This story is part of Gear Patrol’s continuing look at different approaches to sustainability, leading up to Earth Day on April 22nd.
No product is truly vegan unless certified so. It's true: Although a canvas sneaker may be made from 100 percent cotton atop a rubber outsole, animal byproducts lurk in the bindings, glue and other elements that hold a shoe together. It's why Blundstone, for example, didn't release a vegan boot until 2021.
“It has taken us some time. I’ll be really honest,” Blundstone CEO, Adam Blake told us. “Partly why is because of our own principles, and our own considered nature by which we go about developing new products… We were not going to come to market at all unless we could stand by that it was 100-percent tested and verified as vegan. That sounds very obvious, but, trust me, that’s not the approach all brands take.”
Are Vegan Shoes More Sustainable?
Excluding materials like fur, leather and wool is the first step for most brands considering going animal-free and offering a vegan iteration. But ensuring the materials outsourced factories use to assemble the boots or sneakers are aligned is another process entirely. Plus, stricter definitions of veganism exclude products tested on animals, too. For the sake of animals everywhere, vegan shoes are a smart alternative, but if you're simply looking to be more sustainable, former Gear Patrol staffer Tanner Bowden says, you need to be more considerate of which vegan shoes it is you buy.
"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," he writes. "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."
It's best to look for an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, or another accreditation by an outside source.
The Best Vegan Boots, Sandals and Sneakers
New Balance introduced its first-ever vegan sneaker in January 2021. It doesn't look all that different from its other gray suede designs, but it doesn't employ any animal products. It's also priced pretty fairly considering it's both more niche and less of a bulk product.
Clarks' first-ever vegan boots — they released Wallabees and Desert Boots — arrived in August 2021. The pairs feel about the same as the traditional iterations, but the vegan ones come with a small leaf stamp that signifies they're animal-free.
Blundstone's vegan debut — two pairs of Chelsea boots called #2115 and #2116 that became available in October 2021 — was an effort rooted in inclusivity. They want vegans to be able to wear their boots, too, so they made them from Grupo Morón’s onMicro, a microfibre thinner than silk, and onSteam, a microfibre known for being moisture-wicking. They’re also upfront about the certifications they’ve been awarded: Vegan by third party verifier, Eurofins.
Saye uses a mix of synthetics and natural alternatives in order to make its classic-looking Modelo '89 sneaker: corn leather, recycled PU from cars, synthetic rubber, organic cotton, recycled thermoplastics and wood chips.
Birkenstock had to simply switch the strapping on its popular Arizona sandal in order to make it vegan. Instead of leather, Birkenstock uses its proprietary synthetic material Birkibuc, which they describe as "a durable, synthetic upper material with a nubuck leather-like texture and a soft backing."
It's smart of bigger brands to convert their classics. Reebok did that with the Club C 85 by making it vegan. Their signature sneaker looks unchanged to the naked eye, but it's free from all animal products.
Seavees' Legend Sneaker is made from recycled cotton canvas uppers, a foam footbed, post-consumer plastic laces and a recycled rubber outsole. It's 100 percent vegan, and every pair sold furthers Seavees' mission of replenishing coastal kelp forests.
Dr. Martens was one of the first brands to the punch when it debuted its vegan boot back in 2011. Customers complained of cracking initially, but their designs have gotten better over time. It's hard to tell the difference between these and the traditional iterations.
The Samba is one of Adidas' most popular sneakers. As such, like Reebok did with the Club C, the brand made it vegan to cater to the growing number of individuals shopping this way. The new Samba Vegan uses some recycled materials but mostly synthetics in place of leather.
Thousand Fell turns recycled bottles, natural rubber and food waste into classic, Common Projects-referencing lace up sneakers. The simple design comes in a dozen colors, and each is coated with natural elements like aloe vera or quartz to counteract chafing or rain stains.
No boots are quite as good for trudging around in the mud as Hunter boots. The rubber and polyester construction can stand up to most anything, and the updated Command0 Chelsea pairs well with a variety of aesthetics.
Instead of strange synthetics, Viron uses alternative leathers made from foods like apple. The exterior of these chelsea boots is 100 percent apple skin leather, while the sole is 100 percent recycled rubber and the liner is entirely recycled PES bio-based content.
Instead of an alternative leather, Veja uses a lookalike: treated cotton-canvas. The material looks and acts a lot like leather, and it's more breathable. Plus, the addition of mesh accents makes this shoe even lighter than most other vegan remakes.
Made from polyurethane nubuck and rubber outsoles with a microfleece lining, these boots are a hell of a deal at just under $100. They’re water-resistant as well, meaning you can take them just about anywhere.
Ground Cover is an emerging independent fashion label that makes everything from rings and plant-dyed T-shirts to bags and boots. The Backzip Boot is made from cactus leather, which the brand sources from Portugal. Plus, "while the cacti's farming process is carbon negative, we have found non-virgin inputs for both the insole and sole: cork and coffee ground waste," the brand says. They keep their footprint to a minimum.