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By Liz Barteldt
In 2018, global shoe production climbed to unspeakable heights at 24.2 billion pairs. As people are buying more, they are also throwing out more. In America specifically, 300 million pairs of shoes are thrown out every year. Shoes can take up to 30 to 40 years to decompose, which can vary widely since shoes are composed of a variety of materials.
When it comes to buying shoes, our options span far and wide. Thankfully, not all shoe companies have an environmental footprint that will give you a headache. We are going to break down what to look for when shopping sustainably for shoes while also not breaking the bank. While our list includes links to mainly female shoes, all of the shoe brands offer men’s shoes as well.
What materials can shoes be made out of?
Leather is a material that comes from animal skins and hides, such as cows, crocodiles, and snakes. This material is mostly found in a shoe’s sole, lining, and exterior. While leather has the benefits of being durable and elastic, it has many downsides.
The carbon footprint of leather shoes is often larger than that of synthetic shoes because of the carbon intensity associated with cow farms. Another elephant in the room is the animal rights issue. While some may think leather is a harmless byproduct of the animal agriculture industry, it has formed an industry of its own where animals are killed simply for leather. If you are vegan or want to buy cruelty-free products, you may want to stray from shoes made with leather.
After the animal is skinned, the tanning process begins. During this process, the skins are prepared for leather production and leather is made durable. To turn the skin into leather, the tanning process uses toxic chemicals, namely Chromium. This chemical is used in 85% of shoes but is toxic to the environment. For example, studies have shown that when chromium was introduced to the environment, it negatively affected crop yield and quality. In fact, the EPA considers all waste containing chromium as hazardous.
Faux Leather/vegan leather/pleather
Faux leather is typically made from polyurethane, polyester, or nylon. Choosing between faux leather and regular leather can be complicated since both have their downsides. While the leather industry is harmful to animals, faux leather is made from plastic and thus is petroleum based.
Based on a 2017 report, synthetic leather has less than half the GHG emissions and overall environmental impact than real leather. However, synthetic leather is far less durable than real leather, meaning you may buy more over time.
When considering the leather vs. pleather issue, it is important to make purchases based on what matters most to you, but we recommend trying to avoid both of these materials when possible.
Canvas and other textiles
Canvas is a woven fabric usually made from cotton. This material is often found in the upper part of shoes, making up the body. Canvas can be a sustainable option if the cotton is grown organically. This means the cotton is grown without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, or fertilizers, which leads to less water pollution.
Natural and synthetic rubber
Rubber is a strong, elastic, and stretchy material that can be natural or synthetic. It is used in the soles and cushioning of many shoes.
It is naturally produced by trees and is extracted through rubber tapping. Natural rubber has a number of environmental impacts. Tropical forests are clear-cut to grow rubber plantations, which has threatened biodiversity and reduced necessary carbon sinks in the most critical forests in the world. To make things worse, these plantations also use synthetic pesticides. It also poses an ethical issue, as clearcutting has displaced Indigenous peoples across the world.
Synthetic rubber is not extracted from trees, but rather, composed of chemicals, namely, crude oil. Clearly, both natural and synthetic rubber have their problems. So, it is important to look for shoe companies that use recycled rubber. Companies like Cariuma also use ethical tapping, which removes sap from bark without harming the tree. Bottom line: check where the material comes from and if it is ethically and sustainably sourced.
How to not break the bank
The 3 Rs: Repair
To extend the lifetime of your shoes, consider going to a cobbler. While it may sound expensive, this can often be cheaper than buying a new pair of shoes. You can also try and fix your shoes yourself using shoe glue. The most common is Shoe Goo, which is described as a “strong, flexible polymer glue.” Unfortunately, this glue can have adverse environmental effects such as harming aquatic environments. If rain washes off this adhesive on your shoes, it could contaminate surface water. There are some cleaner options, although they may have lower ratings: Bostik Shoe Repair Adhesive and eCobbler Shoe Repair Adhesive. While it may be best to avoid toxic chemicals, these glues also lengthen your shoe’s lifetime, so it’s up to what you find most important.
The 3 Rs: Reuse
We recognize how expensive it can be to buy sustainably made shoes. As always, it is important to use what you have for as long as possible, and overall just buy fewer shoes. If you’re on a budget, try shopping for shoes secondhand or if all else fails, buy shoes that are made to last from a non-sustainable brand. On our list, we tried to rank shoe brands that are relatively inexpensive while also eco-friendly.
The 3 Rs: Recycle
Shoes are unfortunately not so easy to recycle. This is because they can be composed of so many different materials, and the adhesives used to combine these materials makes it even harder. However, companies such as Nike and Thousand Fell have programs that let you return your shoes for recycling. We recommend buying from shoe companies that have initiatives such as these, or check out this website to learn about places that take your old shoes, regardless of the brand: https://brightly.eco/blog/how-to-recycle-shoes
Look for these certifications
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Certifies material is made from at least 70% natural organic fibers, with no toxic dyes, pesticides, etc.
- Responsible Wool Standard: Certifies that sheep farmers meet animal welfare and land management requirements
- Global Recycled Standard: Ensures a product is made at least partly from recycled materials
- Leather Working Group: Certifies the leather supply chain is sustainable
- Sustainable Leather Foundation: Also certifies the sustainability of the leather supply chain
- FSC Certified: Products have been made using practices that promote forest conservation
- USDA Certified Biobased Product: Product has biobased content, meaning some of it comes from renewable resources like plants.
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