Are vegan shoes eco-friendly?
Whether vegan shoes are eco-friendly or not depends on what materials they’re made from. Synthetic fashion used to use a lot of plastic PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or cheap PU (polyurethane) ‘leather’, which aren't biodegradable. Thankfully, improved technology has seen all sorts of sustainable materials take PVC’s place.
Here are vegan shoe materials to look out for, ranked from the most to least sustainable:
Bio-based fibres – repurposed natural materials like hemp, rubber, cotton, bamboo and cork, plus ‘vegan leather’ fibres made from materials like coconut, corn, sugar cane, pineapple leaves, mushrooms or algae.
Recycled or upcycled materials – reusing manmade materials like PET plastics will help to reduce their environmental impact. Some companies even use closed-loop recycling programs to create new shoes from returned worn-out shoes.
Microfibre synthetic leather – this material is often OEKO-TEX 100 certified, meaning that its materials have been tested and proven to not include harmful substances.
Polyurethane (PU) – soft, pliable but non-biodegradable plastic that can imitate leather. PU is the most widely used non-animal leather. It varies wildly in quality and eco-friendly manufacturing techniques.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – toxic, petroleum-based and non-biodegradable plastic. When people say ‘pleather’ (plastic leather), this is usually what they’re referring to.
Is synthetic leather better than animal leather?
“While synthetic leather is not the final solution to the fashion industry's woes, it is more ethical and less environmentally harmful than cow skin and other animal leathers,” Mead said. “Today, there are companies making vegan leather from these otherwise wasted parts of fruits like grapes and apples and even mangoes!”
Vegan Styles carries ‘leather’ shoes made from pineapple leaves, apples and – in the future – even mushroom. “Pineapple leaf leather, or Piñatex, is the most popular form of ‘fruit leather’, and is made from 95% pineapple leaves, and coated with a bio-resin made from fermented sugarcane,” Mead said. “We are one of the first places in Australia to carry shoes made of Piñatex.”
Is PU leather still better than animal leather?
When it comes to the environment, absolutely. While PU leather isn’t biodegradable, it has a far smaller environmental impact than animal leather.
“PU has a carbon cost about 7x smaller than that of cow leather, and a water footprint about 14x smaller,” Mead explained. “There are many kinds of synthetic leather that have an even further reduced impact.”
According to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, cow skin leather is the third most environmentally harmful material to produce after silk and alpaca wool. Animal farming also significantly contributes to deforestation. Leather factories then need to use massive amounts of water and potentially dangerous chemicals like hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and chromium to tan, condition and shape leather into shoes. As a result, leather factories tend to contaminate their surrounding water and air with harmful toxins and dyes, which affects local plants and wildlife and can introduce carcinogens into human bodies.