As we look back on a year during which sustainability finally burst into the mainstream, a lot of us are starting 2020 by looking more closely at our consumption habits. At this point, we all understand that the most sustainable choice is to stop consuming altogether, but for those who crave newness, there are more options than ever when it comes to brands that are doing their part to contribute as little damage as possible while still putting new things into the world. In the footwear realm, a few noteworthy (non-sneaker) brands are aiming to provide cute shoes that are both vegan and responsibly-made.
An important thing to clarify is that vegan is far from synonymous with sustainable. While the leather goods industry has a historically well-documented negative impact on the environment, there are plenty of shoe brands working to use leather in more sustainable ways. Plus, polyurethane, which is often relied upon to mimic the durability and comfort of leather, isn't exactly the greenest material out there.
As we've learned from the great faux vs. real fur debate, synthetic materials can be even more problematic than animal-derived ones. Thus, for the founders of vegan, 'sustainable' brands, finding and developing the right materials and production methods has been an ongoing, uphill battle, with each of them landing on their own solutions, from water-based polyurethane to recycled plastic to carbon offsets.
Many of these founders would be the first to admit that the world does not actually need more shoes, but they want to show consumers and the industry that a shiny new pair of leather boots isn't their only option — without charging Stella McCartney-level prices.
Read on to learn about four brands that bill themselves as vegan and sustainable and how they've gotten where they are without sacrificing aesthetics or durability.
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Taylor & Thomas
Los Angeles-based Jessica Taylor Mead and Elizabeth Thomas James launched direct-to-consumer brand Taylor & Thomas in 2018 with the goal of creating luxury shoes that truly have the look and feel of leather without harming animals or the environment. Currently, they use a water-based polyurethane for the uppers, plant byproduct for linings, a mixture of castor beans and recycled rubber for insoles, recycled plastic water bottles for an ultrasuede material, beechwood for heels and recycled rubber for the outsoles. The brand also uses recycled and upcycled materials for packaging and partners with Native Energy to offset its carbon footprint.
While the founders feel the brand is too new to instate an end-of-life recycling plan — "The goal is not to create a disposable fast fashion product that people want to dispose," notes Mead — they say they will when the time comes.
The toughest part of the process was sourcing these alternative materials, and then finding factories willing to work with them.
"Some factories said, 'No, we're not going to work with synthetic materials,' and the ones that did found that this takes a lot more work — just because the material behaves differently from leather," explains James. It's all been worth it, though. "We're proud of the fact that a lot of the people who see our shoes don't realize that they're not leather and it's a bonus when we get to share this information that it's way better for the environment," she adds.
While most of the brand's customer base is so far comprised of vegans, James and Mead hope to appeal to a wider audience and "have people realize, 'Oh, these are beautiful shoes, oh they happen to be vegan, great, I just want to wear them because they're beautiful and high-quality and luxury and fashion-forward,'" says James.
Taghrid Zorob launched her brand Rafa, best known for its pared-back ultrasuede (made from recycled water bottles) heeled sandals, back in 2014.
"I wanted to create something that was sustainable, beautiful and animal-free, but still have them be comfortable and good for people and good for the environment at the same time," she says.
She works with a small factory in Los Angeles to produce her shoes, which also needed some convincing to work with animal-free materials.
"The man who runs this place has been making shoes since he was 13 years old; [it's] very much the old school way of making things," she explains. "He was giving me a lot of pushback but eventually we were able to make it happen."
While Rafa does use some plastics, Zorob is focused on making sure her production methods and supply chain are as responsible as possible.
"It was important to me to keep [production] local. We pay very fair wages; everything is made the right way without sacrificing the human aspects of manufacturing," she says.
This also allows Rafa to make products to order — only a few of the most popular styles are kept in stock — which reduces waste. Zorob also buys all of the packaging materials locally and completely forgoes shoeboxes, even when shipping to wholesalers. And she tries to ship everything by ground when possible. All of these measures can result in higher prices and slower deliveries than less responsible competitors.
"It's been a bit of a challenge to educate the consumer about that, but once they get it, they get it and they really love it," says Zorob.
New York-based Aera, which launched just last year, positions itself as a luxury footwear brand for men and women that uses vegan materials, and also as "110% sustainable," meaning it works with a third party to offset all of its carbon emissions, and then some. The line was founded by entrepreneur Alvertos Revach, fashion executive Tina Bhojwani and footwear designer Jean-Michel Cazabat, who saw an opportunity in the luxury space to cater to the growing community of ethically-minded consumers.
"Thanks to innovations in materials and technology, it's exciting," says Bhojwani. "People who come [see the shoes] say they would not be able to tell the difference between what we use and any other luxury material."
As with our other founders, getting there wasn't easy, though they were able to find a solar-powered supplier in Italy specializing in vegan leather alternatives with recent investments in recycled materials, materials with lower plastic content, renewable materials and water-based polyurethane. Aera's uppers are made from synthetics including polyester, polyurethane, poly-viscose, polystyrene and nylon; the company works with Plastic Bank to offset this component, specifically.
The soles are made from 50% synthetic rubber, 40% inorganic mineral composts (silicones and mixed clay) and 10% additives (fastenings, pigments and plasticizers); the linings are made from plant-based materials and the heels are made from recycled plastic, wood and/or thermoplastic polyurethane.
The brand has a take-back program in the works to recycle shoes once customers are done with them, but the founders note that they intentionally focus on timeless designs that won't go out of style from season to season.
"I think there are probably enough shoes in the world that we don't need to produce any more until the end of time, but the challenge is that people do want new styles and new things so trying to balance this is extremely challenging," says Sydney Brown, who launched her namesake vegan shoe line all the way back in 2011.
With far less innovation in sustainable vegan materials at that time, she had her work cut out for her.
"I just took apart a shoe and, generally, in every shoe, there's about 15 different components, so if I couldn't find a sustainable supplier to work with I had to figure out how to do it myself. I would find the key people in the industry and work on collaborating with them," she explains.
In particular, it took her four years of working with chemists to develop the vegan glue she uses now. It's been an ongoing process of developing new and better materials; she's worked with everything from fennel to pineapple to cactus.
"It's a constant process of refinement, and what we considered sustainable five years ago is no longer sustainable today, so we have to keep improving," she says. "It's kind of a lesser-of-evils question because nothing is perfect." Right now she's passionate about the future and the potential for biofabricated materials like "growing mycelium mushroom leather and growing actual collagen protein in a science lab; you can grow leather, basically."
Next month, she's launching a take-back recycling program, and she just hired a CEO and COO who are helping the brand take stock of its carbon emissions. She adds that her goal for 2020 is to build community with likeminded brands to share information instead of seeing each other as competitors and being secretive.
"The only thing we can do for this climate crisis is to work together," she says.