The best brands for sustainable, vegetarian and socially conscious shoes (that are also actually really nice)
I’ve been concerned with protecting the environment since I was a child, but somewhere along the line I got caught up in life, and while I still really did care, I realised last year that I wasn’t doing as much as 10 year-old me would have liked. Although I am proud of the small changes I’ve made recently – becoming pescatarian, obsessing over recycling, using my local zero waste shop, avoiding non-sustainable palm oil – I am also very aware that in my profession as a fashion editor and writer, I have a responsibility to do better, and to share more of the information I come across in my work with you. The fashion industry is the second worst polluter worldwide after fossil fuel energy production, and while there is a huge movement against fast fashion at the moment, it’s often difficult as a consumer to find all the information you need when making good choices about what to buy.
TOP IMAGE: Zara jacket, made from 100% recycled polyester from its Join Life range, £119 (zara.com); Hobbs checked trousers (old); Allbirds wool runners, £95 (allbirds.co.uk). ABOVE: Zara jacket, as before; Levi’s jeans (old); Pregis boots, €140 (pregisshoes.com)
So for my first post of the new year, I wanted to put together a comprehensive guide to buying sustainable and ethical footwear, broken down into easy sections that I hope you will refer back to regularly. It’s quite long! But I wanted to have everything in the same place so it’s easy to find when you need it. What I hope this guide will do is give you options that work for the area you are particularly interested in when trying to buy better, whether that’s sustainability or animal welfare. Often with one positive, you gain a negative – for example, many non-animal materials are derived from petroleum – but all of these brands are doing something positive, and that should be celebrated. The easiest way that we as consumers can tell brands that we care about this stuff (and we really should: if we don’t make huge changes to our effect on the climate in the next 12 years there could be catastrophic results) is by using our wallets. I will keep this post pinned to my homepage, and will update it regularly when I hear of new ethical or eco brands, or existing brands that have changed their practices and are doing better. And if you hear of any yourself, please do let me know!
(NB There are some crossovers between categories, so I have included a key next to each brand name. Blue for Eco, green for Veggie and pink for Ethical. Top marks to those which hit all three)
These are the front runners when it comes to the environment, making their shoes from recycled, plant-based, or biodegradable materials. Many of these brands also use recycled/recyclable packaging, which frankly, everyone should be doing. Note that there are brands on this list that use wool – very different to sheepskin as the animal is shawn rather than killed – but you may still like to avoid these if you don’t eat meat. However, untreated wool contains lanolin which is naturally water resistant, and wool is also temperature regulating and biodegradable, so it has many advantages. (If you are concerned with animal cruelty I would avoid any wool that has come from Australia, which doesn’t have a good track record in this area. New Zealand, on the other hand, where star player Allbirds sources its merino, has banned the painful practice of mulesing sheep, which its neighbour has not.)
In addition to what I have included here, Parley For The Oceans is a great initiative to look out for in general. It partners with lots of different brands, usually big ones like Nike and adidas, neither of which I have included here because until they roll it out to everything they do, I consider them to still be on the ‘could do better’ list. But if you have the time to read the small print, you will find lots of styles by both brands that use recycled ocean plastic, which is obviously great. Parley For The Oceans then donates a percentage of sales to protecting areas of the natural world that are a concern.
This brand is leading the way in sustainable footwear technology, with its sneaker uppers made from wool or tree pulp, recycled shoe laces, and its groundbreaking soles made from sugarcane rather than synthetic rubber. It plans to share all of its discoveries with any brand which also wishes to use them, for free. allbirds.co.uk
Contrary to popular belief, Veja is not solely a veggie brand (it uses sustainably sourced leather for some of its styles) but many of its sneakers are made from non-animal products including B-Mesh, a material made from upcycled plastic bottles. It also scores very highly on recycled materials, FairTrade, and and its use of natural rubber, which has involved it physically buying and protecting 120,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest. veja-store.com
This might not be the first shoe brand to spring to mind when thinking about sustainability, but Timberland has excellent credentials. It has rigorous environmental standards and 100% of its products contain at least one component that is recycled, organic, or renewable. By 2020 it aims to be using 50% renewable energy, and have a 95% waste diversion rate by the same year. It has already recycled over 233 million plastic bottles into its footwear, and has planted 8.7 million trees worldwide since 2001. See? Excellent credentials. timberland.co.uk
Baabuk began life as a natural wool slippers brand on Kickstarter, but it now also makes sneakers and boots. All of its wool comes from healthy, happy sheep in Nepal or Portugal – whichever is closest to the particular workshop that the shoes will be made in (for slippers and boots it’s Nepal, for sneakers it’s Portugal). In addition it provides higher than average salaries and good working conditions for the people in its workshops. baabuk.com
This brand new discovery is a good one! Cave only makes its shoes using stuff that already exists, and that includes the machinery. It also means that every pair of shoes is slightly different, since it depends on the materials available, and every style is only made in a limited run of 100. So the chances of ever seeing anyone else in the same pair as you is literally zero. It’s also 100% vegan, and is all made locally to the machinery and materials sourced in the Czech Republic. cavefootwear.com
OTH, which stands for Off The Hook, is another new discovery for me, thanks to a pointer from one of my readers. These cool kicks are made with a minimal carbon footprint in Portugal, with everlasting soles made from recycled tyres (one tyre makes three pairs of sneakers). The simple design is really versatile, too. oth-paris.com
Po-Zu works exclusively with natural fibres, including Pinatex (pineapple “leather”), cork, coir, natural latex (which is used instead of glue), wool, organic cotton and chrome-free leather. It also ensures good working conditions in its factories, sources locally where possible, and has even set up The Better Shoes Foundation to promote sustainable practices in the industry. po-zu.com
Forget any connotations you have of this brand being just about weird shoes with toes like gloves; its commitment to the environment has far surpassed that. Making its shoes from a variety of materials including landfill-sourced plastic bottles, Ethiopian leather from independent farmers which is all a by-product of the meat industry, and even making shoes from harmful algae collected from waterways, it aims to use 90% sustainable materials across its range by 2020. vivobarefoot.com
Novesta makes some of the most traditional trainers out there, and as a result its heritage craftspeople use techniques that have a minimal impact on the environment; natural rubber soles are machine-pressed onto the cotton or linen uppers resulting in the trademark ‘tire marks’. gonovesta.com
Another brand that has been making sneakers for over 100 years (it is reissuing a style based on its first from 1900), Tretorn is focusing on bringing back locally sourced natural rubber as the main compound for outsoles, recycled rubber to create the in-sock, and Eco Tannery Tan-Tec for Eco Suede and Eco leather: all traceable to farm, cow or sheep, made with reduced water use and strict regulations on colourings. tretorn.com
As someone who no longer eats meat, I am starting to view leather very differently. Since doing a shoe making course, I understand that there’s no doubt it is an ideal material to work with when making shoes because of the way it stretches and moves, and of course way back when humans first started making shoes, it was a great way of using the skin of the meat that would have been hunted for food. Plus, it is biodegradable.
But if I have a problem with industrial farming – which is one of the reasons I gave up eating meat – then it follows that I should also have a problem with wearing a byproduct of that same industry. In addition to that, unless you know how the leather has been treated before it has been made into a shoe (veg tanning is the ideal, environmentally speaking), it’s likely that a lot of chemicals and water will have been used to get it to an acceptable state so it can be made into a shoe. Not good.
However, there’s also the argument that many non-animal leathers are made from materials derived from petroleum (also not good), but if the world’s meat consumption goes down (which hopefully it will in the next few years), it follows that there will be fewer animals to make leather goods from, too; it may even stop being a byproduct (and indeed a lot of leather comes from animals that are bred for purpose already). Luckily, there are are more and more non-petroleum options appearing like leathers made from pineapple fibres, and this area is rapidly expanding.
I won’t be giving up leather altogether just yet – baby steps, I’m not perfect – but I will be asking questions of the brands I love that do use it to ensure that I am buying the least impactful on both the environment and on the animals.
Yatay is one of the rare breeds whose shoes are both vegan AND sustainable. It uses recycled materials and BioPolyols (derived from vegetables rather than petroleum) to make its uppers, and bio-based polyurethane to make its soles. The laces are made from organic hemp. Oh, and the sneakers are really nice. Win win win. yatayatay.com
As well as being 100% vegan, Beyond Skin takes a responsible view of the environment. It uses recycled materials where possible but is very open about what it can and can’t achieve for the quality it wants to produce. Full details of all of its materials are available on its website. beyond-skin.com
This is another brand that was recommended to me by a reader after I originally published this post. Mireia Playa is certified vegan, but as you can see it also hits our other categories, since the shoes are made by artisans in fair working conditions, and are also produced with a minimal carbon footprint in Spain.
Will’s Vegan Shoes***
Does what it says on the tin, this one, and is particularly handy for the area that can be trickiest when it comes to vegan footwear: decent winter boots. It’s also a certified Carbon Neutral company, which is an amazing achievement for a small brand. wills-vegan-shoes.com
Few can say they’ve done as much for animal cruelty awareness as Stella McCartney, and now the designer is also using much more environmentally friendly materials too, including sustainable viscose and recycled polyester. She also carries favourite styles through from season to season, encouraging a less trend-led and therefore less throwaway fashion culture. stellamccartney.com
NAK makes its shoes with Italian artisans to ensure the kind of quality product usually associated with high end fashion, but it doesn’t use any leather. It also sources all of its materials as close as possible to its workshop to keep its carbon footprint as low as possible. nakfashion.com
Charles & Keith*
These are some of the best designs around when it comes to reasonably priced non-leather shoes, although do be sure to read the small print as some of the more expensive styles are made from leather. charleskeith.co.uk
Marks & Spencer*
M&S has actually been doing non-leather shoes for ages, but didn’t want to label them until they were 100% certain that they had fully checked the entire supply chain, which they now have. These are some of the most affordable vegan shoes out there. To find the range, either type ‘vegan footwear’ into the search bar on their website, or look for labelling in store on the sole of the shoes. marksandspencer.com
Dr Martens was an early adopter when it comes to offering a vegan range, and it’s really easy to find on its website with its own drop-down category. The boots themselves don’t look any different from regular leather DMs, and they also offer rucksacks and satchels. drmartens.com
You might prefer to buy from a brand that is doing good in other ways, and there are plenty of those to choose from, too. Many start-up brands, which can’t necessarily afford to invest in new technologies in materials or open their own factories, are finding other ways to produce their shoes in a better way. Some give a percentage of their profits to charities, others ensure good working practices and conditions along their entire supply chain. These are often the brands that given the opportunity, would do even more, but it’s not always financially viable when you don’t have the cash because you’re a small brand. Which makes them really important to support.
I now know first hand, as I am designing a range of shoes with one such company (EXCITING!), how difficult it is to do everything you want at once. The shoe we are making will hopefully be leather-free, but unfortunately we weren’t able to find a recycled sole that worked for the design and the budget we had. But I have always advocated buying quality, classic items that you will be able to keep for years, and our collaboration will be just that. The company in question also uses great factories in Portugal, so not too far away, carbon footprint-wise, and keeps a close eye on the treatment of staff along its supply chain.
Buying locally is also another great way of being mindful in your purchases – the closer your shoes were made to the country you live in, the lower the carbon footprint. Sadly in Britain we have all but destroyed our shoe making industry, but some brands such as Dr Martens, Grenson and New Balance have ‘Made In Britain’ lines which are good to look out for. Obviously if you don’t live in the UK, look for shoes which are produced in your own country!
Launched in 2017, PREGIS makes its shoes at its own facility in Portugal which has been run by the same family for four decades. They have complete transparency in their supply chain and made really beautiful, high quality shoes with brilliant designs. pregisshoes.com
Seven Feet Apart**
I’ve got to know the guys at Seven Feet Apart really well over the past few years, and I absolutely love what they do. As well as making really great shoes that are built to last, they are also constantly searching of ways to do what they do better, whether that’s by exploring non-leather and sustainable materials or in their continued commitment to donating 7% of their resources to charity – quite a feat for a start-up brand. sevenfeetapart.com
You might have noticed that there are a lot of sneakers brands in this list; I think that’s partly because everyone loves trainers and being gender fluid makes them a brilliant lower risk for a start-up, but also because they are easier than traditional leather shoes to make in a responsible way. Roscomar is one such brand, and its main focus is ensuring transparency at every point in its supply chain (as well as making dead nice trainers). roscomar.com
Toms was one of the trailblazers when it comes to ethical shoes, with its ‘one-for-one’ policy now really well established. As well as giving a pair of shoes to someone in need with every pair purchased, it now also sells eyewear (every pair bought will help restore someone’s sight or provide glasses), coffee (aids clean water) and bags (provides safe birth kits). It is also committed to producing shoes in the areas it gives to, and has created over 700 jobs in Ethiopia, India and Kenya. toms.co.uk
Good News London**
As well as ethical product monitoring and a close management of its supply chain, Good News is also part of a collective called Good Luck Shoes; together with other shoes designers, photographers and graphic designers based in London and Milan, they donate shoes to migrants and refugees who really need them. goodnews.london
A last word: you read this blog because you love fashion and you love shoes. I’m not suggesting that any of us should stop that! And if you’ve fallen for a pair by a brand that’s not on this list that’s not to say you shouldn’t buy them. But do stop and ask yourself the following things before you reach for the credit card: 1) do I LOVE them? 2) can I imagine myself wearing them in 10 years? and 3) have they been well made enough to last that decade? If the answer to all three is yes, then you’re doing your bit to avoid fast fashion too.