Fiona is the editor of Plantpuree, a website that celebrates vegan living. With over 20 years in diet & fitness, fashion, and beauty, she brings a wealth of knowledge and a unique perspective to her work and writing on veganism.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Curious about vegan shoes? This post explains everything you need to know – from how they’re made, to the ethical and environmental benefits, and how to find them. We’ll also point you toward some of the coolest vegan shoes and brands in the market right now. With our help, finding gorgeous, high-quality, comfortable vegan footwear just became easier!
Table of Contents
5 Key Takeaways
- Your choice of shoes impacts the environment, people, and animal welfare.
- Vegan shoes can be made from plastic-based, plant-based and fully biodegradable materials.
- Not all vegan shoes are eco-friendly.
- Even synthetic, plastic shoes have only one-third of the environmental impact of animal leather shoes.
- Vegan shoes are as cool, comfortable, and high performing as their non-vegan equivalents. Think vegan Docs and Veja’s!
What are Vegan Shoes And Why Should We Care?
The simple answer is that a vegan shoe is any shoe that doesn’t contain animal-derived materials and, like all other forms of veganism, avoids the often horrific exploitation of animals. Even if you are not vegan, investing in cruelty-free shoes is a conscious decision that can have a positive impact on the environment, people, and animal welfare.
Vegan Shoes Avoid Animal Exploitation
Choosing vegan shoes helps to reduce demand for leather which often involves barbaric practices around the way animals are raised and slaughtered in the leather industry. Many of these animals typically undergo numerous horrific practices, including extreme crowding and confinement, deprivation of necessities, and physical mutilation without pain relief. (1)
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, over 1 billion animals were slaughtered for their hides between 2019 and 2020, with China, US, and Brazil each producing over 100 tonnes of animal skins. (2) These hides are from cows, calves, goats, lambs, and even cats and dogs in China. (3)
Animal rights campaigners such as PETA continue to speak out against the horrific practice of skinning dogs to make leather in China. (4) The Guardian highlights that although importing cat and dog skins are banned, without DNA testing there is no way of telling the difference between these leathers and cow, pig or goat skin; as a result, it is entirely possible these leathers are sitting in retail stores today. (5,6)
Within the leather industry, leather footwear accounts for the highest use at 37% of all leather. (7) That’s an astonishing number of abused animals used just to produce our shoes and it’s within our power to reduce that number.
Vegan Shoes Have a Lower Carbon Footprint
If you care about the environment, there are many benefits to choosing vegan shoes over leather shoes. The way leather is produced has some harmful environmental consequences in that livestock breeding creates problems such as deforestation, water and land shortages, and harmful gas emissions.
“Each year, 13 billion hectares of forest area are lost due to land conversion for agricultural uses as pastures or cropland, for both food and livestock feed crop production.”Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (8)
The largest driver of deforestation in the world has been land for rearing cattle in the Amazon. From 1988 to 2014, 480,000 kilometers of the Brazilian Amazon turned into pasture for cattle due to destructive practices such as clear-cutting. (9) This not only diminishes regional water availability and soil fertility, but also negatively impacts biodiversity.
Worse still, climatologists believe that ranching – including raising livestock for leather – is fueling climate change. (10,11)
We should point out that not all vegan shoes are completely “environmentally friendly.” And while it is true that vegan shoes generally have a smaller carbon footprint, there is some debate on the environmental impact of synthetic leathers made from PVCs, PU and other poly-composite microfibers. We’ll touch on this more later in the post.
Vegan Shoes Do Not Produce Toxic Poisons
Not only is animal leather associated with the high carbon footprint of animal meat, but it also requires tanning during production – which some experts have deemed the most toxic part of leather creation.
Tanning results in the release of carcinogenic chromium that ends up polluting waterways and causing acute health damage to tannery workers, some of which are children. (12,13)
According to Lancaster University, in many countries, such as Mexico, Brazil, China, Argentina, India, and Pakistan, environmental protection and industrial emissions laws are either non-existent or rarely enforced. (14)
In his short feature, The Toxic Price of Leather, Sean Gallagher looks at the impact of the leather and tanning industry in Kanpur India. Although the video dates back to 2013, a 2022 article in Business Today indicates the discharge of toxic chemicals into the Ganges is still a problem. (15)
According to Gallagher, every day 50 million litres of toxic tannery wastewater is generated by Kanpur’s tanneries. Eighty percent of this dangerous wastewater is released into the Ganges and on local farmland rendering the fields unusable.
In addition, years of exposure to these chemicals have left locals with a series of chronic health conditions. A study of workers in Kanpur suggests they suffer double the levels of morbidity than normal. (16)
Do Vegan Shoes Use Eco-Friendly Materials?
Vegan shoes are made with a variety of non-animal leather materials. However, not all are eco-friendly, biodegradable, or sustainable because some of these materials contain plastic and vary in terms of their environmental impact.
The majority of vegan leather is made from synthetic materials like polyurethane and PVC, which imitate the look and feel of leather.
Clearly, PVC and PU are not ideal materials because of their non-biodegradable nature. Plastic footwear poses a threat to the environment during its lifespan and long after it has been disposed of. If plastic shoes end up in water or landfill, they take years to degrade and release toxic chemicals into the environment. This is unsustainable and damaging to our planet.
Even so, PVC or PU leather can actually have a lower impact on the environment than real leather. According to The Environmental Profit & Loss, a sustainability report developed in 2018 by Kering, the environmental impact can be up to 33% lower than that of standard leather.
Nevertheless, the point is – PVC and PU vegan alternatives, while avoiding animal exploitation, are not sustainable and are not good for the environment.
The good news is this: there are sustainable options in the form of plant leathers. Rather than sourcing petroleum-based products, plant-based leather is made from natural materials- including grapes, apple, mushroom, corn, mango, pineapple and cactus. We should also mention that these fabrications rely on waste materials, using plant parts that would otherwise be discarded.
Many vegan brands, for example, Nae and Wills Vegan Store use a combination of these materials for both style and function.
Finally, keep your eyes out for innovative developments in bio-degradable shoes by Orba and Oat. Both companies are working to reduce the environmental impact of footwear by creating shoes that decompose at the end of their life. This addresses the alarming issue of billions of shoes ending up in landfill each year.
Overall, there is still work to be done in order for vegan shoes to be fully eco-friendly and sustainable, but it’s encouraging to see that many brands are making strides toward these goals.
Are Vegan Shoes Comfortable?
The answer is yes! Unfortunately, in the past ‘pleather’ shoes have been associated with painful blisters, uncomfortable rubbing, and poor fit. However, vegan shoes are now made using a wide variety of contemporary materials with durability, comfort and style as a focus for many vegan brands.
These new materials are often just as soft and comfortable as their animal-based counterparts, but without the ethical concerns. (17) For example, Dr Martens claims that their vegan Doc Martens are easier to break-in than their leather styles. (18)
The Bottom Line
Choosing vegan shoes is a small yet powerful step towards living a more compassionate and environmentally responsible lifestyle. Regardless of the reason for choosing them, there are now more options than ever before when it comes to finding stylish and high-quality vegan shoes. Some brands to look for include Allkind Vegan, Bohema, Humans Are Vain, and Ahimsa. With an increasing variety of stylish and high-performing options available on the market, it has never been easier to make ethical choices in our footwear. Let’s all strive to be mindful consumers and make the compassionate choice – choose vegan shoes!
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(3) Camilli, Sascha. Vegan Style p61
(11) Eshel, G., et al. 2014. Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(33), pp.11996-12001.