What Makes a Shoe Sustainable?

Laced up and ready to go
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With interest in sustainable products growing each day, it is time to ask what makes some shoes more sustainable than others. Much of the focus over the years has been on fast fashion and the harm that it does to the environment. Recently, this talk has centered around garment workers, the conditions they work in, and the low wages they receive for often hazardous work. The shoes we wear are often produced under similar conditions, yet they receive much less attention. Just like clothes, the materials a shoe is made from and the working conditions under which it is produced factor into its overall sustainability.

Sustainable Shoe Materials

As technology evolves, so do our options of sustainable fabrics from which to choose. The source of the fabric of a pair of shoes, as well as the longevity of the final product, can factor into its sustainability. Sustainable shoe materials can include natural fibers or upcycled and recycled materials. The plant-based vegan leather industry, for example, sourcing fibers from mushrooms, apples, and even cacti. In addition, shoe soles are being made with materials such as cork and algae

Natural Fibers

Cotton Plant
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Natural fiber is anything that comes from a plant or animal. Natural fibers include organic cotton, hemp, wool, flax, and eucalyptus. Leather would technically fall into this category as well. 

Arguments could be made for leather’s longevity and durability; however, tanning is arguably the most toxic portion of processing leather because of the use of chromium. About 90% of leather is made with chromium, which overshadows the sustainable production of the other 10% — not to mention the well-known troubles within the cattle industry and the heavy chemical pollution associated with leather.

The number one reason natural fibers are sustainable is because they come from renewable resources, unlike petroleum-based materials. Renewable simply means it is a resource that can be replenished naturally within one's lifetime. 

How a crop is grown, harvested, and processed can add to its sustainability. For example, 80% of organic cotton is rain-fed and thus uses less water than traditional cotton, which is often irrigated due to being grown in dry climates. Hemp uses even less water, land, and pesticides compared to organic cotton. 

The benefits of these sustainable fibers extend beyond the environment and vary depending on the materials used. For instance, hemp fibers are known for their strength, durability, and moth resistance. They are very reactive to dyes and UV resistant, making colors less likely to fade. In general, shoes made with natural materials like this allow your feet to breathe and are often washable. The fabric itself is more likely to be biodegradable and if it’s not blended with any other fiber, they are recyclable.

Repurposed Materials

Vegan shoes made from materials such as pineapples, apples, and cacti could be placed in the natural and repurposed fibers category. These are made with by-products from other processes, adding a zero-waste designation to their sustainability. 

Piñatex, leather-like material made from pineapple leaves, was one of the first plant-based, man-made leathers to hit the market and has stood the test of time. While the first Piñatex products were purses, the company now offers vegan shoes. Companies are also selling apple-, cacti-, and corn-leather products. Mushrooms are being used as high0performance foam in footwear, and vegan shoes made from mushroom leather seem to be on the horizon. 

As conversations regarding plastic waste become increasingly prevalent, more athletic brands are seeing the benefits of using recycled textiles in their sustainable sneakers. Most of these shoes are produced using textiles made from recycled water bottles. Other brands, such as Deux Mains, make sandals with soles made from repurposed tires. 

Transparent Working Conditions

Woman working at a factory making shoes
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As our understanding of sustainability grows, the definition evolves. The term sustainable has not always coincided with ethical production. At worst, workers are forced to work in high heat with little ventilation and in bio-hazardous conditions. These are conditions seen in garment factories within the United States where regulations exist. To make factories safe, employers must make sure workers are properly trained to use machines and handle chemicals. There should be protective equipment implemented to reduce potential harm. This could be in the form of masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment, as well as environmental protection, like adequate ventilation. However, not every factory owner is willing to invest in these safety measures.

In 2013, the collapse of Rana Plaza highlighted the conditions people are forced to work in and the devastating costs of not investing in the safety of workers. The lives of over 1100 people were lost, making the Rana Plaza disaster one of the worst industrial tragedies in modern history. Fast fashion was pushed into the spotlight, yet, somehow, the shoe industry itself remained relatively unscathed. 

But the problematic nature of manufacturing shoes reemerged in recent years, particularly after Nike's 2018 campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. Sneaker brands, such as Nike, have been in and out of the news for years regarding problems with their manufacturing practices. It is a reminder that everything comes at a cost and unethical manufacturing isn’t relegated to fast fashion clothing. It is also a reminder that transparency in manufacturing is just as important to sustainability as the materials shoes are made from. 

Multiple organizations over the years have created methods of judging a brand’s transparency — their willingness to share factories and materials used — in efforts to raise the bar in ethical manufacturing. This transparency is becoming paramount to the consumer as surveys show an increase in awareness and desire to purchase ethical products. Fortunately, as the sustainability market increases, transparency will become much more important. 

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