We are not going to hide it: we love shoes! But we don’t like the fact that the footwear industry today is highly unsustainable.
A typical pair of sneakers generates 30 pounds of carbon, which is the same amount that a 100-watt light bulb emits in a week. If you take into account that China alone produces 12.6 billion pairs of shoes every year, you can imagine how much C02 goes into the atmosphere. That’s just the production. Every year, we send hundreds of millions of shoes to waste too.
Lots of the negative impact of our shoes come from the material they are made of. The choice of the material will affect the resources, energy, and water usage as well as what happens to the shoe after we are done with it. These are the reasons why conscious consumers pay attention to materials when buying shoes. Going for the alternative and eco-friendly materials in footwear can make an important change in our overall carbon footprint and waste problem.
Yet, turns out this can be quite hard. There are many terms, practices, and claims going around.
Don’t panic! We prepared your ultimate guide to materials in footwear, so you can make a better choice.
Let’s start with what to avoid…
Most shoes today are plastic
Until the 19th century, shoes were largely made out of natural materials. This has changed a lot since. Today, most shoes are completely composed of plastic and plastic-like materials, from the soles to the outer layers. Plastic comes from fossil fuels, is energy-intensive, and not bio-degradable. In addition, when it comes to footwear, it usually not recyclable. Plastic is one of the most polluting substances on the planet, causing great damage to animals and humans.
Plastic started as a cheap alternative to leather. Synthetic leather (which is a fancy name for plastic-based leather) became popular with the rise of vegan footwear and fashion. Unfortunately, while you might be avoiding the direct animal suffering, this is far from a sustainable option.
Plastic didn’t replace only the leather. To a large extent, it replaced the textiles too. Nowadays, you are very likely to find polyester, nylon, rayon, and lycra in our footwear. If you didn’t know, all those come from petroleum, aka plastic. Another material that plastic pushed out of the spotlight is rubber. And this is where things get tricky: rubber is one of the most common materials used to make the soles of the shoes, especially sports shoes. However, the majority of today’s rubber is either completely plastic or is a mix of rubber and plastic. Therefore, when we speak about the rubber in the footwear industry, there’s a great chance we speak about plastic material, rather than the natural rubber.
But what about the real leather?
Leather is one of the oldest materials humans used to make the shoes. It is flexible, durable, and breathable, which makes it the reason why it continues to be a popular material for many brands. On average, animal leather shoes will last longer than synthetic ones.
However, there are multiple problems with the leather, and the high price is only one of them. Leather requires treatment (you cannot use raw leather). Because of the growing demand, it is a standard to treat animal skin with highly toxic and dangerous chemicals, many of which stay on the product throughout multiple wears. Unethical production is another result of the constantly growing industry. The cruel treatment of animals is the reason why vegan shoes started trending. Finally, leather production comes with a big carbon footprint. Most leather comes from cattle, and this alone counts for 14.5 % of all human-induced emissions!
Leather is of course not the only animal product in our shoes. Materials such as wool and fur are also popular, but they share common issues with the leather. While they are all organic materials, they unfortunately often come from unethical sources and go through a highly toxic production process. These practices are turning animal-based products into damaging and carbon-heavy materials.
Now, we want to make a note that there are companies that refuse to use unethically sourced leather. Additionally, many small brands chose to process and dye the leather naturally, reducing their eco-footprint. Some of those companies we love and recommend. However, they are not the standard in the industry, so it is important to be careful if you are considering buying leather shoes.
guide to materials in footwear
Natural rubber or an alternative?
Natural rubber was a widespread material in fashion and other industries for a long time. Today, some shoe manufacturers are re-introducing it. Natural rubber comes from a milky white liquid called latex, found in over 200 different plants and trees. Yet, a 100% natural rubber is a rare material in the footwear industry, as we mentioned above. The problem with the natural rubber is that over 70% of it is already used to make tires and tubes, making it a scarce material. Even more, increased demand for rubber can lead to the loss of biodiversity and deforestation.
As a consequence, some turned to search for other alternatives to rubber. The most known alternatives in the footwear industry are PU (polyurethane) rubber and EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) rubber. You don’t need to know how to correctly pronounce them, but you need to know that both are synthetic materials. Meaning that they are man-made, and the sustainability largely depends on the manufacturer and which components they are using exactly to make this rubber. The reason why they are a better option than conventional plastic is that they are usually a combination of organic material and water. In addition, unlike plastic, they don’t contain any toxic chemicals and have a far lower impact on the soil and water systems. However, they are still essentially plastic, just a better version of it.
Recycled materials as an eco-friendly alternative
Considering how much waste we already produce, some designers and shoe manufacturers started looking for ways to reuse this waste to create shoes. Even big brands, like Adidas and Nike, introduced their recycled line. However, these companies, being some of the biggest companies in the world, are also largely responsible for the waste problem in the first place. They might be looking for better solutions now, but it is only a part of their overall production. Instead, we suggest supporting brands and companies that make all of their products sustainably.
Unlike innovative materials like PU and EVA rubber, recycled materials mean that no new resources need to be extracted to produce the shoes. Plus, reusing the materials that already exist requires less energy, water, and C02. Recycled materials in footwear can come from single-use plastic bottles and other post-consumer plastics, marine plastics, used tires, and so on. Ultimately, deciding to go for recycled materials means that there is less waste on the planet. Hence, it is the first sustainable alternative we recommend.
The second one is this…
Plant-based shoes as an alternative
The footwear industry loves textiles, as they are lightweight and sturdy. The good news is that, just like in fashion, a growing number of brands are now replacing polyester and other plastic textiles with natural and plant-based alternatives. Thus, going for the brands that use organic cotton, hemp, linen, cellulose, and similar means that you are choosing a better alternative. Wondering why?
Well, the plant-based and natural materials are biodegradable, have a low carbon footprint, and come from renewable resources. If the brand is working with organic materials (look for certifications), it also means that no toxic chemicals played a role in the production. As a bonus, plant-based shoes also mean cruelty-free shoes, so no animals are harmed in the process!
For example, wood is a traditional material that makes heels and soles. It is also possible to bond thin sheets of wood to get a leather-like alternative. One of the most popular woods in shoemaking is cork. If you see this material trending among the environmentally aware community, it is because the material comes from the bark of the cork oak tree and the way it is harvested doesn’t harm the tree. On top of that, cork makes water-resistant and elastic material, preferred by those looking to the plastic out of the shoemaking industry.
Finally, you might see some innovative materials that come from food! That’s right, technology made it possible to make leather-like materials, using by-products of the fruit industry. Pinatex is possibly the most known one. It is a material made out of pineapple leaf fibers, collected during the regular pineapple harvest. Another one is apple leather, which is attracting lots of attention lately too. Though, the technology is not quite perfect yet: the apple leather is actually a mix of 50% apple skin and 50% of PU (polyurethane).
So, what is the most sustainable shoe material?
You’re probably guessing: there’s no easy answer. In general, going for natural or recycled materials is always a more eco-friendly choice. And, usually, plant-based textiles and vegan leather have a smaller footprint, compared to the leather coming from animals.
That is not the whole story. How sustainable material is will also depend on where the brand sources, how they dry, wash, dye, and otherwise treat the material during the production, as well as how they combine it with other materials. In other words, material choice is important, but we recommend checking each brand before buying from them.
If you’re looking for some eco-friendly footwear brands, we have a great list here. And if you need sustainable and vegan flip flops, check out our shop!