I have beef with vegan shoes.
Let me be clear, though — I think vegans are heroes. Their personal choice not to consume animal products is literally saving the world. Veganism is hard, too. I know this because after watching the popular (though rightly criticized) documentary The Game Changers, which extols the benefits of a vegan diet for athletic performance, I gave it a shot for a few weeks. I wanted to see how a short-term switch would make me feel, and how difficult it would be (good, difficult, though not as much as I'd imagined). So no, my problem is not with vegans — it's with vegan shoes.
How can a shoe be vegan anyway? Simply put, it has to be completely free of animal products. That includes leather, wool and fur, as well as some glues that have animal-based ingredients in them (typically, it's collagen). Some definitions go further, insisting that any materials developed with animal testing must be excluded too.
Vegan shoes are becoming increasingly easier to find, too. The online retailer Zappos has a vegan filter that turns up hundreds of options from brands like OluKai, Saucony, Merrell, Dr. Martens and more. Adidas recently made waves when it revealed a vegan version of its popular Stan Smith shoe, the first iteration of which was a collaboration with Stella McCartney.
If lessening animal cruelty is the primary motivation behind your veganism, these shoes achieve that goal. But if general sustainability is the aim — and nearly every vegan shoe comes with a message that it's greener and better for the environment — the situation is messier.
The problem is that faux leather and fur are often made of synthetic, petroleum-based materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). Essentially, they're plastic. Technically, the cheap plastic-and-foam flip flops that wash up on beaches around the world are "vegan." Plus, in pursuing a degree of similarity that'll make people want to wear these shoes, companies often apply harmful chemicals that make them look and bend and wear just like the real deal.
OluKai is one brand that acknowledges the issue, though many don't. In a blog post on its site explaining vegan shoes, the brand notes: "It's important to remember that animal-free shoes are not always more 'environmentally friendly' by default … It is a lengthy and contentious debate as to whether leather production or synthetic production is worse for the environment." It does note too, however, that vegan shoes are "generally considered to leave a smaller carbon footprint." Most companies making vegan shoes are content to greenwash over such nuance.
This conundrum calls to mind the recent implementation of plastic straw bans. I watched cafes react to it in New York City, some of them opting for paper replacements though many went for sippy lids made of plastic. Some are recyclable, supposedly, though good luck finding a recycling bin in Manhattan.
Some cafes and cities were better equipped for the ban than New York, and some companies make vegan alternatives more responsibly than others. Leather provides the best examples: an Italian company called Frumat makes it partially out of apples, while Piñatex is leather made of pineapple leaves. Mushroom-based leather is also a thing (and both Adidas and Stella McCartney will be its earliest adopters). It's promising stuff, but none of these faux leathers are being produced at a scale approaching that of the petroleum-based alternatives.
Meanwhile, is genuine leather really so bad? Again, advocates for animal rights will answer yes. From a sustainability perspective, the issue lies in the tanning process, which produces wastewater sludge with high concentrations of harmful chemicals like chromium and glutaraldehyde. Not only is it bad for the environment, but it's dangerous for those working with it.
But leather production is getting eco-friendlier too. It's a byproduct of the meat industry, for starters, and beef farmers aren't going to stop raising beef cows simply because they can't sell their skins (unless way more people adopt vegan diets, that is). Vegetable tanning uses organic material instead of chromium to preserve the skins, and some companies like Ecco are developing dry tanning methods that eliminate water waste. There's even a consortium of brands, retailers and producers that aims to hold the industry to a set of environmental protocols.
The best example of sustainably produced leather footwear comes, unsurprisingly, from Patagonia. In late 2020, the company released the Wild Idea Work Boot, made of bison leather with a Goodyear welt so the outsole can be replaced years into its life. The hides come from the same animals that it harvests to make its buffalo jerky — they are raised in a manner that restores the grasslands and promotes carbon sequestration. Previously unused, the hides are tanned with olive tree leaves. What's more, Patagonia is only making as many boots as it has enough leather for (so good luck getting a pair).
It is true that Patagonia's bison boot model doesn't scale, but neither does the mushroom leather option (at least, not yet). Sustainability is complicated, and it can feel paralyzing when it seems like every option is bad.
There is hope, though — both vegan and non-vegan footwear is getting more sustainable. And, recently, Adidas and Allbirds announced that they are putting competition aside to create a performance shoe with the smallest carbon footprint ever. Given that the latter brand's signature ingredient is wool, chances are it won't be vegan.