Leather VS Vegan Shoes: The Surprising Eco-Friendly Results

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Sometimes, the sustainable answer is right in front of us. Local produce instead of imported food, reusable totes instead of plastic bags—these are practices that eco-warriors know and love. But what about those times when the answer isn't so obvious?

At first glance, a vegan shoe might seem like the most environmentally friendly option, but what happens when you take a step back? Here's what I learned when I compared sustainable leather shoes to vegan footwear.

What is Vegan Leather?

Typically, manufacturers craft vegan leather shoes using a range of materials. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Polyvinyl chloride, a firm plastic otherwise known as PVC

  • Phthalates, a chemical that makes stiff PVC pliable

  • Polyurethane (PU), or vinyl, that's used to give fabric a leathery appeal

  • Chemical solvents used to liquify vinyl

These plastics and chemicals are just a few of the materials that go into vegan leather production. Both PVC and vinyl are versatile and inexpensive—not to mention their uncanny leather-like appearance—but they're not without their faults.

With such an intense chemical makeup, carbon-intensive footprint (no pun intended) and lack of biodegradability, there's no denying the environmental impact of mass-produced vegan leather. Even though vegan leather might avoid the animal welfare issues of raising cattle, it isn't exactly environmentally friendly.

Behind Stella's Vegan Leather

Stella McCartney prides themselves on being a vegetarian brand. When so many other fashion labels take the easy way out, I think they're making a pretty noble stamp on the industry. Regardless, they still make their vegan shoes out of an amalgam of polyester and vinyl.

To be specific, they use a recycled polyester backing and a coating made of 50% vegetable oil. This is miles better than most other faux leathers in the market, but the bulk of their materials remain chock full of environmental concerns. At the end of the day, a pair of Stella McCartney lace-up sneakers come at a steep environmental price—and that's all ignoring the dent they'll put in your wallet.

Eco-Conscious Alternatives to Vegan Leather

Not every veg-forward fashion brand has a hefty environmental footprint. While less common, we do have some eco-conscious alternatives to plastic materials.

Although promising, these materials don’t mimic the softness, durability and scalability of leather. Perhaps in the future we'll see more of them, but for now, most accessible vegan shoes are sure to have plastic components. For the sake of the planet, that's a fact we can't ignore.

Leather Brings Lifespan & Comfort

If you're not totally anti-animal product, responsibly tanned leather is a solid option. Leather is a natural byproduct of the meat industry, and disposing of the hide without making use of it is undeniably wasteful. Making use of leather from the right sources lets you contribute to a circular economy, and that's the most eco-conscious way to live.

Why's leather been so popular for so long? Its lifelong durability, of course. A pair of leather shoes can last more than 20 years. When they seem like they're worn out, you can fix 'em right up so they feel like new. Leather often gets better with age, so long as you condition your kicks and repair them when the going gets rough.

Folks with a dire need for comfort keep a pulse on the best leather brands. Real leather is breathable, eliminating sweat and foot odor. The material is pliable and forms to your foot, which can be a gamechanger for consumers with a need for orthopedic comfort. On the contrary, synthetic leather often fails to mold to your foot, inviting blisters and stinky feet.

In Leather Shoes, the Tannery Matters

Just like faux leather, the leather industry is not totally innocent. Tanning leather requires chromium, salts, formaldehyde and dyes. But just like vegan shoes, innovative technology proves to be the answer to a growing climate awareness.

People have built wild efficiencies into the tanning process, helping to mitigate leather’s environmental footprint. Responsible, green-certified tanneries are the way of the future. Eco-friendly tanneries are saying no to old school tanning methods by reducing chromium in the tanning process, using water-based finishing and recycling water to keep their impact down.

What's It Mean to Take Ethical Shoemaking Seriously?

Taking the ethical shoe game seriously means digging into the root of your production process. It means considering the source of every material you use, questioning manufacturers and recycling resources whenever possible. That's what BENDY is all about, but this eco-friendly shoe brand is not the only one making shoes that are kinder to the planet.

Reformation, Rothy's and Allbirds are leading brands with a sustainable motive. Like BENDY, they're playing the long game and considering their environmental footprint in every step of their product cycle.

I'm confident that this shift in perspective will make a big difference for fashion-forward eco-warriors the world over.

Fast Fashion: The Root of the Issue

Whether you're buying real or faux leather, one thing's for certain. Fast fashion is a detrimental industry, and one that neither side of the spectrum ought to encourage.

Fast fashion giants like H&M and Zara violate both animal and human rights. Outerwear brand Canadian Goose traps coyotes for their jacket fur linings. Meanwhile, vegan brand Matt & Nat uses PVC and vinyl, all while producing their goods in China factories.

The moral of the story? We need to do better—for the planet, its animals and the people who live among them.

Find Your Moral Footing

Rocking a high-quality shoe with an ethical background is a good feeling. Depending on your priorities, that shoe might be made from vegan leather where no animals were used in the process. Or it might be made from real leather with the help of a sustainable tannery.

At the end of the day, the leather versus vegan shoe debate really comes down to one thing: your own morals. At BENDY, we're purveyors of sustainable wear, and that's what matters most to us. If your views differ, we respect that—just do the planet a favor by keeping the environment in mind with every step you take.

BENDY by Ashbury Skies BENDY by Ashbury Skies

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