Complete Guide to Sustainable Shoes
We all want to be eco-friendly, but it can be hard to know where to start. Likewise, it can be challenging to figure out what is sustainable and ethical as a shopper. This guide will help you understand the challenges in the shoe-making process and offer tools to make more informed decisions the next time you go shoe shopping. I am Mary Sue Papale and I have been in the shoe business my entire career, over 30 years. My team has expereince in design, production, product developement, sourcing and have a deep knowledge of the shoe industry and haw shoe are made.
We'll introduce you to the challenges of footwear sustainability and cover how to shop for more ethical, planet-friendly, and sustainable shoes.
Sustainability has been a topic of great debate in recent years. At Suggies, we know progress can only come about when consumers understand environmentally friendly and safe products and practices.
Eco-friendly shoes can be challenging to identify, and there is a lot of conflicting information online. So what makes a shoe sustainable? Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet, but this guide will shed some light on what you should look for when shopping for stylish, comfortable shoes.
The Shoe Industry's Sustainability Challenges
Behind the curtain of the shoe industry lies a profoundly complex and unsustainable business model. In lands far away lie a shoe manufacturing base built on profit instead of people or planet.
Fast fashion's rise has led to the development of lower-quality shoes designed for mass-market consumption. To minimize costs, many shoe companies forgo sustainable practices and planet-friendly materials to maximize profit margins and meet demand. Unfortunately, this practice results in damage to our environment and leads to human and labor rights violations.
Americans buy roughly 5.7 pairs of shoes per person each year. But, unfortunately, an estimated 300 million pairs are tossed into landfills every year. This throw-away mentality fuels inferior quality and overproduction.
Today, sustainable brands make footwear with strict sustainable regulations, while most others don't follow any standard. It is possible, however, to be more conscious of your selection. This guide will offer tips on what to look for when shopping for sustainable footwear.
The good news is that conscientious shoe brands are fighting the tough fight and producing high-quality, ecoconscious shoes with less impact using fair labor practices and well-thought-out tactics. Tanneries, dyes, material compounds, shipping, and every component are all carefully considered by some brands today.
These sustainably-minded brands are putting valuable resources into finding ways to reduce their carbon footprint and bring forward more ethical and sustainable shoe-making processes.
What Makes a Shoe Sustainable?
A sustainable shoe brand considers its social and environmental footprint throughout a shoe's life. Simply put, sustainable shoes usually have lower carbon footprints, are made of sustainable, eco-conscious materials, and are created in ethical factories. Additionally, these brands keep longevity in mind throughout the design process.
Some sustainable shoe brands are fusing the latest technology with ethical practices and sustainable manufacturing processes, and planet-friendly materials to minimize impact and move toward a more circular business model.
Buying less and buying better is an important consideration in sustainability. Invest in high-quality shoes that last and ones that can be repaired.
What is Circular Fashion?
A circular fashion business model emphasizes a 360-degree holistic approach to eliminate pollution and waste from the cradle to the grave.
This holistic business model looks at design, raw material, and production processes from start to finish. At the end of a product's life, a circular model encourages repurposing an item or its' parts into something else with the goal of zero waste.
An example of this would be a rubber outsole being ground into pieces and used for equine mats or leather upcycled into a bonded leather for another product or into leather board, which can be used for heel inserts. This concept is new and in its' infancy stage, but sustainable brands are starting to move toward this forward-thinking mindset.
What is Ethically Made in Shoes?
Ethically made footwear companies treat workers fairly, pay a living wage, and offer safe, well-ventilated working conditions. They don't use child or forced labor or sweatshops. In addition, ethically made brands limit the use of harmful chemicals & toxins through their production process.
Furthermore, these brands consider waste, energy use, and water usage throughout the product cycle. Ethical shoes brands use recycled materials and try to upcycle waste throughout the supply chain.
Many sustainably-minded brands choose to work with factories in countries committed to reducing dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal.
Because of its relatively low cost, coal helps fuel economic development in countries where most shoes get produced but is a leading contributor to global warming. As a result, some ethical brands look to countries investing in clean energy sources and those with less reliance on coal.
These brands are often transparent about processes and document ethical working conditions on their website.
Does Made in America Matter in Shoes?
Yes. Handcrafted in America product has an ethical leg up because there is a baseline standard for labor and environmental rights to operate a factory in the US. For example, national, state, and local laws regulate minimum wages, overtime, and safety procedures. In addition, local laws regulate waste processing, use of chemicals, water usage, and recycling. Depending on the county, many of these things don't exist overseas.
Additionally, when production is local, shoes don't get transported over vast distances, so the shoes achieve a lower carbon footprint from saving transportation.
What is Fairtrade?
Fairtrade is a general movement that alleviates poverty and promotes sustainable development by ensuring a just and transparent, ethical supply chain. This fair trade business model brings products from poorer regions into more developed economies.
Typically, a minimum price is agreed on in advance to ensure that producers earn a living wage. A shoe brand that practices fair trade uses producers that give back to the local communities like healthcare and education.
What is a Living Wage in Shoes?
A living wage is a minimum wage necessary for a person to pay for the necessities in their country. Vital requirements include food, shelter, clothing. The primary goal of a living wage is to enable workers to afford a comfortable, basic standard of living.
Stitched VS Glued
In some shoe factories overseas, lack of ventilation from toxic fumes causes illnesses, and breathing this over time can cause cancer.
Reducing or eliminating glue is a good idea in shoe-making, and few companies are focusing on this right now. However, ethical brands are decreasing, and in some cases, eliminating glue altogether to make their uppers.
What is a made-to-order business model?
The made-to-order business model is an alternative to the typical production and retail model. Made-to-order companies don't mass-produced; instead, they focus on producing goods after customers have ordered them.
Made-to-order reduces waste because products only need to be made after they are purchased. Overproduction in the fashion industry is a leading cause of fashion waste. Excess goods usually end up on sale at deeply discounted prices or are destroyed. In addition, since the production of shoes is energy-intensive, made-to-order reduces electricity usage as well.
Pillars of Sustainable Manufacturing
- Responsible Materials: Environmental and social factors considered in material selection.
- Ethical Production: Honest wages, safe working conditions, and waste reduction are considered throughout the supply chain.
- Socio-economic impact: Impact on the local community, such as quality of life and the environment considered in fairtrade sourcing and manufacturing.
- Circular Life Cycle: A system in which shoes are used and repurposed as long as possible and returned to the biosphere at the end of life.
Can Shoes be Recycled?
No. Shoes provide a challenge for recyclers because they have multiple layers of materials. Disassembly is required before recycling can begin, but facilities rarely take on the job due to its difficulty. Once you take the shoe apart, only a few parts can be recycled.
For example, after deconstructing a canvas sneaker, the average recycling center might recycle the canvas upper, cotton laces, and metal eyelets. The rubber outsole and insole, however, would most likely be sent to the landfill at this time.
Are Shoes Biodegradable in Landfill?
No. When tossed into the landfill, most parts of the shoe will not biodegrade. Sadly, many of the materials will outlive you, your children, and your children's children. Synthetic and plastic materials can take 1,000 years to biodegrade. Leather, however, will biodegrade faster; approximately 10-50 years depending on the surface treatment.
What are Carbon Offsets?
In a world where pollution is destroying our planet, carbon offsetting has become a way for companies large and small to balance out their damaging emissions. Companies offset emissions by investing in projects that reduce greenhouse gases elsewhere, like a deforestation project. For example, a company can claim to be carbon neutral through a calculation showing they are offsetting their own company's emissions by saving forests since trees absorb Co2.
However, a brand with a sustainable mindset would also look inward to reduce emissions in their operation and supply chain rather than rely exclusively on carbon offsets.
What is Greenwashing?
Fashion brands are under pressure to care for the planet, and some green claims fall under scrutiny. Greenwashing is when a company embellishes or misleads on environmental claims without honest or credible data.
In recent years, some brands claim to care deeply for the planet by offering a collection made from recycled materials, yet don't necessarily apply a sustainable mindset throughout their supply chain and engage in reckless environmental practices overseas.
The response to the climate crisis by fashion companies has been a tremendously positive movement. However, it is essential to scrutinize a brand's claim by investigating their website and mission statements to know if they are committed to a comprehensive, sustainable business model
How Can I Contribute to a More Sustainable Future?
Vote with your wallet
By rewarding these progressive-thinking sustainable shoe brands for their forward-thinking approach to design and innovation with your business, you are moving the industry toward a better future.
With every step, in ways seldom considered, consumers contribute good or harm that impacts both the environment and those involved in manufacturing shoes.
Buy Shoes That Last
One way we can ensure sustainability in our society and on earth is by repairing our shoes instead of throwing them out. Look for shoes designed for longevity. Most footwear these days is not made to last long
An excellent planet-friendly strategy is to buy the highest quality pair of cute comfortable shoes you can afford and repair them rather than discard them as they start to wear out.
Are Leather Shoes Sustainable?
Yes, leather shoes can be sustainable. There are many things to weigh, and it depends on how long you keep, wear and take care of your shoes. The leather needs to come from a modern tannery using clean tanning practices. The soles and insoles should comprise a high percentage of plant-based materials. Choose simply made and designed shoes to reduce labor and energy and find shoes made in a factory that offers ethical labor practices.
Leather flats and shoes often win in the comfort category owing to their soft hand and breathable nature. Leather is soft and pliable and conforms to the wearer's foot shape. In addition, since leather is porous, it pulls moisture away from the skin to reduces moisture build-up.
Leather shoes can be cleaned and polished to look great year after year. As a result, you might not have to buy a new pair of shoes for a very long time. There is a revival of artisan skills offering leather repair services for treasured leather goods.
Choosing a shoe that is simply made and one that does not have a lot of parts is a good idea too. This simplicity means fewer materials, less transportation, and fewer carbon emissions.
All of these factors keep leather shoes out of the landfill, and by keeping them in your closet longer, you reduce emissions by not buying another pair.
Tanning's High Impact
Tanning pollutes the environment. It necessitates a large amount of water, as well as the use of chemicals. If waste isn't disposed of properly, it may be hazardous to employees and the surrounding ecosystem.
There are many tanneries around the world, and not all of them follow strict guidelines. Unfortunately, in countries where big brands find cheap labor, tanneries often care more about profits than following best practices for the environment.
Modern Tanning Practices
In the last ten years, many tanneries have become automated and are running state-of-the-art operations, efficiently using resources with high levels of environmental compliance.
Sustainable footwear brands frequently select these clean tanneries that meet the highest environmental standards and have tough-to-acquire accreditations.
These modern tanneries typically run treatment systems for their liquid waste and recycle 100% of their water. In addition, best-in-class tanneries often create circular waste streams that provide either new materials or energy sources from their solid waste.
Certifications like Leather Working Group and BLUE Angel Certification exist to ensure ethical, environmental, and safe tanning practices. Tanneries that adhere to these policies and procedures minimize their ecological impact during the hide processing, production, recycling, and disposal phases.
Misinformation often states that chrome-tanned leather is dangerous and that leather makers use a chemical called hexavalent chromium. LWG certified tanneries don't use this as it is against the group guidelines.
Did You Know Tanning is the Oldest Form of Recycling?
Leather manufacturing recycles over 270 million cowhides each year. Hides are a by-product of the food industry, and without leather manufacturing, the hides would go to the landfill. It is also a fact the 99% of the leather used in tanning is a by-product of the meat industry.
Are Vegan Shoes Sustainable?
No. Vegan leather shoes are not necessarily sustainable shoes. Vegan leather excites many people, but they are not necessarily a planet-friendly alternative to animal leather. Traditionally vegan leathers come from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and (PU) Polyurethane. The chemicals used to make vegan leather shoes are toxic and can be harmful to workers in the production process. Additionally, vegan leather shoes from PVC and PU threaten the environment at their end of life as they don't decompose.
The perfect leather substitute does not exist, but there's something to these newer, plant-based advancements, and many companies embrace them as a more sustainable material option.
But like leather shoes, there are many other things to take into consideration.
Does a Vegan Diet Prevent Deforestation?
Veganism is more than just a food choice; it's also about minimizing environmental damage by reducing our carbon footprint. It's argued that eating less meat or eliminating meat from diets would reduce deforestation and benefit the planet. The vegan movement is gaining ground, and veganism has become a popular alternative for many reasons beyond food preference.
Since the animal agriculture industry is often associated with clearing forests to make more room for grazing livestock or growing crops to feed them, vegans believe eating less meat reduces deforestation.
However, the food industry claims meat and dairy supply are now more efficient due to more productive farming, meaning fewer animals are needed. Therefore, deforestation comes from greed, corruption, or the demand for timber, mining, or crops like soya, not meat and dairy.
According to research, deforestation is responsible for around 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming and destroy natural habitats. Thus, it is a needle that is worthy of serious reflection and review.
What are Innovative Sustainable Shoe Materials?
Plant-based leathers have grown increasingly popular. These modern sustainable materials are alternatives to leather and plastic-derived vegan leathers. Many of these use low-water, carbon-neutralizing techniques.
Most of these do not have all the characteristics of leather. Instead, they tend to be plant fibers mixed with plastics to mimic materials that look like leather.
Much progress is still needed to mimic the soft hand and durability of leather. Many contain fossil fuels, but there is still hope and enthusiasm for these sustainable materials as responsible leather alternatives.
Here are some to watch:
Pinex is a durable and environmentally friendly natural material made from pineapple leaf fibers. Typically, excess pineapple leaves get incinerated. Instead, Pintex extracts the fibers and mixes them with polylactic acid and an oil-based resin to make a leather-like fabric.
Mushroom leather comes from mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus. It's mixed with post-consumer waste like corn cobs, wood chips, and straw. At the end of its life, a shoe made of mushroom leather (at least the upper part) is biodegradable and compostable.
Grape Leather Waste from the wine industry is generating a leather alternative. After bio-oil gets extracted from the grape waste, it's then polymerized with grape material and combined with natural materials fibers to make a leather-like product.
Cactus Leather. Cactus leatherinvolves using either the new young leaves or the mature leaves of the cactus plant. These leaves are harvested, cleaned, mashed, dried, combined with non-toxic chemicals, and formed into sheets.
Mirum is a leather alternative that does not use plastics. Instead, the company uses natural plant composites molded together with a patented, controlled chemistry process.
Plant-based Soles and Insoles
Most shoe outsoles come from synthetic rubber derived from 100% fossil fuels. As a result, the footwear industry's reliance on oil-based primary materials is one of the most challenging problems to tackle.
Plant-based compounds are becoming more popular, and shoemakers who care about the environment are taking notice.
Here are some options to look for:
Natural Rubber Soles Indigenous communities in the Amazon harvest wild rubber that taps rubber trees without destroying the integrity of the forest. This natural compound gets mixed with other natural materials and petroleum to make outsoles with less impact on the planet.
Learn about Suggies natural rubber shoe outsole
Rice Husk Sole One hundred twenty mill tons of rice husk are dumped into landfills each year. Resourceful manufactures learned rice husks could be recycled, processed, and combined with natural rubber to make flexible, durable, eco-friendly soles using less fossil fuel.
Learn more about Suggies Rice husk shoe outsole
Algae Sole Savvy manufacturers have figured out that they can harvest algae bio-mass from lakes and rivers. Algae can pollute and be harmful to waterways, so clearing and repurposing it is a great solution. Manufacturers mix algae with petroleum to make a lightweight, flexible, durable foam sole that reduces dependence on fossil fuel.
Sugar Cane Sole. Stalks are refined into pellets, combined with oil, and injected into molds to make flexible, comfortable EVA outsoles with less impact. Since this plant thrives in South America, growing sugar cane for this shoe foam removes more carbon than it takes to produce it, making the process carbon neutral.
Cork Midsoles Cork is a sustainable natural materials that has been winning converts for its environmental friendliness. A new generation of cork midsoles offers comfort and sustainability in one. Cork processing consumes less energy and water than synthetic materials; harvesting it extends a tree's longevity by as much as 300 years and raising CO2 consumption by an estimated five times.
Castor bean A plant-based bio-oil made from castor beans increases the natural content in shoe insoles. Using these raw beans dramatically reduced petroleum usage. These beans are a non-food crop grown with little water.
What are Some Sustainable Materials for Uppers?
Certified Organic Cotton Organic cotton uppers are sustainable because they do not use pesticides or other harmful chemicals on their crops, polluting the environment. In addition, if they are from ethical, fair trade brands or organic US farms, workers are more likely to be paid a fair wage and work in safe conditions. Finally, sustainable flats in organic cotton are stylish and good for the planet.
Bamboo Bamboo is an excellent sustainable material for an upper material; it requires no fertilizer or pesticides. Bamboo is carbon neutral as a material because it sequesters carbon as it grows. Additionally, like other natural materials, when bamboo gets harvested, the plant is not destroyed; instead, it continues to grow and sequester more carbon.
Recycled Water Bottles. Recycled materials, like old plastic bottles, are being turned into plastic thread. Of course, reducing or recycling consumer waste is always a plus as it cuts back on emissions and landfills. Here's how some brands are using recycled water bottles to make a more sustainable product.
- Weaving thread into uppers to make flexible, comfortable, stylish flats.
- Post-consumer plastic bottles are made into shoelaces
- Recycled plastic thread is used to stitch together the upper and soles
Wool is sustainable because instead of producing carbon, wool (if raised properly) helps sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. Therefore, if buying wool shoes leads to fewer synthetic shoes made, the planet wins.
Wool is a natural material that repels water and breathes, which makes it an excellent footwear choice. In addition, wool shoes keep your feet naturally cool in summer and warm in winter, so your feet don't get overheated or too cold.
What are some Sustainable certifications in the Footwear Industry?
Leather Working Group (LWG)
The non-profit LWG has established an audit procedure to assess the environmental performance of leather producers all across the world. The LWG has reduced the impact of the global leather industry by developing a certification standard that promotes environmental best practices.
The LWG was founded in April 2005 to support companies, merchants, product producers, leather manufacturers, chemical suppliers, and technical experts. Now over 1000 members collaborate to create an environmentally responsible program for the leather industry.
The LWG's auditing frameworks drive continuous improvement of environmental performance across the global leather supply chain.
Learn more about Leather Working Group
Certified B Corp
B Certifications can be a helpful tool for recognizing green businesses and products. This sustainable certification label signifies that a company or product has little environmental impact, integrates ethical labor practices, and generates financial gain with the planet in mind.
To obtain certification, companies meet strict criteria and requirements designed to reduce their social and ecological impact.
Certified B Corp supports businesses to successfully address some of society's most pressing challenges, from poverty to ecological crises.
Learn more about Certified B Corp
Blue Angel is an eco-label of the German government hands out to deserving businesses and tanneries. This certification sets high standards for environmentally-friendly product design. Founded over 40 years ago, earning this label shows that you have a measured path toward sustainable design and manufacturing.
What is a Life Cycle Assessment or LCA?
LCAs establish an environmental profile of a product throughout its lifecycle. Data collected from raw material extraction through production, consumption, and disposal helps businesses understand where to make improvements to reduce a product's environmental footprint.
MIT Surprising LCA Findings
In 2013 MIT did an LCA to determine the number of greenhouse gasses an average pair of China-made synthetic sneaker emitted. The MIT team took a "cradle-to-grave" approach and considered many different steps, from extracting the materials to manufacturing to end-of-life. They broke up a shoes' life into five parts:
- Raw Materials extraction
They found that the first two stages contributed 68% of a shoes' footprint. The main reason for this is because of the power needed to manufacture. Most running sneakers are China-made, where coal is a common source of energy. Coal generates steam used to power manufacturing. The use of coal to make electricity creates carbon dioxide.
MITS finding on Sneakers
A typical pair has 65 different pieces. It takes more than 360 steps to make a pair, from sewing and cutting to injection molding, foaming, and heating.
The study found that the injection molding, foaming, and heating from the lightweight outsole, insoles, and molded piece design features were more energy and carbon-intensive than the making of the synthetic leather upper.
Opportunities for Sustainable Production
MIT Researchers recommended the following:
- Manufacturing facilities often throw out unused scraps. It would be better to upcycle these back into production.
- Simplify the construction to reduce cutting and welding.
- Print design features onto a shoe instead of affixing multiple pieces and materials to streamline the assembly process.
MIT Study has Guided Sustainable Brands
The group's work has helped guide designers and shoe companies to change and improve their designs to emit fewer carbon emissions. Ultimately knowing the manufacturing contribution of products allows companies and designers to find ways to make their products more environmentally friendly.
Data collected from raw material extraction through production, consumption through disposal helps businesses understand where to make improvements to reduce a product's environmental impact.
In this guide, we've introduced you to some of the challenges in sustainable shoemaking and offer tips on what to look for to make more informed decisions about what path is right for you. The guide was created to help you identify an ethical, eco-friendly, and sustainable shoe.
The least expensive shoe in the market will most likely not be sustainable. But it probably won't be the most costly shoe either.
If there's one thing we can't stress enough, it's to make sure your next pair of shoes comes from a brand that:
- Considers its social and environmental impact throughout a shoe's life.
- Chooses of sustainable, eco-friendly materials,
- 3) Selects ethical factories offering safe working conditions and honest wages.
- 4) Considers longevity in the design process
About Suggies Founders
We're Mary Sue and Caroline. We met in our first footwear industry positions after college, and we've worked in the industry all of our lives. But as time passed, we noticed how the unsustainable manufacturing process harms our planet. As a result, we launched Suggies - a brand built for comfort-loving women who care about sustainability.
We are not a flash-in-the-pan company that treats sustainability as a trend.
Planet-friendly shoes are difficult to make, and of course, there isn't a perfect solution. Still, every choice gets made carefully considering how they affect the planet at large rather than just ourselves or company profits alone. Fortunately, progress has been accelerating rapidly in footwear sustainability.
We think the future is bright!
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Written by Mary Sue Papale, a footwear expert with over 30 years expereince in design, production, product development and product fit in the shoe industry.