Clothing gets a lot of airtime in terms of its environmental impact, but the shoe industry can be equally – if not more – destructive. Here’s how it’s cleaning up its act – plus four pioneering brands
There’s no doubt that sustainable fashion is now firmly on most people’s radar. One European survey found that 67 per cent of shoppers now factor in how sustainable materials are before purchasing new clothes, while another global survey suggests there has been heightened interest in eco-friendly fashion since the pandemic.
But while most people are becoming savvier about scrutinising a garment’s green credentials – by checking the label for a Gots (global organic textile standard) certification, for instance, or the percentage of recycled materials – when it comes to shoes, things can be much more opaque.
The footwear industry is not renowned for leading on sustainability. About 90 per cent of shoes end up in landfill, and producing them creates a range of problems. Leather, for example, is often tanned using chromium dichromate, which makes it last longer, but is carcinogenic.
‘Forever chemicals’ like chromium dichromate are now so persistent in rainwater that it’s unsafe to drink the stuff, according to research by Stockholm University. These chemicals, also known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are widely used to make shoes waterproof and stainproof.
Add to all that the marketing executives who are telling people to upgrade their sports shoes every 500 miles, and things are looking less than green.
But according to Charles Ross, a lecturer at the UK’s Royal College of Art, we can afford to be more hopeful about the future of footwear.
Those on the hunt for sustainable shoes should look out for brands that incorporate recycled materials
“Shoes are only two or three years behind regular apparel [in terms of sustainability],” says Ross, who specialises in textiles and performance footwear.
Brands such as KEEN, which makes casual and outdoor styles, are among those replacing PFAS with greener alternatives, and adopting a sustainability-first approach more generally.
“KEEN has identified a durable water resistant finish without forever chemicals,” says Ross. “If I was an Everest mountaineer, I might notice the difference in performance. [But] as a regular bloke, I can’t tell.”
Ross reckons that we may see colour palettes change as these types of chemicals are phased out; from bold brights and pristine whites, to more forgiving taupes and greys.
Those on the hunt for sustainable shoes should also look out for brands that incorporate upcycled or recycled materials. It’s a relatively small pool of companies, but growing all the time.
According to Ross, there are a few inevitable sustainability trade-offs when buying some types of shoe. “You’re never going to be able to build in the technology to allow [a trainer] sole to be replaced, so just accept that some things wear out,” he says. “What a brand can do… is inform people of what they can do with their [shoes] when they no longer want them.”
However, Ross says it’s imperative things are made to last. A pair of walking shoes he owns “generally have five resoles on them before the upper leather gives out – that to me is how it’s got to go.”
Four footwear brands putting sustainability first
Family-owned brand KEEN is known for its comfortable shoes that take the wearer seamlessly from lounging indoors to outdoor adventures. Shoes are produced without PFAS or antimicrobials (commonly used for odour control), and leather comes from Leather Working Group (LWG)-certified tanneries. LWG is a non-profit that pushes for responsible supply chains in the leather industry.
KEEN uses upcycled and recycled materials wherever possible – things like upcycled car seat leather, coffee grounds, agricultural waste and used plastic bottles – not just in its shoes but packaging too.
KEEN’s new Mosey collection includes chukka and chelsea boots, as well as derby shoes in autumnal shades, all with natural hemp laces and low-impact rubber and cork soles. Selected models also feature a choice of uppers in partially recycled wool or certified premium LWG leather.
A sustainable wellie is not an easy thing to track down, since many aren’t made from natural rubber and have synthetic linings.
However, Lakeland boasts a wide range of wellingtons that are ethically made in Sri Lanka using Forest Stewardship Council-certified natural rubber, plus the lining is organic cotton. Win, win.
Alohas uses an on-demand model, meaning it only makes what has already been ordered by its customers.
When a new product launches, it is available for pre-order with a 30 per cent discount for three weeks, after which the discount drops to 15 per cent. Alohas then calculates exactly how many units of each product should be produced and starts manufacturing.
Once they start shipping, customers can only buy the shoes at full price. The brand also guarantees fair labour and doesn’t use toxic materials.
They’re handmade by artisans in Nepal using the traditional craft of wool felting, and each pair is finished with natural latex soles and glue that is sustainably harvested from rubber trees.