A Guide to Ethical and Sustainable Footwear BrandsFebruary 8, 2021
Sustainable Footwear to Tread Lighter on the Planet: With every step, and in ways seldom considered, we contribute to a trend, for good or for harm, that affects for both the environment and those involved in the manufacture of these ancient and essential pieces of apparel. This guide covers the basics you ought to know to make an informed and conscientious choice, and discusses some of those brands that are trying to make a difference.
By Christie Johnson
Shoes. Not so much a practicality in our fashion-conscious age as a burgeoning addiction: 24.2 billion pairs (1) were manufactured in 2018 alone, and the industry’s revenue is predicted to hit $500 billion by 2027. (2) But as we slip them on our feet and prepare to go out, do we ever really consider the carbon ‘footprint’ they’ve already stamped on the environment?
Sex and the City star Carrie Bradshaw is a manifestation of our footwear fixation. Since the release of the first episode in 1998, the fictional character’s shoe obsession transformed into a cultural phenomenon, with Spanish designer Manolo Blahnik acknowledging the series ‘had such a role in my career’. (3) Similarly, footwear brand Nike saw professional basketball player Michael Jordan’s brand soar by 15% in 2020. (4) Nike CEO Jonathan Dunahoe correlates the rise in Jordan sales with the Michael Jordan Netflix documentary series The Last Dance, with fans deeply resonating with his story and character.
Yet unrelenting consumer demand has come at a huge environmental cost both for people and planet. Behind the attractive guise of the flashy upper, diamanté heel, and smooth suede exterior, how sustainable is our global shoe obsession?
The Need for Sustainable Footwear
Some facts: What’s in a Shoe?
The booming footwear industry is responsible for 1.4% of global GHG emissions, that’s equivalent to 700 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions. (5) Along with a colossal carbon footprint, the industry is infamously known for its ruthless extraction of raw, non-renewable materials and production of hazardous and non-recyclable waste.
Shoes these days are not made to last and are invariably an eclectic mix of components (plastics, leather, petroleum, textiles) which are glued and moulded together making them near impossible to recycle. After an ephemeral existence, a pair of shoes is either incinerated or thrown into landfill, with synthetic materials such as ethylene vinyl acetate (universally found in the shock-absorbent midsole of trainers) taking up to 1,000 years to break down. (6) Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) found in most uppers and outsoles not only pollutes ecosystems but is listed as carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation. (7)
Textile treatment and dying is responsible for 20% of global industrial water pollution with vast quantities of harmful by-products bleeding in to the natural environment. (8) In 2011, environmental organisation Greenpeace found manufacturing facilities in China linked to Nike, Adidas and Puma were responsible for releasing huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas. (9)
Conventional chrome-tanned leather production is problematic with the raw material extraction and tanning stages of leather shoes contributing to over 50% of its ecological impact; along with the notoriously unscrupulous working conditions of tanneries in developing countries such as Bangladesh, where most employees aren’t expected to live beyond the age of 50. (10)
Towards Sustainability: One Step at a Time
In the absence of an internationally recognised sustainable standard, footwear brands are undoubtedly facing a seemingly insurmountable task. Achieving sustainability across all aspects of the supply chain is no small feat and will require unprecedented innovation, collaboration and resilience to overcome the inevitable challenges along the way.
Our List of Sustainable Footwear Brands
Although entering unchartered territory, many brands are putting their best foot forward as they challenge the sartorial status quo that has been crippling our natural world for decades. A truly sustainable footwear economy will not happen overnight yet if one of the most polluting industries in the world has the capacity to make sustainability fashionable, then we surely have hope for the future. (11)
‘Give Light Tread Lighter’
Based: San Francisco, California, USA
Shoe range: Sneakers, slip-ons, flats, boat shoes, high-tops, weather repellent
Price range: $95 – $135
Ethos: Natural and sustainable materials, circular supply chain (Soles4Souls), carbon offsets, transparency
From durable uppers made from eucalyptus trees to contoured insoles engineered from castor beans, Allbirds is the first to create a carbon negative green EVA foam midsole eliminating the harmful petrochemicals found in traditional designs. Similar to nutritional food labels, Allbirds label every product’s carbon footprint, helping people to ‘tread a little lighter on Mother Nature’.
‘VEJA, in Portuguese, […] means “look”. For us, that means look at what’s behind the sneakers.’
Based: Paris, France
Shoe range: Sneakers
Price range: €85 – €270
Ethos: Zero advertising, fair trade, vegan, range, upcycling, sustainable materials, innovation, transparency
VEJA challenges the status quo by creating sneakers made from certified organic cotton purchased from farming families in Brazil and Peru, wild rubber cultivated by indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest, as well as polyester fibres made out of recycled plastic bottles and vegan leather alternatives developed from vegetable materials.
Fortress of Inca
‘We believe the people who make the shoes are just as important as the people who buy them.’
Based: Austin, Texas, USA
Shoe range: Booties, boots, flats, heels, mules, sandals
Price range: $210 – $275
Ethos: Fair trade, ethical partnerships, handmade, slow fashion, natural materials
Fortress of Inca prides itself on being a ‘slow fashion’ footwear brand that focuses on ‘quality over quantity’. Shoes handmade by family owned workshops and factories in Peru, Fortress of Inca creates perennial and versatile styles using only high-quality natural materials; encouraging people to buy premium products less often.
‘To us, sustainability is about making beautiful shoes that last.’
Based: Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa
Shoe range: Boots
Price range: $99 – $179
Ethos: Empowering communities, handcrafted tradition, family business, sustainable materials, carbon offsets
Challenging the in-built obsoleteness that permeates the fast fashion industry, Veldskoen create shoes that last. Immersed in 400 years of handcrafted tradition, Veldskoen only use superior, locally-sourced natural ingredients; and offset their carbon emissions by investing in tree protection schemes, creating better shoes ‘for a better world.’
‘Never be satisfied with the status quo.’
Based: London, UK
Shoe range: Boots, heels, sandals, mules, loafers, sneakers
Price range: $220 – $595
Ethos: Diverse creativity, handmade, sustainable materials, empowering communities
Chelsea Paris luxury and sustainable footwear is a blend of African heritage and European artistry using organic and cruelty-free dyes; along with vegetable-tanned and metal-free leathers that avoid the release of dangerous by-products into the environment. By donating to organisations that make a difference, Chelsea Paris focus on building community and challenging the status quo.
‘Timeless and ethical luxury.’
Based: Paris, France
Shoe range: Sandals, loafers, boots
Price range: €125 – €595
Ethos: Slow fashion, sustainable materials, fair working conditions, empowering communities
Not conforming to the chaotic standard set by the fast fashion industry, Nomasei follow ethical requirements by using only organic cotton and metal-free leathers. So as to not compromise their commitment to sustainability and quality, Nomasei avoid using vegan leather as ‘in 90% of cases it is a material derived from plastic and petroleum’. Acknowledging that leather isn’t a faultless product, it is unmatched in terms of endurance and quality.
Adelante Shoe Co.
‘From cobbler to customer.’
Based: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Shoe range: Moccasins, loafers, boat shoes, brogues, boots, derby shoes, mules, sandals
Price range: $125 – $350
Ethos: Sustainable economic development, fair working conditions, empowering communities, handcrafted
Established in response to poverty and social injustice in Latin American, Adelante believe quality shoes come from a place of equality; empowering every craftsman ‘to achieve their definition of living well’ through fair wages, first-rate education, food and transport. Every pair of shoes is made to order with customers virtually connecting with their cobbler throughout the production process.
‘All the qualities of wool, from its traditional heritage to its technical properties to its environmentally responsible attributes, make it a fibre with no equal.’
Based: Renens, Vaud, Switzerland
Shoe range: Slippers, sneakers
Price range: €59 – €125
Ethos: Sustainable materials, social impact, fair working conditions, handcrafted, family business, ethical production
Baabuk utilises the extraordinary natural qualities of wool (being both renewable and biodegradable) to make comfortable, durable and sustainable footwear. Wool not only retains moisture, it also contains keratin (as found in our fingernails) making it a long-lasting and flexible fibre with fewer shoes ending up in landfill. Sheep are natural carbon sequesters making wool an extraordinarily sustainable fibre.
‘In a natural but time-consuming process […] genuine natural leathers are resulting, that lay the foundation for a sustainable and unique shoe.’
Based: Erfurt, Germany
Shoe range: Slip-ons, lace-up, boots, pumps, sandals, slippers, mules, ballerinas
Price range: €55 – €589
Ethos: Sustainable materials, handmade, slow fashion, ethically made, fair trade, vegan range
Echoing a 5000-year-old tradition, Mbaetz incorporates a painstaking method using vegetable extracts to tan leather rather than intense chemical treatments found in mainstream processes. Their sustainable tanning practices ensure the safe removal of residues and fair working conditions in small, local factories.
‘At our core we believe Fashion shouldn’t be fast, it should last.’
Based: Stamford, Connecticut, USA
Shoe range: Sandals
Price range: $119- $298
Ethos: Sustainable lifestyle, handcrafted, slow fashion, locally sourced materials, ethical production
Designed with the avid adventurer in mind, Cocobelle sandals are handmade by skilled artisans in Bali and Southern Italy under ‘empowering’ working conditions. Using only locally sourced and high-quality materials, Cocobelle challenge the ‘model of destruction’ defined by the fast fashion industry.
‘We believe in stepping in to the good.’
Based: New York City, New York, USA
Shoe range: Flats, boots
Price range: $65 – $85
Ethos: Traditional craftmanship, eco-friendly materials, travel and adventure, local community
Inspired by a ‘love of travel, adventure and life’, Jibs’ summer sustainable footwear is handmade in Brazil from biodegradable leather (that is now certified by the Leather Working Grou) and recycled soles. Using non-hazardous chemicals and less water, Jibs’ ‘perfect perforated leather shoe’ is 98% biodegradable and takes 200 days to compost whilst conventional leather is only 30% biodegradable and takes 50 years to compost.
BENDY by Ashbury Skies
‘We have a simple construction of great materials […] That allows for less transportation/ lower C02, and fair wages paid to California workers.’
Based: Los Angeles, California, USA
Shoe range: Flats
Price range: $149.95
Ethos: Fair working conditions, locally made, sustainable materials, planet – friendly, ethical supply chain, handcrafted
Handcrafted in California, BENDY shoes have a low carbon footprint producing only 4.8lbs of CO2 emissions per shoe whilst a typical shoe uses 30lb (the equivalent of leaving 100-watt bulb on for 1 week). BENDY consists of water-based glues for stitch construction, high quality Italian ‘buttery’ leather from responsible Gold certified tanneries and are made to order which generates less waste.
‘Our timeless basics are designed to last—so making the right choice by the planet can be as simple as putting on a T-shirt.’
Based: San Francisco, California, USA
Shoe range: Boots, flats, sneakers, heels, wedges
Price range: $55 – $198
Ethos: Radical transparency, sustainable materials, vegan range, ethical supply chain, recycling and upcycling
Designing out virgin plastics and harmful chemicals, Everlane has recycled over 9 million plastic bottles and upcycled 1 million pounds of textiles with their Forever Sneaker made entirely from post-consumer waste. Everlane is GOTS Organic Cotton Certified and avoid using leather or suede from animals raised specifically for their hides.
‘I founded this company because I believe everyday footwear should be as elegant as it is enduring x Roberta.’
Based: Sleepy Hollow, New York, USA
Shoe range: Boots, heels, flats, sandals
Price range: $265 – $325
Ethos: Empowering women, eco-conscious supply chain, fair working conditions
Designed for creative and independent women, Wilder prioritise running ‘a business with integrity’ by buying vegetable tanned leather wherever possible, designing packaging with 100% recycled paper and ensuring safe and fair working conditions.
‘Stepping in to sustainability’
Based: San Clemente, California, USA
Shoe range: Sneakers, slippers, sandals, boots
Price range: $26 -$125
Ethos: Sustainable materials, grassroots clean water projects, vegan range, fair working conditions
Freewaters only use PVC free materials and water-based glues along with recycled rubber for footbeds and Cradle to Cradle eco stone powder for packaging. Since 2020, all of their sustainable footwear features E-Dye, which uses 75% less water and fewer chemicals. Freewaters use Gold certified Responsibly Sourced Leather employing an on-site wetlands where chemicals from the tanning process are broken down by plants and organisms.
United by Blue
‘Everyday, 38, 356, 164 pounds of trash are dumped into our oceans. Let’s turn the tide.’
Based: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Shoe range: Sneakers, boots, slippers
Price range: $95 – $245
Ethos: Ethical manufacturing, environmental clean-ups, vegan range, sustainable materials, eco-friendly lifestyle
Not afraid of “doing the dirty work”, United by Blue tackle our global plastic addiction by removing one pound of trash for every product purchased. Helping consumers tread lighter on the planet, United by Blue design sustainable and ethically sourced products using a myriad of natural and renewable materials built to last from bison fibre, wool, recycled polyester and hemp.
‘We’re mad about fashion, but our standards are as high as our heels.’
Based: Melbourne, Australia
Shoe range: Boots, heels, mules, flats
Price range: $129 – $429
Ethos: Handmade, slow fashion, fair working conditions, empowering communities, charitable causes (Bravehearts Australia)
Not conforming to transient fast fashion trends, Batu create ‘beautiful, well-made’ sustainable footwear for women. Handmade by local artisans in Bali, Batu ‘like things slow’ and are meticulous when it comes to fair working conditions and premium products; investing in leather ‘handpicked’ and locally sourced from Java, a by-product of the meat industry that serves the local community.
Based: Waltham, Massachusetts, USA
Shoe range: Boots, sneakers, flats, wedges, heels, sandals, casual
Price range: $65 – $180
Ethos: Eco-conscious, tree planting schemes, vegan range, sustainable materials, circular supply chain (Sole4Souls)
‘Championing wellness-led design’, Earth Origins footwear is infused with style, comfort and a low carbon footprint. Being ‘mindful to ourselves, our planet and our choices’ Earth Origins only use vegetable tanning for leather with tannic acids naturally derived from plant extracts alongside water-based adhesives allowing for safer working conditions.
The Root Collective
‘Made by real people with real names.’
Based: Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
Shoe range: Flats, boots, sandals
Price range: $108 – $328
Ethos: Social impact, fair working conditions, empowering communities, handcrafted, ethically made
Committed to healing a ‘hurting world’, The Root Collective work with a number of small, independent workshops in Guatemala supporting communities to ‘create incredible change’ through generating vital jobs for local artisans. Empowering women, The Root Collective purchase fabric handwoven by women in rural Mayan communities.
Based: Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Shoe range: Sneakers, flats, boots & chukkas, sandals, oxfords, loafers, slip-ons
Price range: $79 – $250
Ethos: Fair working conditions, social impact, forest protection schemes, handmade, circular supply chain (Soles4Souls)
With factories in Trujillo, the shoemaking capital of Peru, Nisolo is the essence of traditional craftmanship and is committed to reducing its carbon footprint by donating to forest protection schemes in the Amazon Basin for every pair of shoes sold. Partnering with Sole4Souls, customers can send back their old shoes to pass on to micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries because ‘what goes around comes around.’
‘Shoes designed by a woman for women.’
Based: San Mateo, California, USA
Shoe range: Boots, pumps, flats, sandals
Price range: $220 – $595
Ethos: Handmade, ethically production, transparency, eco-conscious, comfort technology
Mavette create premium styles without the pain with every shoe featuring patent-pending comfort technology. Handmade in Italy by local artisans who ‘have been honing their craft for generations’, Mavette only use high quality and ethically sourced real leather and suede; as well as ‘skip[ping] the middle man’ to guarantee transparency when sourcing materials, manufacturing and ecological impact.
‘Our products allow us to tell a story about the diversity and creativity of human life.’
Based: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Shoe range: Loafers, mules, sandals, heels, boots, platforms, sneakers
Price range: $39 – $385
Ethos: Eco-friendly materials, social impact, diversity, empowering communities, artisan-made, fair trade, tree planting schemes
Helping communities around the world, Ocelot Market believe handmade products, rich in ‘authenticity and tradition’, bring people together. Only using recycled, upcycled and locally sourced natural materials, Ocelot Market connect customers to ‘the life behind the product’ celebrating its culture, creativity and craftmanship. They trade not only in their own brand of sustainable footwear, but also in homeware, stoneware, jewellery and more, made by a global network of artisans.
- World Footwear (2019) Global Footwear Industry: Positive Dynamics in 2018. https://www.worldfootwear.com/news/global-footwear-industry-positive-dynamics-in-2018/4048.html
- Stone – Wightman, D. (2020) Global footwear market to rise by 30 percent in 5 years. Fashion United, 22 October. https://bit.ly/2LgOW3g
- Vincent, I. (2019) ‘Sex and the City’ favourite shoe brand Manolo Blahnik closes only NYC store. New York Post, 30 November. https://nypost.com/2019/11/30/sex-and-the-city-favorite-shoe-brand-manolo-blahnik-closes-only-nyc-store/
- Badenhausen, K. (2020) China And ‘The Last Dance’ Propel Nike’s Jordan Brand To Record $3.6 Billion In Revenue. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2020/06/26/china-and-the-last-dance-propel-nikes-jordan-brand-to-record-36-billion-in-revenue/?sh=11f945da5057
- Quantis (2018) Measuring Fashion: Insights from the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries study. https://quantis-intl.com/report/measuring-fashion-report/
- Hoskins, T E. (2020) ‘Some soles last 1,000 years in landfill’: the truth about the sneaker mountain. The Guardian, 21st March. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/mar/21/some-soles-last-1000-years-in-landfill-the-truth-about-the-sneaker-mountain
- World Health Organisation (2012) Chemical Agents and Related Occupations https://publications.iarc.fr/123
- Ellen Macarthur Foundation (2017) A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future
- Greenpeace International (2011) Dirty Laundry. https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/7168/dirty-laundry/
- Motlagh, J. (2013) Hell for Leather: Bangladesh’s Toxic Tanneries Ravage Lives and Environment. Time, 3rd September. https://world.time.com/2013/09/03/hell-for-leather-bangladeshs-toxic-tanneries-ravage-lives-and-environment/
- Villemain, C. (2019) UN launches drive to highlight environmental cost of staying fashionable. United Nations News, 25th March. https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/03/1035161#:~:text=When%20we%20think%20of%20industries,polluting%20industry%20in%20the%20world.