If you’re trying to live a vegan lifestyle — or even just a more eco-friendly, sustainable one — you may be trying to cut down or completely eliminate your consumption of animal products and byproducts. But, while it’s easy to order the salad at a steakhouse, sometimes animal-derived products can be lurking where you least expect them, like on your feet.
Suede, leather and wool are all used to make footwear, but just because you’re giving up animal-derived materials, that doesn’t mean you need to go barefoot. You can find amazing vegan shoes and sneakers from brands you likely already know and love.
Here’s everything you need to know about vegan sneakers and finding the perfect pair for you.
Why Should I Care About Vegan Shoes?
If you’re just looking at a pair of vegan sneakers and regular sneakers, you likely won’t be able to tell any differences between the two in a simple side-by-side comparison. They look the same, and they often feel the same, from insole to outsole.
However, vegan shoes not only cut down on needless animal deaths around the world, but they’re also more eco-friendly than shoes made from animal products in general because they don’t require large-scale animal farming (which results in a range of environmental issues). Some vegan shoes are even more eco-friendly if they’re made from recycled materials.
Why are vegan shoes not more popular then?
The fact is, most individuals may not even know the damage their shoes are causing.
You may not have a full line of leather boots sitting in your closet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that most of your shoes are vegan. Animal products are used in a range of shoe pieces and parts, from the glue that holds your shoe together to a leather logo on the side of an otherwise vegan sneaker. But even that small piece of leather is an issue — especially when you consider the number of animals that suffer each year to produce it, as well as the environmental cost of leather production.
And if you’re not terribly worried about the cattle-based leather industry, it’s worth realizing that a lot of leather is sourced from Asia, where it’s not uncommon for that leather to be derived from cats and dogs.
What are Vegan Sneakers Made From?
Vegan sneakers are made from a variety of materials. Sometimes, they’re made from plant-derived materials, from fruit to even mushrooms. Sometimes, they’re made from synthetic materials like microfibers or rubber.
There are a few terms that you might see used to describe vegan sneakers and their materials.
Vegan leather may sound like a misnomer, but it really is vegan. Vegan leather is typically made from either plastics or plants. The plastic-based faux leather isn’t as environmentally sustainable as plant-based vegan leather, so if sustainable footwear is what you’re after, you may want to opt for the latter.
Plant-based vegan leather is often made from something called “bio-based polyurethane” — which is just a fancy name for starch made from inedible corn. You might also see the term “Pinatex,” which is the brand name for a vegan leather made from discarded pineapple leaves. Plant-based vegan leather is also sometimes made from cactus, grapes or apple peels.
Microfiber is typically used to recreate suede styles. While the result is a very similar look and feel (and microfiber shoes are indeed vegan), microfibers don’t break down well, so they aren’t very eco-friendly. Similarly, you might see the term “microsuede,” which gives you that same suede look and feel, just via vegan materials. But it’s important to know that microsuede is also not very environmentally friendly.
Demetra is a special term that you’re only going to find used to describe vegan sneakers in a few cases — like if you’re shopping for a pair of tennis shoes from Gucci’s vegan sneaker line. Gucci currently produces Demetra in its Italian factories; the relatively new vegan material is made from viscose and wood pulp, as well as that bio-based polyurethane mentioned above. (In addition to the Demetra, Gucci also uses cotton, recycled steel and recycled polyester in its vegan sneakers.)
Gucci plans to begin selling Demetra to other fashion brands for use in other clothing items, starting in 2022, though, so you may just spot this unique material popping up in a range of vegan footwear and other accessories.
But what about the glue?
Beyond all this, don’t just look at the sneakers’ primary materials to determine whether or not they’re vegan. You could be looking at a canvas cloth shoe with a rubber sole, but it could still be held together via animal-sourced glue, making the shoes very much not-vegan.
Luckily, the glue issue isn’t as much of a worry, as even big brands, like Nike, have switched over to using all-vegan glue in all shoes, vegan or not. Still, it’s something to keep in mind while shopping.
Where to Find Vegan Sneakers
You can find vegan sneakers from a range of brands, both from brands that are specifically committed to vegan clothing and those that sell both vegan and non-vegan items.
A good way to identify vegan footwear is to either look for a “PETA-Approved Vegan” logo or to look at the shoe’s inner tag, which will tell you what materials it’s made from. If it shows you a diamond or a symbol that looks a little like a woven rug, then it’s made from plant-derived or synthetic materials. If the tag shows something that looks a little like the outline of a bearskin rug, it’s made from animal-derived materials.
Here are a few places to start shopping for your next pair of vegan kicks.
As already mentioned, Gucci offers its line of vegan shoes, including the Gucci Basket, Gucci New Ace and Gucci Rhyton, all made with Demetra (have you caught on yet that the name “Demetra” was derived from Demeter, Greek goddess of agriculture?).
Of course, no one goes to Gucci looking for an affordable pair of tennis shoes to wear on their morning run. These shoes start around $600 and are more fashion statement than support and stability.
If you were particularly intrigued by the Pinatex material mentioned above, made from the discarded pineapple leaves, then you’re in luck because Nike recently partnered with the maker of Pinatex to create a vegan sneaker collection.
The Happy Pineapple sneaker collection uses a combination of Pinatex and sustainable cork to recreate classic Nike looks. However, the collection, just released in June, has been going fast. Only a few of the options available in the collection are still up for grabs, such as these women’s Air Max 90s.
But the Happy Pineapple collection isn’t Nike’s only vegan option. In 2020, the brand released its Space Hippie Collection, made from recycled plastic bottles, t-shirts, yarn, foam and rubber.
Likewise, Nike released an SB Dunk High Baroque Brown QS tennis shoe made of all vegan leather, but it was only released in select retail locations outside of the United States.
This, as well as the relative unavailability of Nike’s other vegan collections, points to a problem with vegan shoes, even when they’re released by a household name brand like Nike — vegan shoes just aren’t accessible enough to the average consumer. Maybe it’s time to be a little more vocal with the demand for vegan options from big brands?
Before Nike released any of the above, Reebok jumped on the vegan footwear train, announcing its plant-based running shoe, the Forever Floatride GROW. Made from castor beans, algae, rubber and eucalyptus, it contains no animal products and also no petroleum-based plastics, meaning it’s just about as sustainable as it can get.
The shoe is also a little more accessible than those offered by Nike, as you can find it offered by some of your average high-end retailers, such as Nordstrom, for an agreeable starting price of around $120.
If you’re more of a Vans fan when it comes to your sneakers, check out the Eco Theory collection that’s not only vegan but also extra eco-friendly and made from sustainable materials.
With a range of colors and that classic, minimalist Vans style, you can feel good about wearing these on your feet. The skate shoes are made from organic cotton, jute (a natural, renewable fiber) and responsibly-sourced, natural rubber.
Not all of Converse’s sneakers are vegan, but many are. If you can find the styles that are made from cotton canvas and rubber versus leather and suede, then you’re in the clear.
The vegan options include classic, unisex Converse shoes such as the Chuck Taylor All Star High Top, the Converse Street Canvas Mid Top and the Chuck Taylor All Star Slip On.
Rounding out the vegan tennis shoe options from your favorite footwear brands, Adidas also jumped into the vegan shoe game this year, with Stan Smith sneakers made from mushroom-based vegan leather. Unfortunately, much like Nike, Adidas is only planning to release the new sneakers on a limited basis, with no confirmed release date as of yet.
However, you can currently pre-order the Adidas vegan sneakers made possible via a partnership with Stella McCartney. While you’re there, go ahead and check out the rest of Stella McCartney’s animal-free and sustainable sneakers as well.
Loom Footwear may not be a brand that you’ll spot on your average shelf at the mall shoe store, but it is a brand that provides 100% vegan footwear, on a budget, widely, with tons of options available right now, online.
Not only are Loom Footwear’s shoes made from cruelty-free and vegan-friendly materials, but all of the materials used are sourced from eco-friendly farms, and Loom’s factories follow strict sustainability practices. As a result, each pair of shoes boasts a carbon footprint that’s reduced by more than 500% as compared to your average pair of non-vegan shoes.
AVRE creates its women-only footwear line using recycled plastic bottles. The recycled water bottles are turned into threads, and then 3-D technology is used to knit those threads into what eventually becomes a comfy tennis shoe. The process results in a 45% reduction in energy use, 30% fewer greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere and a 20% reduction in water consumption.
AVRE offers high-quality walking shoes, lace-up sneakers, slip-on shoes, no-tie shoes and chunky heel tennis shoes. All are pretty affordable, at around $150.
Brazil-based shoe brand Cariuma offers colorful sneakers made from a mixture of natural materials (like bamboo, cork and sugarcane) and plastic.
They come at an affordable price point (under $100), and they offer both men’s and women’s styles. Plus, for every pair of shoes sold, Cariuma plants two trees in the Brazilian rainforest.
Vessi creates 100% waterproof, 100% vegan men’s and women’s sneakers. But the best part? Unlike most of the above brands that only create vegan footwear for the adults in your household, Vessi also offers products for kids, so the whole family can go vegan.
Set to release this year, Vessi’s kids line will also be 100% waterproof, vegan and machine washable.
Make a Good Choice for Both Your Feet and the Planet
While vegan footwear isn’t currently the norm, it is relatively easy to find if you just make the effort to look in the right places. Make the right choice for your feet, the planet and our animal friends by purchasing your next pair of sneakers from a vegan brand or a non-vegan brand’s vegan line.
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