Last summer I was staying at a friend’s house, and when we decided to go out to dinner I wished aloud that I had brought a nicer pair of shoes to wear. She offered me a pair out of her closet, and when I asked if she had any non-leather shoes I could borrow, she exclaimed, “I don’t wear plastic shoes!”*
Well, neither do I. Twenty or thirty years ago vegans may have been limited to what they could find at Payless, but now there are many breathable (and stylish!) faux leather and suede options. I thought it would be fun to show you most of the shoes in my wardrobe so you can see how easy it is to avoid leather. People like to think leather is “natural,” but 1, the tanning process is HORRIBLE for the environment, and 2, that whole “using all the parts of the animal” argument is complete baloney anyway. (Are you a 16th-century Native American? Well then.) When you put on a pair of leather shoes, you not only become a party to that environmental devastation, but you are also implicitly condoning needless cruelty.
I recommend shopping at an all-vegan shoe store like Sudo Shoes (Cambridge, MA), Moo Shoes (NYC), or Vegetarian Shoes (Brighton, UK) as opposed to DSW, since most of the DSW inventory isn’t cruelty free, and I’ve found the prices comparable at Sudo Shoes anyway. (Moo Shoes seems to be somewhat more expensive, but in fairness their rent must be through the roof.) I’ve never ordered from them, but Zappos has a vegan shoe section.
You may be wearing vegan shoes without even thinking about it—like Tevas in the summer or Bogs in the winter. (I own and love both. My Bogs boots kept my feet warm and toasty last winter, although not every boot style is vegan.) I also picked up a comfortable and very sturdy pair of Montrail running shoes from Sudo last year.
Let’s talk a bit about the environmental sustainability of leather alternatives. Kate Sheppard lays out the basic concern in this Mother Jones article:
The best I can discern from the label stamped inside of them is that they were made in China with “All Manmade Materials.” Most fake leathers are made of some kind of plastic product—which was almost certainly derived from petroleum. Some faux leathers are even made of polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC), a product that contains, among other not-so-nice chemicals, phthalates.
Back to the plastic shoe conundrum! So yeah, if you buy a cheap pair of shoes from DSW, they’ll probably fail the sustainability test. That said, high-end vegan brands like Novacas (Spanish and Portuguese for “no cow”) claim to use eco-friendly vegetable leather:
What are the shoes made of?
We use the highest quality synthetic microfibers on the market for our footwear. Our synthetics stretch, breathe, and wear like leather and are completely PVC-free.
Are your shoes eco-friendly?
Our shoes never contain any PVC, which is often very toxic to the environment. Our materials do not contain any toxic products and, in case of fire, do not emit any toxic fumes. The materials we use are highly biodegradable. The uppers, whenever possible, are 100% biodegradable. The materials are produced in European factories known for using the highest environmental standards available in all of their manufacturing.
Even if you can’t afford a $100 pair of Novacas (and they are worth it!!), you might take comfort in the argument Jamey made during one of our vegan pow-wows at Sadhana Forest: while pleather shoes have one strike against them, he said, real leather footwear has two—environmental fail AND cruel to animals.
I suppose I should say that, for the record, I paid between $60-110 for most of the shoes I’m showing you in this post (though thanks to Sudo’s sales, I did get sweet discounts on some of them). As for durability, there is certainly a great deal of truth in the assertion that leather shoes last longer than their made-in-China-of-manmade-materials counterparts, but as with all things, you get what you pay for. A well made pair of vegan shoes can last a long time! (I still have a pair of one-inch heels I purchased at Moo Shoes in 2004, and the only reason I haven’t posted a picture is that I can’t find them in the infernal mess that is my closet.)
*It must be noted that my friend has since gone vegan! Woot woot!