Ethical shoes: what's out there for vegans and vegetarians?

vegan shoes
Leather is no longer the only option out there for footwear but do the eco credentials of leather-free alternatives stand up to scrutiny?

Shoes, particularly those made of leather, are a real problem for vegans and vegetarians. Should you compromise your principles and go hell for leather? Or should you suppress environmental concerns and accept that your shoes will be made from plastic or another fossil fuel derived material? Whichever way you go, further issues turn up. Take leather for instance. Traditionally, animal hides were turned into leather via a chemical tanning process, which uses toxic - and often carcinogenic - substances such as chrome, acids and ammonium salts. When the leather industry expanded, there was a huge rise in industrial waste and pollution from tanneries.

Although this is still the case in some places, concern about the environmental impact has led to a switch towards vegetable tanning.  While this has helped the environmentally conscious consumer, it still presents a problem for vegans. So is there a green alternative to vegetable tanned leather? An increasing number of brands are following in the animal-friendly footsteps of designers such as Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Mark Bouwer by selling shoes that don’t use animal products. The question is: can these rival non-vegan shoes, without compromising on the environment, quality and style?

According to Brian Woodward, manager of ethical shoe boutique, Freerangers, they already do. ‘There is the misconception that vegan shoes are less fashionable than leather ones, but they aren’t. There is a good choice of vegan shoes these days and they have received a renewed popularity because the materials have got better. I don’t see vegan shoes as replacing leather ones in the foreseeable future, but I do see them running side by side for a long time.’ As more top designers switch to non-leather alternatives, the mainstream profile of vegan shoes is becoming increasingly prominent.

Rebecca Henderson, Advocacy Officer at the Vegan Society, says the fashion industry is reluctant to give up leather completely. She argues that the popularity of leather is a result of a perception - rather than reality - of its superiority. ‘A lot of the designer brands are quite committed to leather because it is seen as a luxury item. However, vegan shoes can and do rival leather shoes in terms of style and comfort. Until society’s perception changes, vegan shoes won’t eclipse leather shoes – but they will certainly strongly compete with them. It’s very easy to find them – both on the high street and online - and there are some exclusively vegan companies that produce beautiful shoes,’ she continues. ‘People actually see vegan shoes all the time; it’s just that they are under the mistaken impression that they couldn’t be vegan.’

So what’s out there? There are a variety of non-leather options available most of which are synthetics. Naugahyde, lorica and microfibers are among the most common, which ‘breathe in exactly the same way as leather,’ according to Woodward. But what about the impact of these fabrics on the planet? ‘There will always be a clash of interest between environmental and animal welfare concerns,’ says Woodward, ‘but when you factor in the environmental impact of the leather industry, synthetic fibres are certainly no worse. There is a misconception that leather will disintegrate very quickly, but it doesn’t.’ Eco-friendly options do now exist for vegans. Shoe brand, Melissa, has developed Melflex, a recyclable plastic, which they use in most of their shoes, while other brands favour natural fabrics such as cotton, cork, hemp and linen. Either way, if you’re vegan, your feet have a fashionable future to look forward to.

Five vegan shoe brands to try

Beyond Skin
One of the first ethical shoe brands to launch, everything produced by Beyond Skin is either organic, green, vegan or vegetarian – or all four. The S/S12 collection includes a wide range of sandals, heels and flats that don’t compromise on style or sustainability.
Our pick: Brights are one of summer’s hottest trends and wedges are the key shape for shoes, so Beyond Skin’s Siam wedges, £172.00, tick all the style boxes. Made from a mixture of breathable faux leather and recycled plastic, these are the perfect way for vegans and environmentalists alike to walk into spring.
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Along with the One for One philosophy, which sees one pair of shoes donated to those in need for every pair bought, TOMS also produces colourful vegan versions of its classic flats.
Our pick: One of the few brands to offer a leather-free option for children, their brightly patterned Tiny TOMS Vegan Classics, £24, will let your child take his or her first steps towards an eco-conscious life in style.
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Chinese Laundry
A one-stop shop for vegans in need of shoes, Chinese Laundry specialises in fabulously fashionable footwear with reasonable prices and plenty of choice.
Our pick: A perennial favourite, gladiators do double duty for work and holidays, so check out Chinese Laundry’s Vesperas, £37. Available in a choice of black or gold and enlivened with a touch of eco-bling, they’re great for jazzing up your jeans.
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Loved by vegans and non-vegans alike, so cool is Brazilan shoe specialist Melissa, it regularly collaborates with Vivienne Westwood. As a result, it’s become the go-to brand for ultra-fashionable, ultra-ethical shoes.
Our pick: With a five inch heel, Melissa’s Skyscraper shoes, £125, certainly live up to their name. Available in a choice of six different colours including shocking pink, yellow, green and black, they look fabulous teamed with a pair of skinny jeans or a pencil skirt for a stylish night out.
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Specialising in the sort of laid back cool synonymous with Milanese style, NOAH is Italy’s best known vegan shoe brand and doesn’t let the side down. It’s not particularly edgy but if you’re looking for a classic style to wear and love for years to come, NOAH is for you.
Our pick: As spring sets in, Noah’s trendy Christoph deck shoes, £122, come into their own with a pair of jeans or chinos for a suavely summery look. Soft, durable, dirt and water-resistant, these are great for walks in the park or country getaways.
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