Ever since the general public started to become more aware of their impact on the world around them, eco-friendly clothing has become a much larger market with plenty of new niches to explore and experiment in. One of them was footwear, and environmentally friendly shoes have become a relatively popular choice for a variety of different reasons.
Of course, as with anything eco-friendly, it is important to be reassured that you are actually buying something that will reduce the harm it does to the environment since very few companies disclose that information up front. Is eco-friendly footwear legitimately good for the planet, or is it just another clever cash-grab?
What They Are
The idea behind eco-friendly footwear is to minimize the overall impact it has on nature, either in terms of animal life, environmental health, or both. Some designs simply take eco-friendly materials and run them through the normal production lines that they would for any other shoe, but certain brands and designers go a step further, using less polluting methods to produce each pair of shoes.
While it is easy to imagine that eco-friendly shoes might look like bizarre, hand-made creations, they generally don’t look that far from standard shoes in reality, with the main visual differences coming down to the materials that are actually used in their construction. For example, instead of real leather taken from an animal’s hide, the shoes might be made from a synthetic or vegetable tanned leather, both of which are slightly less damaging to the environment for different reasons.
However, that is not to say that all eco-friendly shoes do this. Sometimes you will find designs that use hemp, recycled car tires, or even processed plant leaves, which can look and feel drastically different from regular shoes while still keeping the same basic designs.
How They Are Made
There is no universally-agreed way to create shoes which are eco-friendly, so different brands and companies will have their own specific methods (or lack of methods, in some cases) that result in the end product being slightly different: some might simply focus on minimizing the amount of electricity they use, while others will take a fully zero-carbon approach and hand-make the shoes with very limited equipment.
Obviously, this will also have an effect on the quality, style, price, and general look of the shoes, as well as changing how close they are to being “truly” eco-friendly. It is up to you personally whether it’s worth it to sacrifice environmental friendlies for slightly better fashion, but in many cases, only the most hard-core of environmental advocates will choose designs made entirely out of renewable and eco-friendly materials.
The soles of a shoe are often seen as its base, and they provide most of the protection and stability you’ll need while wearing them. However, unlike regular shoes, eco-friendly shoes can’t always rely on the high-quality synthetic materials that you might be used to, so they need to come up with alternative ways of providing the same protection without creating excess waste products or pollution.
In many cases, this is done through recycling – rubber is taken from scrapped shoes, vehicle tires and other old products made using this material, which can then be isolated from the other components and shaped into a new sole. However, some companies choose to create entirely synthetic materials instead.
Since rubber is technically a natural material (it comes from trees), some companies will go the opposite route and stick to using entirely natural rubber, which provides all of the same protective benefits while using far fewer artificial materials and techniques to produce.
Laces are perhaps the easiest part of an eco-friendly shoe to make since they’re mainly made out of recycled cotton or existing laces that have been woven back together. There isn’t much to say about them, although they’ll generally be in a slightly more limited amount of colors, due to some shades being hard to make without using industrial paints or staining them with artificial chemicals.
Since laces are usually fully interchangeable, you can always take out the standard pair and replace them with a pair that you already own. However, some designs might have built-in laces, or simply avoid using laces altogether, just like normal shoes.
Leather is one of the main materials that you’ll see in the upper parts of eco-friendly shoes, but natural leather’s hard to get without harming the environment – since most of it comes from animal hides, it can be tricky for companies to create it without having to kill living creatures. However, there are some environmentally friendly alternatives that can create a material that’s almost exactly the same as real leather, only with less of an impact on the natural world or the animals living in it.
One of the most widespread alternatives is synthetic leather, which is exactly what its name suggests – a synthesized version of leather that’s made out of completely vegan-suitable chemicals, resulting in no direct harm to living animals. In general, it’s almost impossible to distinguish it from leather unless you’re looking very closely, which makes it great for people who still want their footwear to look stylish.
Some brands will go a step further and use leaves and plant fibers to create organic materials that are as durable and tough as regular leather, without having to rely on artificial compounds or real animal skins. In other cases, things like cotton and canvas will be used, even if the original design of the shoe didn’t use them.
Footwear that needs to be waterproof can use things like cork, which is much less polluting to make in large quantities and can be recycled from a range of items that are often simply thrown away and forgotten about.
Other Eco-Friendly Materials
Leather obviously isn’t the only material your shoes can be made from, though, so there’s still a range of alternatives for imitating and re-creating other kinds of footwear. For example, mushrooms are sometimes used to create a biodegradable and durable material that can be used for almost any shoe design, and certain companies might use animal fur that’s taken from routine shearing and shaving, rather than killing the animal for it.
You might also run into designers that use extremely unique or interesting methods to create shoes, ranging from recycling plastic bottles to mashing other worn-out shoes together into an entirely new product. Since each brand uses their own techniques and supplies, it is unlikely that any two pairs of eco-friendly shoes will be the same, especially if you’re looking at a range of different designs and styles.
Why Does It Matter?
The value of something being eco-friendly doesn’t matter to everybody, and some people would rather have the latest popular style rather than choosing a more niche eco-friendly brand, but there are more benefits than just protecting the environment.
For example, a lack of materials that can harm the planet usually also leads to less chance of them harming you, especially when it comes to things like hard leather and rough rubber. This means that you won’t run into as many issues with certain chemicals or materials harming your skin if your shoe starts to break.
On a related note, most eco-friendly clothes are designed to be just as durable and reliable as their normal counterparts, and shoes are no different – in fact, depending on how they’re made, they can actually sometimes be stronger, since they can’t use cheap, mass-produced materials.
While some people might find a slight price increase off-putting, it’s often a better practical deal than with regular shoes. Many modern shoe brands are able to increase the price based on a logo alone, which changes very little about the rest of the shoe but still makes it worth more money to their customers: with eco-friendly designs, the extra money is actually making a difference to the quality and sustainability of your new footwear, making it far more than just an empty price increase.
Are They Worth Buying?
In general, there are two groups of people who will buy eco-friendly shoe brands: people who want to help the environment, and people who want to buy the shoes because they stand out from the mainstream market. Either way, the answer is usually yes, since quality and reliability are two things that most eco-friendly companies will try to focus on when creating their footwear.
If you’re just wanting to wear them for the sake of having some shoes that aren’t a mainstream brand and style, you’ll find them fairly reliable and about as comfortable as any other shoes of the same type, with the added benefit of being more ethical and far less common compared to most other “quirky” styles of footwear. Plus, since they’re designed as an alternative to regular shoes, they’re generally suited to a range of different situations, rather than just being a one-time gimmick.
However, if you’re looking to protect the environment, you should definitely start buying eco-friendly footwear as soon as you’re able to. There are very few downsides to wearing them, especially if you’re planning to use them for normal day-to-day activities, and they save a lot of animals and plants from being harmed. Not only that but since they’re often visually identical to existing types of shoe, you can match them to your chosen outfits and prevent them from looking out-of-place during the average workday.
In most cases, companies that produce these shoes are dedicated to being as ethical as possible, so there’s also a high chance that you’re buying shoes made under fair working conditions.