Everybody loves shoes. Some of us (way) more than others. But all of us need shoes.
Sneakers are fast becoming a favorite in the footwear scene. Women’s sneaker sales grew 37 percent in 2017, while high heel sales fell by 11 percent.
For something that we rely on every day, most of us don’t put a lot of thought into the eco-friendliness of the sneakers we wear. But what we put on our feet can have a huge impact.
The fashion and footwear industries emit as many greenhouse gases as all of Russia. Footwear alone generates 700 million metric tons CO2eq per year, according to the 2018 Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries Study. To put that in perspective, that’s equal to the greenhouse gas emissions produced by nearly 149 million cars driven for one year.
The Problem With Leather
Leather is used to make a quarter of shoes in the US, according to the 2018 study. Yet it accounts for 30 to 80 percent of the footwear category’s total global impact.
Raising livestock, whether for food or footwear, accounts for 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, which worsen the climate crisis. Cows are responsible for more emissions than any other non-human species. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said in September that “the greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket ship combined.”
Leather is also difficult to break down. Archaeologists discovered a 5,500-year-old leather shoe in a cave in Armenia in 2010. Even once leather shoes are in landfill they can wreak havoc, due to the chemicals used in the tanning process. Leather is tanned with 250 different substances including cyanide, arsenic, chromium, and formaldehyde, which pollute waterways and increase the risk of disease for workers and local communities. Research says tannery workers have a higher risk of developing skin conditions, respiratory problems, and various forms of cancer like nasal, bladder, and pancreatic cancers. In fact, a 50 percent increase in pancreatic cancer has been recorded in tannery industries.
Contrary to popular belief, leather is not always a by-product of the meat industry. More than 1 billion animals are killed around the world for the leather trade every year.
A Step in the Right Direction
Thankfully, we’re not without better options. Textile and synthetic shoes can make up as little as 6 percent of the footwear industry’s global impact, compared to leather’s 80.
Brands are stepping away from tradition and getting inventive with the materials they use. A growing number of companies are upcycling plastic waste to turn into sneakers. Adidas teamed up with Parley for the Oceans to create a vegan shoe out of plastic diverted from the ocean. Each contains 12 plastic bottles worth of waste, with some of this coming from discarded fishing nets (which Parley refers to as “deathtraps”).
Other companies use food waste to make shoes. Pineapple leather, called Piñatex, is cropping up in a number of sneaker designs. Piñatex is made out of natural fibers that would otherwise go to waste and unlike leather, it contains no harmful chemicals or animal products.
And while you may not single-handedly solve climate change by buying the right shoes, you can still strive to tread as lightly as possible on this planet. These 11 brands will show you how, allowing you to step into the future of footwear with their vegan sneakers.
The Best 11 Brands for Sustainable Vegan Sneakers
1. Nothing New
Nothing New was born out of a desire to create something eco-friendly that doesn’t look eco-friendly, and to prove that luxury designer aesthetic and sustainability can co-exist.
The company makes sustainable sneakers out of plastic waste and recycled materials, proving that one person’s trash really is another’s treasure. Nothing New makes its sneaker uppers and laces out of recycled post-consumer plastic and its heel counters from 100 percent post-industrial recycled fishing nets.
The company crafts its binding with recycled cotton, sourced in partnership with the not-for-profit Better Cotton Initiative, and uses recycled rubber and cork for its outsoles. The insoles are optimized for high-impact performance and offer antimicrobial odor resistance and all-day comfort.
Each pair of Nothing New shoes is made using the equivalent of 5.6 plastic water bottles. The production of the sustainable sneakers also saves more than 160 gallons of water compared to regular canvas sneakers.
“We always believed that if we could make products as good or better looking than legacy products on the market, more people would consider opting for the sustainable option,” founder Nolan Walsh told LIVEKINDLY. “We want to positively impact our community, our industry, and our planet. By developing best-in-class sustainable products and investing in programs to minimize our environmental footprint, we hope to raise the bar for what customers expect from brands and contribute to the change we want to see in the world.”
You can buy Nothing New’s vegan shoes on its website.
2. No Saints
Australian footwear company No Saints is here to change up the status quo, fight food waste, and make you forget about traditional leather.
No Saints uses the skin of fruit to make stylish unisex shoes that are better for the animals, people, and the planet.
The shoes, which are handmade in Portugal, deliver the same look, feel, and wear as animal-based leather all while sidestepping the harm associated with leather.
Apple leather and pineapple leather take center stage for a number of No Saints’ styles. The apple leather is crafted in Italy and comes from apple peels discarded by juice and compote factories.
The pineapple leather, called Piñatex, is made in Spain with pineapple leaf fibers, which are a by-product of pineapple harvests and would otherwise go to waste. Saving the fibers provides additional income to farming communities and stops waste from being incinerated, which generates toxic emissions.
No Saints also uses recycled polyester, which is made from post-consumer plastic water bottles. Some of its designs use vegan microfiber leather which is indistinguishable from the “real thing” but is 5 times more durable and 50 percent lighter.
No Saints’ sneakers come in seven colors. Each is named after a vegan celebrity, like the Ruby (for Ruby Rose), the Pamela (for Pamela Anderson), and the Liam (for Liam Hemsworth).
You can purchase No Saints’ vegan sneakers on its website. No Saints ships to the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
Vancouver startup Vessi is making a splash in the footwear scene with its waterproof vegan shoes. Vessi says it is the first in the world to create waterproof knit shoes without animal products.
The sneakers are slip-free, snug-fitting, and super light – they are the lightest waterproof shoes in the world, weighing in at 6.7 oz. The water repellent layer also stops dirt and sand from sticking.
On top of making shoes so waterproof you can wear them in the shower (if that’s something you want to do), Vessi strives to do more for the planet. The Vessi team managed to reduce traditional machine knit times from 45 mins to 7 mins, which in turn lowers the carbon footprint of each pair of Vessi’s shoes by more than 600 percent.
The shoes have proved popular among the masses already. Vessi’s most recent Kickstarter, which took place in November 2018, attracted more than 9,000 backers and $1.4 million in fundraising. Vessi was forced to open several additional production lines, nearly tripling the number of units it produced. The company now makes between 50,000 and 60,000 pairs of shoes a month but is almost constantly sold out.
Check out Vessi’s shoes on its website.
Blake Mycoskie decided to launch a footwear brand called TOMS in 2006 when he visited Argentina and encountered many children without shoes.
He decided he would develop a type of alpargata — a canvas slip-on shoe that is popular in Argentina — to sell in North America, and for every pair he sold, he would donate one to a young person in Argentina or another developing country.
TOMS has now gifted more than 93 million pairs of shoes to children in need.
The company’s efforts don’t stop there. Every time someone purchases a product from its coffee brand TOMS Roasting Co., the company donates 140 liters of safe water — a one-week supply — to a person in need. To date, TOMS has helped provide more than 720,000 weeks of safe water in six countries.
Based in Playa Del Rey, California, TOMS offers a range of vegan shoes, including its Cabrillo Sneakers and Topanga Collection. Last year, the brand introduced a first-of-its-kind vegan climbing shoe, which features Dark Matter Rubber, a material developed for Navy Seals to help them keep their footing.
Learn more about TOMS here.
Footwear and skate brand Vans offers a variety of cruelty-free shoes. Earlier this year, Vans launched a range of vegan shoes to raise awareness about endangered species. The footwear brand teamed up with British artist Ralph Steadman to create the collection, which featured illustrations of 13 endangered species.
It was the first time Vans had collaborated with WildAid, an environmental organization based in San Francisco. Vans vowed to donate $10,000 to the charity to further its work fighting the illegal wildlife trade.
Vans recently joined forces with Cornwall-based footwear company Finsterre to launch a vegan shoe line aimed at adventurers. The shoes feature organic cotton and vegan leather and the webbing, laces, and signature tabs are made out of recycled plastic bottles.
Vans also offers cruelty-free David Bowie-inspired shoes as well as vegan leather high-top sneakers made in collaboration with surfer Alex Knost.
You can view Vans’ range here.
Sustainable vegan shoe brand Ethletic makes cruelty-free sneakers with Fairtrade cotton and natural vegan leather.
It all began with a soccer ball. The founders of Ethletic launched the world’s first fairly manufacturer soccer balls onto the market in 2004. In 2010, Ethletic launched a sneaker using its same established supply chains. The sneaker was certified with the Fairtrade seal for fairly traded organic cotton and it was the first in the world of its kind.
The same year, the entire company was acknowledged as a certified supplier by the German Fair Trade association Weltladen-Dachverband. The world’s largest animal rights organization PETA approved Ethletic in 2016.
Ethletic donates one US dollar per pair of shoes sold to people in need from Pakistan. It produces high-tops, low-tops, and sneakers packed with sporty extras, like natural rubber latex foam for stability and ventilation holes for fresh air.
You can visit Ethletic’s website here.
7. Vegetarian Shoes
Brighton-based footwear company Vegetarian Shoes started up in 1990 before the “vegan” label was as popular as it is now.
Robin Webb used to make his own shoes by hand and founded Vegetarian Shoes to let more people enjoy the animal-free products.
Inspired by those in Africa who use car tires to create soles for shoes, Webb started working with a synthetic microfiber material typically used for yachting upholstery. The material looks and feels like leather, but is “breathable.”
Vegetarian Shoes now also uses hemp, Piñatex, and cork to make its plant-based sneakers, hiking and caribou boots, Doc Martens-inspired shoes, and vegan “Snug” boots.
You can check out Vegetarian Shoes online.
Nordstrom is not a shoe producer, but it is a place to satisfy your vegan sneaker needs.
The luxury department store chain launched vegan rainbow shoes earlier this year.
Tretorn Sweden, founded in 1891, created the dazzling low-top sneakers which boast iridescent rainbow colors, gull wings on the sides, and a white bumper cupsole. Tretorn launched its Eco Essentials Initiative to help address the “huge climate challenges” faced by the fashion industry. The project sees it creating clothing items out of recycled fishing nets and plastic bottles.
In 2017, Tretorn was celebrated at the UN’s World Ocean Conference for its work toward its climate goals.
Nordstrom also offers glittery slip-on vegan sneakers made by Native Shoes as well as vegan shoes by Birkenstock and BC Footwear.
You can view Nordstrom’s vegan shoe range here.
9. Purple Impression
Fairtrade fashion brand Purple Impression launched a line of eco-friendly vegan sneakers earlier this year.
The sneakers are made with organic cotton and sustainably harvested natural rubber.
Purchasing shoes from the line, which is called Fuse, helps support women in Pakistan and revive the dying art of embroidery. The footwear is designed in San Francisco and then hand-embroidered by female workers in Pakistan.
“This is something that’s never been done before with the kind of transparency that they are able to provide,” the company says. “Each sneaker is hand embroidered one at a time by artisans in Pakistan proving economic opportunity and fair wages to artisans who are losing their craft to mass production.”
Visit Purple Impression’s website here.
DopeKicks is the company that brought the first waterproof, biodegradable vegan sneaker made from cannabis hemp to the world.
The sneaker’s upper is made with responsibly-sourced hemp fiber, which the DopeKicks team names a “super material.” It uses three times less water than cotton does to produce and is kinder to the soil it’s grown in. The soles of the sneakers are upcycled from old shoes, making them a sustainable option that are still as flexible and durable as the original item.
The insoles are made with sustainable cork, which provides cushioning and holds its shape after years of use.
Learn more about DopeKicks here.
Five-time Formula One World Champion and vegan Lewis Hamilton teamed up with Tommy Hilfiger to launch a streetwear line called TOMMYXLEWIS.
TOMMYXLEWIS includes vegan wallets, bags, clothing, and sneakers. The high-top sneakers channel ‘80s streetwear energy. They come are made with animal-free leather, recycled mesh, and rubber. They feature touch fastener straps and a Hamilton monogram embroidery on the strap.
A vegan black thick-soled, mid-rise ankle sneaker was also just added to the collection.
Tommy Hilfiger wants to help tackle one of the world’s “biggest challenges yet” – climate change. It’s doing this with pledges to lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce packaging, produce all of its materials in a sustainable loop, and offer more products made with eco-friendly materials.
You can view the TOMMYXLEWIS range here.
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