Are Vegan Shoes Truly Better for the Environment? Production and Sustainability

Vegan shoes are often cruelty-free, but how eco-friendly are they?

These Boots Are Made For Walkin'
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Demand for vegan shoes—manufactured without the use of animal-based fibers or materials—is on the rise. The market for synthetic leather, in particular, is expected to grow to $78.5 billion by 2025. This can be attributed to a growing interest in cruelty-free products, as well as improvements in the production and quality of vegan shoes.

Still, the environmental impacts of vegan shoe materials are not well documented. Here, we explore the sustainability of vegan shoes—both what production companies are doing right, and what can be improved.

What Are Vegan Shoes Made Of?

As expected, the materials used to create sneakers, work boots, and high heels vary. Common shoe materials include leather, textiles, rubber, plastic, and others.

While the majority of vegan shoes are made from petroleum-based plastics such as polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), there are other notable players in the plant-based shoe realm.

Waste Products

An estimated 30-40% of the food supply is wasted in the United States, and about 20 billion pounds of this is lost on farms. Because of this, several companies are seeking to reduce waste by creating textiles, including synthetic leathers, from plant-based agricultural waste.

Materials from industries such as pineapples, apples, mangoes, oranges, cactus, corn silk, and even maple leaves are mixed with additives to produce a leather-like textile. These materials have been used to create various leather-like accessories, including vegan shoes.

Natural Plant Sources

Rubber is a common material for the outer soles of shoes. It can also be combined with reclaimed latex leather to produce a vegan raw material for footwear. Cork, which is vegan, has been used in the soles of shoes for millennia; it is now being used as other parts of the shoe, as well. You'll also find shoe components made from algae.

Likewise, bamboo have become a more popular material in the fashion industry. Textiles made from this plant go through an extensive process, and studies show the fabric makes great upper shoe material. There are also a few companies that are creating leather-like materials from mushroom fungus.

How Are Vegan Shoes Made?

Mature shoemaker working on a new product
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There are multiple processes involved in making any pair of shoes. The exact number of steps will depend on the production methods used by a factory, the materials, and the end-use of the shoe. However, the basic steps are still the same.

Design and Pattern

Every shoe begins as a simple design. The design process isn't only about what the shoe looks like but also how it performs.

Once the design is finalized, a pattern is created for the shoe. This will involve the use of a foot mold called a last. The last is one of the most important components of shoe design as it determines how well a shoe will fit. A well-designed mold determines whether a shoe is kept for years or worn once and then discarded, left to waste away in a landfill.

This phase is also going to dictate the specific materials used and, therefore, determine exactly how sustainable the shoe will end up being.

Several pieces within the pattern will eventually come together to create the final shoe. Each component is then cut out from the intended shoe material using the pattern.

Assembling the Shoe

There are multiple ways to put together each part of the shoe. Much of the upper portion of the shoe will be sewn together, while assembly of the sole can be different. Cheaper, less expensive shoes use a strong adhesive to attach the sole called cement construction. Footwear made to last is typically sewn or nailed into place.

One downside to shoe production is that the adhesives are harmful to those who work with them. Popular shoe glue used for shoe repairs cautions against getting any residue on the skin and recommends wearing latex or nitrile gloves. Most of these glues are liquid forms of polyurethane, which are also harmful to the environment.

Benefits of Vegan Shoes

The environmental impacts of the leather industry have been well documented, from the raising of cows in factory farms to the tanning process. Livestock farming is not only a large contributor to greenhouse gases, it also has a heavy impact on surrounding soil and water systems. The tanning process involves toxic chemicals that can also leak into surrounding water systems.

With the influx of new materials, vegan shoes can offer a more environmentally friendly option. Here are just some common benefits.

No Animal Cruelty

Since no animal skins or by-products are used in the making of vegan shoes, there is no direct harm to animals—so you can feel good about your vegan shoe purchase.

Comparable Performance

One study has shown that leather alternatives perform similarly to leather when well constructed. The study tested tensile strength, tear resistance, water permeability, and flex resistance. All important factors when purchasing shoes that you want to last a while.

Water Resistant

A huge win for non-leather shoes is their water resistance. Though not all vegan materials carry this badge, the majority of synthetic leathers repel water. As a result, those wearing vegan shoes don't have to worry as much about the rain.

Lower Cost

Vegan shoes are less expensive to produce, which makes them more financially accessible to purchase. Piñatex boasts a production cost that is 30% less than leather.

Environmental Impacts

Leather alternatives such as Desserto, Kombucha, Pinatex, Noani, Appleskin, Vegea, SnapPap, Teak Leaf, and Muskin—as well as vegan materials such as cork and algae—offer much more environmentally friendly options to leather. Unfortunately, much of the vegan shoe industry still uses PU or PVC plastics.

At each stage of its life cycle, plastic has negative environmental effects. During production, workers have to be mindful of long-term exposure to the isocyanates. Likewise, plastics are degradation resistant, which makes them useful for the length of a product's life but environmentally hazardous once they end up in a landfill.

Vegan shoes may not always be 100% environmentally friendly, but they are still a step in the right direction. We recommend choosing shoes made from the many plant-based materials in use today.