/ Sustainability

What are ‘vegan’ trainers?

Footwear has taken a stride to a more sustainable approach in recent years – have you seen ‘vegan’ shoes advertised? Do you know what the term means?

Vegan shoe designs are becoming more and more popular – everyone from small kickstarter brands to the giants such as Adidas and Nike are making vegan trainers of some of their most popular designs..

Stella McCartney, a pioneer of all things new and vegan-friendly, led the way by collaborating with Adidas on a vegan iteration of its iconic Stan Smith design. More recently we have even seen the first ever vegan-friendly football boots endorsed by Paul Pogba.

But how can a shoe be ‘vegan’ in the first place? Given the term is often associated with food and diets, you’d probably be forgiven for being a little confused. As a pretty big trainer/sneaker enthusiast, I thought I’d do my best to explain.

What are vegan shoes?

PETA has written an interesting guide on this subject that goes into detail about how and where different materials are sourced. Put simply, vegan shoes are made from human-made leathers and other materials, rather than sourced from animals.

Human-made vegan leathers have been on the rise over the last decade, with Petroleum-based faux leathers such PVC – a highly toxic plastic material – or polyurethane (PU), which is slightly less harmful, widely used in the production of vegan shoes.

While these materials are considered a better option than animal leather, there are still issues. Many of these materials aren’t biodegradable and will release toxins in landfills for many years, while toxic chemicals are also used in production chains.

But there are other methods out there – there’s been a drastic change in the ways textiles are made. Piñatex, for example, is a pineapple-leaf fibre material that’s been used in a range of shoes by Hugo Boss. It’s also appeared in collections by Chanel and H&M, making it one of the most prominent new vegan leathers on the market.

Another is wine-grape leather, made by Italian company Vegea. It’s crafted from leftover grapes from the wine-making industry. There’s even apple leather and cactus leather now being used in the production of vegan leather goods.

Are your shoes vegan?

Normally companies will tell you on the packaging if your shoes are vegan or made from “genuine leather”. Leather products will commonly have a tag, a label, or some form of indication that the product is made from animal skin.

Other times, the shoe will have little symbols on the label that could help you find out whether it’s vegan. If you see a symbol that looks like a cowhide, it was made from animal skin. If, instead, there’s a diamond-shaped symbol or a symbol that looks like a net, that stands for human-made materials.

For an industry with a large carbon footprint, it’s good to see fashion taking a more sustainable approach – it definitely feels like this is more than a passing fad. But how do you feel about ‘vegan’ footwear?

Are innovations like this something that’d change your approach to buying new shoes? What more could brands be doing to make their products more sustainable? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.


On top of not being nice to animals, isn’t leather one of the most polluting industries? I would imagine leather being the worst material in terms of pollution, carbon footprint and ethics compared to petroleum based products.

Leather made from animal skins and hides has useful properties that synthetic materials [“human-made leather”] do not have. It breathes, is more flexible, can stretch, and is easily repairable. I believe that overall it is more sustainable. I suspect that the marketing case for alternatives to leather is not a sincere animal welfare one. The commercialisation of sports footwear into fashion items is unnecessary and extremely wasteful. Canvas and rubber remain capable of serving the purpose.

So long as animals are not being bred for leather I do not see an ethical problem. For most purposes, whether it is for footwear or furniture, leather is a by-product of meat production and is available in abundance. Clearly there are ethical issues around that and it is a highly-charged subject that Which? possibly does not wish to take a view on. If meat production declines then the availability of leather will reduce and its price will probably make it unaffordable for many applications; synthetic materials, with their carbon implications, will possibly have to substitute, although for many purposes there are satisfactory textile alternatives [but water resistance is not one of their properties].

It seems to me as though consumerism has taken us from, on the one hand, being dissatisfied with boring old canvas and rubber sports footwear and looking for something more stylish, and, on the other hand, to feeling a form of mock guilt that an animal by-product is being used instead so replacing it with petrochemical based substances with adverse consequences for the planet is the best way forward. A flawed corollary, in my opinion. Perhaps society should just rewind and reset with plant material-based shoes for slopping around indoors and full rubber footwear for those occasions when the feet might get wet. The fashion industry [at the pricier end of the business] might consider it is doing something virtuous and appealing to those concerned about animal welfare when it should really start to face the fact that much, much, bigger changes are required in lifestyle choices in the future and that, as an industry, fifty percent of it is unnecessary and wasteful. Luxury sneakers should be condemned to history in the next era.

The chemicals used in traditional leather tanning were responsible for a great deal of pollution, though processes have changed and manufacture moved overseas. Although we can have our views on whether to use or avoid animal products few are in a position to understand the environmental aspects of manufacturing processes. In a few cases such as the manufacture of mobile phones we have learned about the impact of mining rare materials, the need to deal properly with electronic waste, and associated ethical problems.

When we are presented with alternative products we need to be guided by independent experts rather than paying attention to marketing to guide our decisions. It’s also important to take into account how long products such as footwear will last. I suspect that many will be guided by celebrities.

”For an industry with a large carbon footprint, it’s good to see fashion taking a more sustainable approach”. A more convincing sustainable approach to saving carbon would be to avoid buying more “fashion” items just for “fashion”. How many pairs of shoes do you need?

As John says, leather has many properties well-suited to footwear and is essentially making use of a waste product.

The PETA link hardly offers an unbiased view. I seems to ignore the effect plastic have on the planet and that, while we eat meat we are left with animal skins. However, their approach no doubt, quite sensibly, will resonate with people who hold particular views on food and animal products. Would they object to using the skins from animals that had lived a natural life and then passed away?

Most shoes seem to be made in countries where labour is cheap and, allegedly, exploited in poor conditions, both physical and employment. I wonder where the celebrity footwear is made? Hopefully in humane workplaces. Might we also consider the sustainability of these workers lives as well as that of other animals?

Here is information about footwear, including vegan shoes on Ethical Consumer: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/fashion-clothing/shopping-guide/ethical-shoes

Most of the information is available only to subscribers but what is freely available is still worth reading. It mentions simple points such as whether traditional leather is produced with or without chromium, traditionally one of the worst pollutants. How would the consumer know whether chromium had been used in making shoe leather?

@chiragkhetiya Hi Chirag – Does Which? have a subscription for Ethical Consumer? You might find some useful information in the guide on ethical shoes. The well known brand of shoes I usually buy does not fare well in the ratings.

IThis seems quite an informative paper on leather https://www.academia.edu/21760238/Tanning_Industry_Processes_Pollution_and_Pollution_Control
According to this paper 80-90% of the world’s leather is tanned using chromium salts.

The resulting pollution can be controlled, it seems, if the producer choose to or is made to but much of our leather is produced in countries that probably are lax in pollution control. They are probably also lax in employment control and conditions, so “ethical” may not be an appropriate word to use for any shoe production in such areas.

That looks like a student’s essay to me and although the extent of use of chromium in tanning may be correct I am unconvinced that the author has access to information about pollution control. He does not cite references to support the points made and all we have is a short bibliography.

I share your reservations about the possibility of poor management of overseas manufacturing. I wonder if Which? will give us ethical ratings in product reports in future.

Here’s an extract from another essay.


I thought the other essay was an interesting summary of tanning for those who might want to be informed. But the point I was making was that where process pollution can be sensibly controlled, and it appears so here, pollution should not be used to condemn an industry that can be converted to be environmentally acceptable. Many industrial and agricultural processes go through this change if the end product is desirable.

The second article is a peer reviewed scientific paper in a respectable journal. The abstract (we don’t have access to the full. paper) explains that there is potential to remove chromium pollution from industrial effluent relatively easily. What we really need to know is to what extent chromium is recovered from waste by this or other methods during leather manufacture and how well different manufacturers perform. Until there is evidence that best practice is being applied then industry can rightly be criticised. We have done a great deal to reduce industrial and agricultural pollution in the UK and the improvement of the water quality of many of our rivers is evidence of this.

The problem is much pollution is in many industries in places out of our control. In countries that produce leather for example. Perhaps we should ask Which? to consider such matters when recommending products. Perhaps they should also consider the exploitation of workers as well. It is a tough job when recommending products to consumers but, if consumers want to buy ethically, someone has to provide that information. We have more chance of controlling such matters if we avoid certain countries.

That’s exactly why I would like to see Which? providing us with information with its reviews. The information published by Ethical Consumer does not seem to be in conflict with other sources in the few cases where alternative sources of information is available, but it’s difficult to judge how reliable it is overall. There seems to be an opportunity for Which? to work with other consumers’ associations to help us choose wisely. I wonder how much the publicity concerning exploitation of workers affected consumer choice in retail sales of clothing.

I would like to know why Clarks does not do better in the Ethical Consumer ratings. I’m a little disappointed.

I doubt it has had much effect on clothing sales, or other products. Perhaps evidence exists to the contrary? Should consumers have free choice of what they buy and from where, assisted by relevant information, or should they be controlled in what they can buy?

We can be accused of damaging the economies of poor countries if we avoid buying from them, even when they pollute and exploit workers. Is that a sustainable argument?

Personally I would like to support UK industry, where it still exists.

I expect you will manage to find information that is not readily available from other sources, Chirag. Occasionally we get to know about poor behaviour by companies in the news but rarely about good practice.

Many of us would prefer to support UK industry but most production is now outsourced. Publicity of poor practices seems to have helped improve standards in the mobile electronics industry.

We have standards that specify safety and other standards and a similar system could be used to lay down ethical and environmental manufacturing standards but it’s difficult when manufacturing is outsourced.

Vegan footware,my feet aren’t that bothered about what shoes I put on them,if they are they’ve never mentioned it,if they did I didn’t hear them say anything.