Ah, shoes. Since I began shopping only for second-hand items, finding shoes has been a problem of mine. It’s really hard to find shoes that I like, look good, and are my size in second-hand stores. Although I am trying my best to avoid it, I have been forced at times to buy new shoes. That prompted me to ask myself: what should I know about shoes in order to shop for the best possible alternative to second-hand shoes?
Is leather okay?
Leather definitely gets a bad rap. Its detractors usually hate the fact that it’s an animal product, or by-product. Indeed, if it’s generally argued that the cows that leather is made from would have been killed for meat anyways, this idea has been challenged. Even though it’s really hard to get figures on the matter, some advance that leather can be a more profitable business than meat, which would make meat the by-product of leather, and not the opposite (it’s true for ostrich farming for instance, where the skin represents 80% of a bird’s value). It is also true for leather made out of animals that are not farmed to be eaten, such as snake leather. If you are vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, you might prefer to avoid it altogether, as cows are not better treated when they are destined to become leather. Actually, they may even be worse off, since people usually buy meat coming from their own country or region, where standards exists (for instance, in the EU). Leather, on the other hand, comes from all over the world, including developing countries where considerations regarding animal welfare may not as established as they are in developed countries (and that says a lot).
The process of making leather is also disastrous for the environment. The process of tanning animal skins to transform them into leather is mostly outsourced to developing countries, where pollution standards are lower. They sometimes even import non-processed hides from Western countries — after all, that’s where most of the world’s meat is consumed. Leather is most often chromium tanned, as it takes far less time and is therefore cheaper. The chemicals used in tanning, including the very toxic ones like chromium, are not always disposed properly. The example of Kanpur, India, is chilling: the city is the biggest leather exporter from India (90% of its production is sent to Europe and the US), but this lucrative activity has led to the contamination of the groundwater with chromium, methane, leads and arsenic (to only name a few). Researchers believe it is linked to the higher morbidity rate of leather-factory workers, the numerous occurrences of kids being born with severe mental or physical disabilities, and the increase of skin diseases (again, to name only a few) – check these photos or this documentary by Sean Gallagher to get a better idea of the situation. Add to this, of course, that as usual leather workers in developing countries run better chances of being paid a very low wage, of being child labourers, and of working in sub-standard working conditions.
And to make matters worse, depending on the way it was made, leather is not always biodegradable.
Of course, the environmental cost of vegetable tanned leather is not as high (even though it can still be wasteful and toxic, just not as awfully toxic as chromium), and you can try to source leather that was made in North America or in the European Union to ensure a certain level of working conditions, health, and environmental standards. Nevetheless, however the method of tanning, cow farming has a high water and carbon footprint that should not be forgotten.
But aren’t vegan shoes made out of plastic?
That’s a pretty big point against vegan shoes as plastic is terrible for the environment – it’s made from oil, and is far from being biodegradable. However, vegan shoe companies seem to generally be sensitive to sustainability and human rights issues, but of course it’s good to always double-check that they are transparent about all aspects of their production.
Here is a look at the material that vegan shoes and accessories are often made of:
PVC: Polyvinyl chloride (or plastic #3). Many, amongst which Greenpeace, argue that it is toxic, as it is mostly made of chlorine; that dioxins, another highly toxic chemical, are released during its fabrication; and that although it can theoretically be recycled, it’s not easy to do so, so a lot of it ends up in landfills to be burnt or buried.
PU (Polyurethane): also made of fossil fuel, but less toxic.
PET plastic (Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly called polyester in the textile industry): not considered toxic, can be easily recycled from water and soft drink bottles to be transformed into fibers. Sometimes used to make linings.
Rubber: can be wild or synthetic. If synthetic: it will be derived from petroleum. It may take hundreds of years to break down, and releases toxic chemicals and GHG when burnt. If wild: like everything, there is a right way and a wrong way to cultivate rubber trees – it’s better to directly take a look at the practices of the brand that you are checking out.
Cotton: incredibly water-intensive, yet 73% of the world’s cotton comes from irrigated land. Unless it’s organic, it’ll be sprayed with tonnes of pesticides that contaminate drinking water and groundwater. Prefer organic cotton, whenever possible.
Full disclosure: I am not a huge fan of the aesthetics of a lot of “eco-friendly” shoe brands. Below, I listed some of the companies I think make sleek shoes AND have a consistent approach to sustainability (At the exception of Everlane, and Beyond Skin, from which I have preordered shoes that have not been shipped yet, I have never bought from them, but would definitely, if I needed to – again, I’d rather avoid buying new shoes):
Companies that also have leather shoes:
Veja, for instance, transparently documents its leather, and admits that it’s nearly impossible to work directly with leather producers and to know exactly where the leather comes from. It’s also impossible to have fair trade leather. They also carry non-leather shoes, and use vegetable-tanned leather. They are very transparent about their factories and how they work with their employees.
Everlane: Their website does not hold a lot of information about where their leather is coming, but they wrote back to me when I asked as follows:
“Our sourcing of materials from animals come from sustainable, non-violent sources. The leather we use comes from cows in Italy. The cows are pasture-raised just outside of Pisa, Italy, and the leather is a by-product, meaning that these cows are not raised and killed solely for the purpose of producing leather goods. Once the cows are killed for meat, the hide is saved, and we use this by-product for our leather accessories.”
They also said that they use both vegetable tanned and chromium tanned leather.