustainable sneakers. Advocating ‘one person’s trash is another person’s treasure’, Nothing New use 100% recycled post–consumer plastic with every pair of vegan shoes created from the equivalent of 5.6 plastic bottles.
‘We wanted to create a brand for the discerning, for those who care about where their fashion comes from and what it stands for.’
Based: Hove, East Sussex, UK
Shoe range: Sandals, loafers, flats, boots, heels, pumps, trainers, bridal, mules
Price range: £145 – £395
Ethos: Vegan, ethical production, sustainable materials, slow fashion, vintage design
Beyond Skin design timeless faux leather styles from cotton – backed polyurethane (PU) offering ‘all the glamour of PVC’ but with less environmental impact. While PU contains some petrochemicals, it’s ‘the lesser of two evils’ when compared with animal leather production that adopts a far more exploitive, cruel and polluting process. Every pair of shoes is lined with 100% recycled vegan leather with a bio – based coating and insoles made from 70% post – consumer cardboard.
‘Always and forever Vegan.’
Based: London, UK
Shoe range: Sneakers, sandals, boots, flats
Price range: £45 – £140
Ethos: Vegan, ethical production, fair working conditions, carbon neutral, sustainable materials, slow fashion
Will’s Vegan Store believe all things need protecting; from animals, people to the natural world. PETA approved and registered with the Vegan Society, Will’s Vegan Store is carbon neutral and only use plant – based leather and recycled packaging. Not conforming to fast fashion standards, Will’s Vegan Store never go on sale; encouraging people to buy sustainable products less often.
‘Being inspired by MAT(T)erial and NATure means exploring the synergy between the two, the reflection of one on the other.’
Based: Montreal, Canada
Shoe range: Boots, flats, heels, sneakers
Price range: $45 – $175
Ethos: Vegan, upcycling, sustainable materials, fair working conditions, ethical and eco – friendly fashion
MATT & NAT want to ‘live beautifully’ with the world; finding inspiration from nature’s ‘textures and hues’ to create ethical and eco – friendly products. Following transparent and ethical labour practices, MATT & NAT use cruelty – free materials made from synthetic leathers, recycled plastic bottles, nylons, cardboard, rubber and cork.
‘Nae (No Animal Exploitation)’
Based: Amadora, Portugal
Shoe range: Sneakers, boots, heels, sandals
Price range: €58 – €169
Ethos: Vegan, ethical production, eco – friendly, sustainable materials, slow fashion, transparency
Ethically made in Portugal, Nae create animal-friendly footwear with respect to people and the environment. You can find a myriad of sustainable materials in Nae footwear: recycled pineapple leaves (Piñatex), organic cotton free from pesticides and soil degradation, vegan leather, recycled PET and 100% sustainable cork which implements carbon negative farming practices.
‘Ahimsa is a vegan brand that prioritises love.’
Based: Franca, Brazil
Shoe range: Boots, heels, flats, sandals, slip-ons
Price range: $89 – $199
Ethos: Vegan, handmade, sustainable manufacturing, fair working conditions, transparency
Handmade in Brazil, Ahimsa is PETA approved and dedicated to living a cruelty – free lifestyle; developing premium vegan products made from alternative materials that respect all life. Establishing the first 100% vegan shoe factory in 2014, Ahimsa vegan leather is made from Polyurethane (PU), proving you can still create quality footwear without the needless exploitation of animals.
‘The handsomeness of an object should be matched by the handsomeness of how it was made.’
Based: New York City, New York, USA
Shoe range: Sneakers, boots, sandals, smart shoes
Price range: $120 – $310
Ethos: Vegan, menswear, slow fashion, ethical labour, sustainable materials, eco – conscious
Launching the first ever vegan lifestyle menswear brand in 2010, Brave Gentleman view customers as ‘citizen-investors’ rather than passive consumers; empowering people to invest in ethical and sustainable fashion. Achieving ‘Most Influential Designer of 2015’ by PETA, Brave Gentleman adopt a slow fashion model and only use sustainable and cruelty – free materials such as ‘future leather’, a high-tech biodegradable PU- based microfibre that is EU – Ecolabel Certified.
‘We believe in vegan luxury.’
Based: California, USA/ Firenze, Italy
Shoe range: Heels, flats, sandals
Price range $140 – $390 (ready-made boutique prices only)
Ethos: Vegan, custom made, handmade, recycled and organic materials, high-quality manufacturing
Meticulously handmade in Italy, Mink produced the first vegan luxury shoe in Italy in 2000 and continues to be the only vegan shoe brand that offers ‘custom couture’. With designs frequently seen on the red carpet, Minx challenge the status quo set by high-end brands; weaving compassion design in to every product by only using cruelty – free and sustainable materials.
“We are committed to always being responsible, honest and accountable today, with a positive impact on people, the planet and all its creatures so that we can protect it for tomorrow.”
Based: London, UK
Shoe range: Sneakers, boots, flats, sandals, wedges
Price range: £235 – £835
Ethos: Vegan, circular supply chain, protecting forests, sustainable materials, human rights, innovation, eco – friendly
Pushing the boundaries of sustainable fashion, Stella McCartney create luxury products without exploiting the planet. Striving for circularity, Stella McCartney ‘alter-nappa’ faux leather is made from polyester and polyurethane which has a low petroleum footprint and a bio-based coating made from over 50% vegetable oil. Recycled synthetics are prioritised, and viscose sustainably sourced to protect ancient and endangered forests.
‘Not just vegan materials.’
Based: Barcelona, Spain
Shoe range: Sneakers
Price range: €139 – €165
Ethos: Vegan range, sustainable materials, reforestation projects, fair working conditions, zero – waste
Infused with organic and recyclable materials, SAYE create ethical sneakers that radically push the boundaries of cruelty – free design. Its innovative MANGO sneaker is made from recycled fruit; a PETA approved bio-based vegan leather. Designed and manufactured in Europe, SAYE reduce its carbon footprint by using locally sourced materials along with supporting reforestation projects in India and Zambia.
‘We believe we can all do better by the People & Planet.’
Based: Toronto, Canada
Shoe range: Boots, sneakers
Price range: $160 – $267
Ethos: Vegan range, sustainable materials, ethical production, diversity
Adopting a ‘less is more’ approach, Alice and Whittles believe sustainable outdoor footwear should embrace ‘design simplicity and versatility’. 90% of its materials are natural and renewable which include vegan-based glue, natural fair-trade rubber and reclaimed ocean plastics. Plus, ethical production is integrated across its entire supply chain.
‘You are what you wear, so wear premium products that stand for causes you care about.’
Based: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Product range: Socks
Price range: $14.95 – $44.95
Ethos: Certified vegan, empowering communities, charitable causes, sustainable materials, circular supply chain, fair trade
Conscious Step cotton socks are fair trade GOTS and vegan – certified; free from herbicides, insecticides, pesticides and GMOs. Dedicated to fair and sustainable working conditions in developing countries, Conscious Step maintains a ‘clean’ supply chain and works with partners such as Oxfam and Water.org to create a ‘better world’.
Fashion’s Countless Victims: Animal Cruelty in the Footwear Industry
Fashion’s dirty underside leaves many victims in its wake with countless animals paying the price for the latest couture. Every year the global leather industry slaughters over a billion animals for their hides; a demand which tenaciously feeds into a burgeoning footwear industry where leather shoes account for around half of all global leather production.
“It’s a common misconception that leather is nothing but a ‘by-product’ of meat production,” Yvonne Taylor, Director of Corporate Projects at animal rights organisation PETA, tells us, “in reality, leather is a lucrative industry of its own, as the skin can account for up to 50% of an animal’s total economic value. Many cows slaughtered for leather are extremely malnourished and emaciated, making it clear that they’re killed for their skin alone.”
Leather Production: A Maelstrom of Animal Rights Abuses
According to investigations by PETA, animals endure hellish conditions at the hands of the leather industry with many suffering “extreme crowding and confinement, deprivation, and anaesthetized castration, branding, and tail docking” without painkillers.
In India, herds of cattle are forcibly marched hundreds of miles to slaughter in the blistering heat and dust without proper sustenance. After invariably collapsing from exhaustion, workers are notorious for breaking cows’ tails and rubbing chili peppers and tobacco in their eyes to keep them moving.
Animals who fall victim to the leather trade often endure punishing long-distance journeys overseas before slaughter. A shocking investigation by German author Manfred Karremann, published by PETA Germany, reveals approximately 900,000 cattle and 281,000 sheep were exported alive to Turkey in 2018 from countries such as Brazil, France, Germany and Spain.
Animals are tightly crammed together without adequate food or water, suffering harsh weather conditions and forced to sit in their own excrement for weeks. Overcrowding often results in painful injuries with those who fall being trampled to death. Infamously known as “death ships”, many of these enormous livestock vessels can capsize.
In 2015, a ship belonging to Brazilian beef company, Minerva, carrying 4,900 cows to Venezuela capsized, drowning 4,400 inside with “endless rows of bodies” washed up on local beaches.
A Society Built on Violence: The Social Cost of Animal Slaughter
Human beings killing non-human species for their skin isn’t big news, but the increased rapidity, scale and unfathomable cruelty is unprecedented. A society so entrenched in largescale violence can only lead to profound social consequences.
Carnism: Why Humans Exploit Animals
We seldom consider how the violent killing of a small group of non-human species forms the basis of many of the world’s largest industries. From the food we eat and the shoes we wear, to the cars we drive and the medicines we take, death is ubiquitous yet rarely acknowledged.
Social psychologist Dr Melanie Joy explores the psychology of how caring and intelligent people can accept the relentless exploitation of animals without ever asking “why?”. Dr Joy believes our society is built on an ingrained, yet invisible, cultural bias which normalises the perpetual death of a handful of species whilst paradoxically devoting ourselves to others.
Dr Joy calls this widely practiced belief system “carnism”; a violent ideology which is perceived as necessary and deep-rooted in our institutional systems. From birth, carnism teaches us to see farm animals as unfeeling commodities which are solely there for our consumption. Similar to other violent manmade ideologies, carnism rouses the age-old human tendency to dominate over those with less power because we feel it is our constitutional right.
A possible explanation for our systematic “forgetting” of mass animal killing dates back to the early 19th century when the slaughtering of animals moved out of city centres into regulated slaughterhouses built in intentionally secluded locations. This reformation happened in response to growing concerns around the dangerous implications of animal slaughter on community morality and public hygiene.
This “out of sight, out of mind” approach is still deeply embedded in today’s contemporary attitudes; what sociologist Dr Amy Fitzgerald calls a widespread “cultural amnesia”. Dr Fitzgerald argues the physical relocation of slaughterhouses is seen as necessary to avoid public “contemplation and questioning” as well as lessen “collective cultural guilt”. After all, if human beings were acutely exposed to such brutalities how would capitalist industries like the leather trade ever make any profit?
Donald Stull and Michael Broadway, authors of the Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America , completed a comprehensive analysis of the development of modern slaughterhouse towns in North America over a 15-year period; identifying the social impacts of industrialised animal farming on workers and the wider community.
The analysis reveals the disturbing consequences of a community so closely situated to relentless violent death. Crime rates in Finney County, Kansas increased by 13% within 5 years of 2 slaughterhouses opening, as well as cases of child abuse which were 50% higher than the national average.
Changing Attitudes: A Vegan Revolution
So, in this modern capitalist world which intentionally masks the senseless violence behind many of the products we own, can society wake up and smell the cruelty (as it were) in order to start making better consumer choices? We spoke to PETA who foresees a hopeful future for humanity: “The rise of social media has made it easier for messages to spread – today, millions of people can find out what happens to animals at the click of a button.
This has sparked a revolution, and vegan living is booming,” says Yvonne Taylor, PETA Director of Corporate Projects, “virtually all current material innovation in the fashion industry is vegan, and surveys are showing that many Generation Z consumers identify as animal rights activists.”
Climate Catastrophe: The Environmental Consequences of Industrial Livestock Farming
The global human population reached an extraordinary 7 billion in 2011 and is predicted to rise to 11 billion by 2100, according to the United Nations. Exponential population growth, changes in fertility rates and lifestyle, wealth generation in emergent nations and urbanisation places an incredible strain on the world’s finite natural resources as our insatiable demand for livestock farming continues to grow.
Livestock Industry: The World’s Biggest Polluter
An analysis by environmental organisation Greenpeace found livestock farming is the leading industry in driving climate breakdown. Animal farming is responsible for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions which is on par with the world’s transport industries. Methane, the potent greenhouse gas generated from livestock animals, is thought to have a global warming potential 28 times higher than carbon dioxide.
Likewise, agricultural fertilisers and manure release nitrous oxide which traps heat at a rate 265 times higher than carbon dioxide. With 96% of the world’s mammals now livestock, the environmental consequences of a planet sustaining such a demand is devastating and far-reaching.
Freshwater – what we use for drinking, bathing and agriculture – is an exceptionally finite natural resource. Although 70% of the world is covered by water, only 3% is considered freshwater with two-thirds not accessible to humans. According to the Water Footprint Network, animal production uses seismic amounts of freshwater: 1kg beef requires around 15,000 litres of water and 98% of the total volume is used for animal feed.
Approximately 2.2 billion people globally don’t have access to “safely managed drinking water services” and 785 million still “lack basic services, including the 144 million who drink untreated surface water” according to a 2019 report by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation.
Due to the pace at which the global demand for animal products is accelerating, and the threats posed by climate change, the scarcity of freshwater resources will only become more severe, according to a study by World Resources Research. International NGO WWF warns by 2025, “two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. And ecosystems around the world will suffer even more.”
Loss of Biodiversity & Land Degradation
Livestock farming exploits huge areas of land for animal rearing and feed; replacing vast swathes of rainforests, wetlands and other vital biodiverse areas with cattle grazing and profitable monoculture. Since the beginning of human civilisation the world has lost 83% of wild mammals and half of all plant species. Scientists declare this era of relentless human activity the start of the sixth mass species extinction on earth.
Transforming wild spaces in to agriculture causes land degradation and soil erosion due to artificial fertilizers, overgrazing and loss of biodiversity. Degraded land can cause water pollution and increase the risk of flooding due to the inability of eroded soil to retain water. Soil is an intricate and vital ecosystem, what WWF call, “the earth’s fragile skin that anchors all life on Earth.”
Playing with Fire: How Leather is Destroying the Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse places on earth; harbouring over 3 million species which is approximately 10% of all known wildlife. An ecological haven of untold knowledge, benefits and possibilities, scientists discover a new plant or animal species every two days; from pink river dolphins and yellow -moustached lizards, to fire tailed titi –monkeys and honeycomb patterned stingray.
Due to the world’s unshakeable appetite for meat and leather, one species now dominates Amazonia: the cow. Between 1993 – 2013, the Brazilian cattle herd in the Amazon exploded to an eye-watering 60 million as 80% of deforestation is now linked to cattle ranching. Although not uncommon for ranchers in the Amazon to facilitate seasonal man-made fires, the pace and sheer scale of deforestation is unprecedented with 1 million hectares slashed and burned in 2019 under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s ruthless political agenda.
The Amazon Rainforest is at ‘Tipping Point’
Christened the “lungs of the Earth” the Amazon is one of the most vital carbon sinks in the fight against climate change due to its ability to store approximately 80 – 120 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. Incessant deforestation means one fifth of the Amazon now emits more carbon than it captures as scientists warn human activity is pushing the Amazon to a critical “tipping point”.
Blazing fires disrupt the unique ecological balance which constitutes the rainforest’s wet climate. Unlike some forest habitats where species depend on natural wildfires, intentional man-made fires are sending the Amazon into environmental chaos as sophisticated native species – which have spent thousands of years adapting to the rainforest’s complex ecosystem – are now struggling to survive.
President Jair Bolsonaro: ‘the Amazon is ours’
Rearing cattle for meat and leather is a lucrative industry in Brazil and is what undoubtedly fuels President Bolsonaro’s hankering for environmental destruction and human rights violations. Brazil is the second largest distributer of finished leathers in the world, exporting $1.443 billion worth of hides, skins and finished leathers in 2018. JBS Couros is the world’s largest leather processing company and subsidiary to Brazil’s leading meatpacker JBS; a firm unequivocally linked to the relentless deforestation of the Amazon’s so-called embargoed areas.
JBS, and other major Brazilian meat companies, signed the 2009 Cattle Moratorium pledging to remove cattle ranches associated with newly deforested areas. In 2017, Brazilian enforcement agencies found overwhelming evidence which proves JBS is still complicit in sourcing cattle from protected rainforest. Although JBS were fined $7.7 million by Brazil’s environmental regulator, it still retains unparalleled control over the global meat and leather markets, slaughtering 13 million animals daily and generating an annual revenue of $50 billion.
Colonising the Amazon
In the 1970s, the Brazilian government dubbed the Amazon biome the epicentre of freedom and prosperity; incentivising millions of people to migrate from impoverished areas of Brazil to colonise an untouched mineral-rich goldmine. Cattle ranchers, violent land grabbers, soy farmers, miners and loggers quickly ensued, and the rapacious clearing of virgin forest has proliferated ever since.
Vast areas of rainforest in Brazil are unowned (“terras devolutas”) with Brazilian law allowing anyone to claim the land providing they develop it. NASA satellite data reveals an unprecedented increase in deforestation since the 1970s, with human activity carving multiple arteries from main federal roads in to unchartered land. This new infrastructure, what scientists call the “fishbone pattern”, was Brazil’s meal ticket to prosperity as settlement schemes swiftly gave way to industrial-scale cattle ranches and soy plantations.
President Bolsonaro still flagrantly endorses this colonial free-for-all approach; promoting the rainforest as Brazil’s “economic soul” and “sovereign territory” to conquer and exploit. Since his inauguration in January 2019, the rate of deforestation has dramatically risen by 92% as satellite data reveals 46,000 fires raging across Amazonia – an 111% increase from the previous year.
Defending the Amazon: The Plight of Indigenous Communities
Indigenous activist Nina Gualinga has been advocating for climate justice and indigenous rights since age 8. Woman leader of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Gualinga has long recognised the dangers which threaten her community’s existence since an Ecuadorian oil company invaded their lands two decades ago.
In an interview with ethical fashion brand Stella McCartney and digital media platform Earthrise, Gualinga explains how indigenous peoples – who have defended the forest for thousands of years – are some of the first to suffer climate breakdown. In 2020, extreme flooding hit her community which washed away generations of hard work and agriculture.
Since President Bolsonaro’s imperious presidency, government incentives have increased human activity and so-called “fire days” in the Amazon, with oil extraction and agribusiness development insidiously bleeding in to pristine indigenous forest and violating indigenous collective rights.
Indigenous knowledge is the panacea to a planet in crisis. Unlike western societies which manifest a dangerously myopic attitude of unchecked extraction and exploitation, indigenous peoples have maintained a strong connection with nature which, in the face of climate change, we can’t afford to lose. According to a 2017 study, indigenous agriculture represents much of the Amazon we know today as communities from 8,000 years ago domesticated species such as the cocoa bean and brazil nut; capturing a powerful moment in human history where we are creating biodiversity rather than destroying it.
In order to protect the Amazon biome, and other essential ecosystems, we must first protect those indigenous peoples who possess the age-old wisdom to live in deep reciprocity with the natural world.
The Global Leather Industry & Bangladesh’s Toxic Tanneries
Bangladesh’s leather industry is flourishing as business leaders propel towards a $920 million target for 20-21financial year. Having already reached $ 602.06 million in the first eight months, the rising success of Bangladesh’s leather sector chiefly relates to leather footwear exports, according to World Footwear. Although leather production creates huge socio-economic development in Bangladesh, turning animal skin in to buttery leather shoes is a filthy business as the world bears witness to a shocking display of human suffering and environmental chaos.
Communities in Chaos: Hazaribagh and Savar Leather Districts
Bangladeshi communities are breaking under the unethical conditions perpetuated by the global leather industry. Hazaribagh, a slum in Dhaka, was once home to 95% of leather tanneries in Bangladesh. The Buriganga river runs an impervious black as 22,000 cubic metres of toxic waste choked its waterways every day; transforming this once essential natural resource in to the fifth most polluted location on earth.
Crippling labour practices expose tannery workers –including children – to a lethal cocktail of hazardous chemicals which are released in to the air, waterways and streets. International humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières led a comprehensive health assessment on 282 tanneries and found an extreme shortage of protective equipment resulting in workers suffering a multitude of health conditions from asthma to lung cancer. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 90% of residence and workers in Hazaribagh district were not expected to live beyond the age of 50.
Following global pressure in 2017, over 150 tanneries moved from Hazaribagh to The Leather Industrial Park in Savar, Dhaka in the hope the situation would improve. Now hazardous chemicals are relentlessly dumped in to Savar’s Dhaleshwari river which is poisoning the local community and ecosystem. Richard Pearshouse, associate director of environmental programme Human Rights Watch, called the move a “disaster foretold” as political apathy continues to see the sector rife with child exploitation, lethal working conditions and environmental hazards.
COVID-19 & Bangladesh’s Leather Industry
The COVID-19 pandemic has explicitly highlighted the vast inequalities many countries frequently endure as vulnerable populations disproportionately shoulder the consequences of the virus.
In Bangladesh, the pandemic is both a public health and economic crisis. A survey by labour rights group Transparentem found the pandemic has made “an already precarious situation untenable” for workers in Savar’s leather tanning district in Dhaka. Transparentem reveals communities have been thrown in to further financial turmoil as numerous workers cannot provide for their families. “I have no money, I cannot provide for my family,” says one of the 100 responders of the survey, “I cannot fulfil my children’s needs properly. My life is full of sorrows.”
Leather Tanneries: Rife with Child Labour
Child exploitation is endemic in Bangladesh’s manufacturing industries. A report by the United States Bureau of International Affairs reveals children in Bangladesh suffer some of the “worst forms of child labour”, and an estimated 1.28 million children forcibly work in “hazardous sectors” such as Bangladesh’s leather tanneries.
Children are repeatedly exposed to toxic chemicals – such as chromium and formaldehyde – with little to no protective equipment. An investigation by PBS NewsHour, in partnership with Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, found children are invariably subjected to the most dangerous working environments in tanneries: “The children are in the pits working with chemicals, in essentially vats full of acid.”
Although government initiatives have removed 90,000 children from perilous working conditions since 2017 and the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons removed 1,000 working children from 558 factories in 2019, there are fears children are now increasingly vulnerable to further exploitation as poverty pushes families, communities and industries to dizzying levels of financial hardship following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Are Vegan Shoes Better for the Environment?
Eating a plant-based diet is not only a choice based on animal ethics, but one of increasing environmental significance. Our food system – which is powered by a global appetite for animal products – is the catalyst in driving climate breakdown and unparalleled biodiversity loss. A report by thinktank Chatham House reveals going vegan is crucial to saving global wildlife and is the “single biggest way” to reduce your carbon footprint by up to 73%, according to a study by the University of Oxford.
But, can we draw the same environmental conclusions when it comes to vegan footwear? The demand for vegan garments has mushroomed across fashion and footwear industries in recent years, with the vegan leather market predicted to reach £73 billion by 2025. Whilst opting for vegan shoes bypasses the notoriously cruel and environmentally destructive animal leather trade, you could instead be inadvertently contributing to another colossal sustainability issue: plastic pollution.
Polyvinyl (PVC) or Polyurethane (PU)?
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is one of the most extensively used plastic polymers in the world. Due to its versatility and cheap production PVC is everywhere; from the pipes in your plumbing to the toys your children play with. One of the first polymers to be mass produced by faux leather designers, you can invariably find PVC wrapped around your feet due to its capacity to effectively mould in to a variety of leather-like textures.
However, there is a disturbing caveat which haunts PVC’s success as environmental organisation Greenpeace warns: “PVC is the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics.” The problem with PVC is that it not only requires a significant amount of finite resources (namely crude-oil) to produce, it also releases a deluge of hazardous chlorine-based chemicals throughout its entire lifecycle which infiltrate our waterways, air and food chain.
Chlorine-based chemicals cause the unintentional release of dioxins which the World Health Organisation link to serious health issues such as immune system damage, reproductive problems and cancer.
What is becoming more popular within fashion circles is polyurethane (PU) – a far less toxic alternative to PVC. Fashion brand Stella McCartney creates leather alternatives from water borne and solvent-free PU which uses less energy, water and is safer to produce. Although PU leather creates up to 24 times less environmental impact than animal leather, the brand acknowledges “synthetic alternatives are not without concern.”
Are Plastic Vegan Shoes the Most Cruelty-Free Option?
An estimated 12 million tonnes of plastic chokes the ocean every year – that’s one truckload of rubbish every minute.
According to a scientific study, the release of synthetic microfibres, which shed from man-made resources such as textile materials, is considered a “major marine pollutant throughout the world” with approximately 1.5 million trillion microfibres currently present in the ocean. Aquatic species are ingesting these microfibres which blocks digestive tracts, disrupts reproduction rates and causes disease and organ damage. With plastic pollution leaving a devasting legacy for our planet’s marine life, is synthetic vegan footwear really the most cruelty-free option?
Climate activist and vegan Venetia La Manna avoids vegan shoes made from plastic: “If I’m buying new, I buy kicks made from vegan and sustainably sourced materials.” Perhaps contrary to mainstream vegan beliefs, La Manna acknowledges, “we should be prioritising garments, bags and accessories that are already existing” so would not rule out buying a vintage pair of animal leather shoes over new synthetic ones if it means potentially less waste and animal harm in the long-term.
Vegan Shoes: A Plant-based Future
Many vegan footwear designers have creatively ventured over the foothills of plastic pollution in recent years; working towards replacing virgin synthetic materials with a remarkable plethora of natural and sustainable alternatives.
For French-based footwear brand VEJA, developing a plastic-based leather alternative has “never been an option”, with the brand instead creating vegan shoes derived from upcycled corn; a bio-sourced material which provides the same quality and soft texture as standard leather. Spanish shoe brand SAYE use bio-based materials for its vegan leather footwear made from recycled mango, as well as recently developing a new model made from cactus, corn and bamboo.
Larger footwear brands are too exploring naturally-derived leather alternatives. In April 2021, sneaker giant Adidas produced Stan Smith Mylo™ , the first ever shoe made using Bolt Thread’s bio-based material Mylo. Mylo is engineered from mycelium – the part of fungi which provides “sustenance to all living species and is the literal world-wide web.”
If the somewhat inchoate stages of naturally-derived vegan footwear are already showing incredible promise, the green potential of this burgeoning industry is undoubtedly far-reaching.
Do Vegan Shoes Last?
As fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood once said, “buy less, choose well, make it last.” And the same principle applies to vegan shoes: the higher the quality, the more durable your pair will be.
It is safe say most high-quality vegan shoes are an investment. In the throes of fast fashion where we are accustomed to buying a frenzy of cheap products, we have perhaps lost sight of the true cost of long-lasting footwear made under ethical and sustainable conditions.
Are Synthetic Vegan Shoes Durable?
As with any product, the quality of vegan shoes can be extensive – especially when made from synthetic materials – so it’s important to do your research. For many vegan footwear brands featured in this guide, synthetics have become a reliable and ubiquitous component across numerous styles.
BHAVA uses “durable and innovative materials” including premium recycled microfibres to create “timeless designs” which “last for years”. MATT & NAT employ “high quality vegan materials” such as polyurethane and “perform several quality control tests on all new materials and styles” to ensure longevity across the seasons. The quality and durability of Stella McCartney’s synthetics based “Alter Nappa” is frequently mistaken for animal leather as designer Stella McCartney notes, “that’s really where it becomes sexy. Where you’re not just providing an alternative…you’re creating a great product.”
How Long-Lasting Are Vegan Shoes Made from Natural Materials?
The finesse and durability of naturally-derived vegan footwear has excelled in recent years. Used by nearly 3000 brands in 80 countries, Piñatex –a material derived from pineapple fibres – has become a popular sustainable alternative to leather clothing and shoes.
Capitalising on fruit waste, founder Carmen Hisjosa likens Piñatex to standard leather due to its robust qualities: “it’s water resistant, it’s very light […] and it’s got very good tensile strength.” According to Hisjosa, 27 million tonnes of surplus biomass is leftover after the pineapple harvest which could sustain the world’s annual leather production for shoes without using additional land or draining finite resources.
Fruitleather Rotterdam transforms discarded fruit –namely mangos – into leather-like materials. As the company continues to increase its supply to major fashion and footwear brands, founders Hugo de Bloom and Koen Meerkerk believe the “flexing resistance” to be just as good as animal leather and are always “working on new developments to make it even stronger.” Consumers are reportedly “flabbergasted” at Fruitleather’s finished product and wonder “how is this possible?” that fruit waste can so successfully emulate traditional leather.
Still, the pair acknowledge a blend of natural and synthetic materials is currently essential to guarantee longevity: “Consumers might want a sustainable backing, but they also want the material to last […] so you need to have a certain aspect where your material stays good and right now that is with polyurethane.” Although not the most sustainable solution, the Dutch duo are working towards creating a 100% biodegradable material in the future.
What is a Vegan-Friendly Shoe & Boot?
A vegan-friendly shoe and boot is one which excludes animal products – such as leather, suede, silk, wool, felts and fur – and is free from materials that have been tested on animals. One way to find out if a pair of shoes are vegan-friendly is by looking at the label which details the composition and materials used. The symbol shaped like a cowhide rug means the shoe is made from animal leather, whilst the crosshatched square and diamond shape indicates no animal products.
Are Shoe Glues & Dyes Vegan?
What is challenging, and perhaps seldom considered when choosing vegan-friendly footwear, is identifying which shoe glues and textile dyes are animal-free. Although many fabrics are now synthetically dyed, animal-based dyes (or so-called “natural” dyes) are still used within the fashion and footwear industries. Colouring agents can derive from a motley of animal products including: carmine from insects, sepia from octopus link and tyrian purple from sea snails.
Types of shoe glues are made from animal proteins like collagen extracted from animal skin, bones and muscle, or milk products. If in doubt, contact the shoe brand directly for clarity but ultimately “just do your best, because being vegan isn’t about personal purity” as PETA kindly reminds us.
What is a Vegan Certification?
Vegan certifications are a great way to know if a pair of shoes, or boots, is vegan-friendly. A certification helps consumers make ethical choices and ensures companies, suppliers and products are adhering to the highest possible vegan standards. According to The Vegan Society, “over 90% of vegans and vegetarians look for vegan verification, and 85% believe third-party certification is important.”
Here are some vegan certifications to look out for when choosing your new pair of shoes:
- PETA – Approved Vegan: With over 1,000 companies now accredited, the PETA-Approved Vegan logo highlights which products are animal and cruelty-free; “helping ethical consumers identify where to shop with confidence, safe in the knowledge that they’re not supporting the exploitation of animals.” To become certified, companies are required to complete a questionnaire and statement of assurance which is also completed by manufacturers and suppliers.
- The Vegan Trademark: Verifying thousands of brands since 1990, the Vegan Trademark is the most internationally recognised vegan standard facilitated by The Vegan Society; helping companies “shout about their vegan credentials” as they champion the “ever growing demand for vegan products.” Products are required to meet strict criteria and standards, with the Vegan Trademark renewed each year.
- BeVeg Certified: Determined to boost consumer confidence and integrate legitimacy across the vegan market, BeVeg is the “gold standard for global vegan certification” and ISO accredited. To become BeVeg certified, companies are asked a series of rigorous questions focusing on areas such as ingredients, animal testing and chances of cross-contamination. Alongside ensuring legal compliance, BeVeg conduct a “cross-examination process” to guarantee suppliers and the origin of ingredients meet vegan standards.
- Certified Vegan (Vegan Action): Striving to bring veganism “into the mainstream”, the Certified Vegan Logo is a registered trademark used on thousands of products by over 1,000 companies globally. For a product to achieve Certified Vegan status, it must not contain any animal products or by-products, together with no animal testing or cross-contamination.
More FAQs About Vegan Shoes
Can Sandals Be Vegan?
Yes. Many footwear brands produce an array of vegan sandals made from either synthetic or naturally-derived materials; helping consumers make ethical choices across the seasons. Here are the brands featured in this guide which are championing the vegan sandal market:
Will’s Vegan Store
MATT & NAT
Nae Vegan Shoes
What is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather emulates standard leather but instead of animal skins, it is derived from synthetic or plant-based materials. Footwear designers will often use two types of plastic polymer called polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or sustainable resources such as mangos, pineapple leaves (Piñatex), cork and recycled plastic bottles.
Why Are Vegan Heels So Expensive?
Vegan heels can be expensive but, in most cases, a worthwhile investment; especially when the higher cost is due to footwear brands ensuring fair and ethical working conditions, as well as using high-quality cruelty-free and sustainable materials.
What Are Vegan Sneakers Made Of?
Most vegan sneakers are made from an eclectic range of animal-free materials. Some sneakers are produced using synthetics such as polyurethane, rubber and recycled trash; whilst others are powered by plant-based alternatives like mangos, mushrooms and bananas. As sneakers can be notoriously complex in design –and usually consist of several component parts – it is not always clear whether materials (e.g. shoe glue) are 100% cruelty-free. If in doubt, contact the sneaker brand directly for advice.
How Do You Care for Vegan Shoes?
Caring for your vegan shoes is simple but the cleaning instructions can vary depending on the material. For bio-based and synthetic vegan leathers, the general advice is: mild soap or detergent and a non-abrasive cloth. Some vegan shoe brands, such as NAE and BHAVA, advise customers to apply an organic polishing cream or protective spray after wiping. For textile-based shoes, you can gently brush with cold water and soap (VEJA recommend Marseille), and polishing creams should be avoided on materials like cork and recycled plastic.
Does Synthetic Mean Vegan?
Generally, synthetic does mean vegan. Synthetic materials (such as polyurethane used for vegan leather) are artificially-derived and so are not animal-based. However, there is a small caveat to this: some mainstream shoe brands may be less diligent at ensuring all components are animal-free. Many synthetic shoes are made cheaply which doesn’t tend to align with most sustainable vegan shoe brands which prioritise high quality, slow fashion items and ethical working conditions.
Are Nike Shoes Vegan?
Athletic footwear giant Nike perennially churn out a manifold of countless shoe styles per year, with the mainstream marvel believed to sell 25 pairs of shoes every second. But which Nike shoes are vegan? We contacted Nike directly to find out:
“While Nike does not maintain a list of all non-animal products, we do recommend looking for styles that use full grain leather or textile material. All performance shoes are free of animal products. They’re made up of textile material (mesh, Flyknit, Dri-FIT, etc.) and/or synthetic leather. Please note, Nike Monarch is a Training/Lifestyle shoe and includes some leather.”
So, good news! As synthetic and textile-based footwear are mostly animal-free, a significant proportion of Nike footwear is vegan-friendly. Due to Nike offering vegan, and non-vegan options, it is worth checking the product details and composition before purchasing.
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