Are vegan boots and sneakers durable and sustainable?

man wearing vegan leather boots

Danny Baggs

Posted July 01, 2022

As the vegan lifestyle becomes more and more popular, ‘ethical wardrobes’ have become a hallmark of modern fashion. But is vegan footwear, like sneakers and boots, all it's cracked up to be?

From boots to sneakers and everything in between, footwear is a massive industry in Australia. With so many shoes being manufactured each year, it’s important to consider whether yours are ethically and sustainably made. As vegan sneakers, boots and dress shoes become more and more popular in the fashion world, consumers are wondering whether vegan footwear is as good as traditional leather boots and sneakers. We caught up with Vegan Styles founder Justin Mead to help you learn more about vegan footwear.


rows of vegan leather sneakers and boots

Justin's Fitzroy store stocks only vegan products including boots and sneakers. Image: Vegan Styles

Everything you need to know about vegan footwear

What makes shoes vegan?

Vegan shoes must not contain any animal products or by-products.

“A common misconception in the vegan community is that if a shoe is synthetic, it’s vegan, but unfortunately this isn’t true,” said Mead. Your sneakers might be made mostly from canvas and rubber but have a leather logo stitched to its side. Your PU faux leather boots might have a woollen insole. Or a pair of shoes that are otherwise entirely vegan may still have hidden animal-based components.

“Components that may be derived of animal origin include, the toe-box, the heel stiffener, inner soles, the glue, the dye, and even the ends of shoelaces may have beeswax in them,” Mead revealed. The glue that holds most shoes together is made from collagen: processed animal bones, tendons and connective tissues. 

Here are some words that mean your shoes aren’t vegan:

  • Fur

  • Silk

  • Down (feathers) 

  • Leather (suede, nubuck, calfskin, sheepskin, pigskin, snakeskin, etc.)

  • Wool (felt, fleece, merino, angora, mohair, pashmina, shearling, alpaca, etc.)

How can I tell if shoes are vegan?

If you’re shopping online, most brands will label their vegan shoes as such in their product title or description. You can also look at their materials or content in specifications tabs, if available.

If you’re shopping in-store, check the label – usually placed on the insole or inner tongue. You should see a small symbol that denotes what main materials are used in the shoe. Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Cowhide – leather

  • Crosshatch – textile (natural or synthetic), e.g. canvas, nylon, polyester

  • Diamond – plastic, rubber, wood or other material

  • Cowhide with diamond inside – coated leather

 If in doubt – ask the store!


infographic depicting shoe material symbols and what they mean

Shoe labels help you understand what your shoes are made from. Image: June Pearson

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.


woman tying shoelaces of her PU leather boots

Synthetic PU leather is more sustainable than cow leather. Image: Getty

Are vegan shoes comfortable and durable?

While incredibly durable, leather can be difficult to take care of: it cracks, wrinkles and warps if you don’t properly waterproof and condition it. It can also be uncomfortable to wear out of the box and requires wearing in to become snug.

On the other hand, vegan materials are typically comfy straight out of the box and are usually easier to maintain. “Cork, particularly for inner soles, brings a level of comfort and durability to shoes,” Mead said. “Recycled rubber and waterproof materials like high-end PU also stand up to a high level of wear and tear. Good quality canvas shoes are great if you’re looking for comfort and durability at a competitive price.”

Just like any other product, the comfort and durability of vegan shoes will vary according to their quality. “Ultimately it depends on your own personal style, but it’s worth considering monetising the cost of your shoes over their lifespan,” Mead said. “Initially your shoe purchase may be inexpensive, but don’t stand the test of time – if you can, go for longer-lasting, quality products.” Make sure to keep in mind what your total wardrobe is worth when updating your contents insurance.

Are vegan shoes more expensive?

Buyers often think that vegan shoes will be expensive, but they can sometimes be more affordable than leather boots or sneakers. That’s because leather relies on a long and expensive farming enterprise, followed by an intensive tanning process. Meanwhile, vegan leather is quicker and cheaper to create. The cost savings are passed along to the retail price of vegan shoes.

Compared to non-vegan, non-leather shoes, vegan footwear can be a bit more expensive. “Vegan brands mostly focus on ensuring all parts of the manufacturing process are as ethical and sustainable as possible, which does mean the prices can be a little more expensive than mass-produced, less ethical brands,” said Mead. “Vegan brands also tend to use better quality, longer-lasting materials and develop better quality products that will in turn last longer than their cheaper counterparts.”


man tying shoelaces of sustainable Vivobarefoot shoes

Shoe brands like Vivobarefoot create sustainable shoes out of recycled materials and bio-based leather. Image: Vivobarefoot

Where can I get vegan shoes?

Most big shoe brands now feature at least a few vegan models or collections including Adidas, TOMS, Dr. Martens, Veja, Allbirds, Nike, New Balance, Reebok, Vans, Converse, Saucony, Brooks, Merrell, Gucci, SCARPA and Vivobarefoot. Some online retailers have vegan filters, categories or collections to browse. You can also shop from specialised vegan fashion outlets, like Mead’s Vegan Style in Fitzroy, Melbourne.

“King 55 is our most popular brand. They have a streetwear aesthetic that’s very popular in the vegan community and they’re also very affordable,” said Mead. “Then there’s Ahimsa, which produce more classic styles. Both brands are produced in an all-vegan factory in Brazil.”

Vegan Style even produces their own house brand, Zette (named after a rescue cat), which is made in Spain, Portugal and Brazil. Mead describes the brand as “a blend of classic and on-trend fashion styles.”


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