A fresh pair of sneakers with some denim jeans represents the epitome of casual wear. However, it's not uncommon to see folks paring their favourite kicks with business attire, formalwear and everything else in between.
Footwear that used to be reserved for sliding around an English tennis court has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. As of 2020, the global sneaker market is worth over 76 billion dollars USD, and it has no signs of slowing down.
But with such growth comes greater responsibility. Sneakers, together with the rest of the fashion industry, drives much of the exploitation of animals and the destruction of the environment today.
Mindful consumers are catching onto dodgy supply chains and are proactively voting with their dollars. New and existing sneaker brands are forced to respond to win over customer loyalty.
Luckily, we have creative entrepreneurs finding innovative ways to make vegan sneakers more accessible while reducing the environmental impact and retaining sneaker culture.
In this post, we're going to share some tips on what to look out for when buying vegan sneakers so ultimately you can look good and sleep well at night knowing you're trying to do the right thing.
A quick refresher on the anatomy of a sneaker
Before we dissect the materials to look out for in vegan sneakers, we must clearly understand the main components of a sneaker.
According to RunRepeat, on average, sneakers have about 65 parts, depending on the style. However, for this post, we're going to focus on five standard sections.
The upper section of a sneaker is a singular piece of fabric that covers the top of the foot, toes, sides, and the back of the heel.
Depending on the style of the sneaker, the upper is usually made from either polymer, leather or canvas.
The primary function of the upper is to keep the foot secure to the sole of the sneaker during movement.
The tongue of a sneaker is a separate strip on the upper section that sits between the laces and your foot. It protects your feet from your laces, and it also makes it easier to put on and take off your sneaker.
The tongue should be the only moving part of the sneaker to allow flexibility to adjust the shoe for comfort.
The fabrics used to make the tongue usually consist of leather, suede, nylon or canvas.
The sole is the foundation of the sneaker or any shoe for that matter. It’s the part of the sneaker that's exposed to the ground—so it needs to be very strong to withstand pressure, reduce slippage and handle different weather conditions.
The inner sole
The inner sole (also known as insole) is the part of your sneaker used to protect and provide cushion to the bottom of your foot. It's located on the inside of the shoe, and it's the only part of the sneaker your foot touches.
The inner sole is a modular component located inside of the sneaker, and third-party insoles can be used in different shoes depending on your requirements for support and shape.
Adhesive (glue) is the substance used to hold the sneaker together. There are two types of adhesive:
- Natural adhesive: comes from either vegetable starch, milk protein, animal hide or animal bones (mainly from cattle).
- Synthetic adhesive: is formulated using a combination of plastic and rubber.
Synthetic glues have become increasingly popular as they're more efficient to source and control to meet manufacturing standards.
What to look out for when shopping for vegan sneakers
When it comes to finding vegan sneakers, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, you want to assess the anatomy of the sneaker to see if it contains any animal-derived fabrics.
You can do this by looking at the label underneath the tongue, or printed on the inner sole. Or you can sometimes get a list of materials on the product description page on the website.
The most common sections where you’ll find leather or suede is on labels, toes, heels and throughout the design of the upper part.
You'll also need to investigate the glue to see if it's plant-based, animal-based or synthetic based. Unless the sneaker is exclusively labelled as vegan, it's highly unlikely you'll know what type of glue is used.
You may need to reach out to the brand directly to get confirmation. Even then, most customer support representatives don't know the specific materials suppliers use. In this case, avoid buying the sneaker if they cannot verify.
Many vegans settle for sneakers made from 100% synthetic materials and glue, as its easiest to find. However, there are increasing concerns about the sustainability of synthetics in fashion, and there's no exception for vegan sneakers.
How to ensure your vegan sneakers are also sustainable
While supporting vegan-friendly sneakers are better for the animals, synthetic materials can be detrimental to the environment—thus still hurting animals. It's an endless cycle!
Not to worry, there are ways around this dilemma. You just need to dig deeper to find sustainable sneaker brands that are also vegan-friendly.
So if you're trying to avoid synthetics, what materials should you look out for in your sneaker shopping? Below are five sustainable fabrics to consider in your research.
Cotton is durable, breathable and biodegradable. However, you must go for certified organic cotton over conventional cotton where possible. The latter uses incredibly harmful chemicals in the form of mass-spraying pesticides that damage soil, workers and your health.
If you haven't watched it already, we recommend you check out The True Cost to learn more about the harmful effects of the cotton industry.
Also keep in mind that cotton requires a lot of water to grow so while it's a fantastic option, it doesn't come without some compromises.
It's most common to see organic cotton used in the upper and tongue sections of a sneaker.
Canvas is another sustainable, long-lasting vegan fabric typically made from hemp, linen or cotton, which are all natural materials.
Just keep in mind that natural materials to are often mixed with synthetics to make the canvas more durable and water-resistant.
Like cotton, the canvas is generally used in the upper and tongue parts of a sneaker.
We know rubber for its dominant role in the tyre industry, but it can also be a fantastic resource when making eco-friendly vegan sneakers.
Did you know rubber is a natural plant-based substance made from the blood of a tree? It's also highly recyclable.
As rubber is incredibly durable, it's commonly used in the sole of a sneaker.
However, be aware of the labelling here. Rubber soles in sneaker culture are often referred to as "natural gum" which is a particular treatment of rubber. Soles which are just "gum" are usually made from polybutadiene, which is a synthetic product made from petroleum.
We're excited to see a growing market of natural plant-based leather fabrics used across the fashion industry.
If you do come across some sneakers that seemingly use animal leather, check the description to see if they use the growing list of sustainable plant-based leathers including:
- Pineapple leather
- Mushroom leather
- Cork leather
- Wine (or grape) leather
- Kombucha leather
- Leaf leather
- Hemp leather
With technological advancements, we're seeing more brands finding creative ways to recycle what would be wasted resources and turn it into sneaker fabrics.
Examples of recyclable materials include plastic bottles, fishnets, cork, rubber, cotton, leather, cardboard, offcuts from previous products.
Our imaginations only limit the list of recyclable materials, and this is just the beginning of the working towards a closed-loop supply chain.
Our vegan sneaker brand of choice
After reading this post, you're probably keen to continue your search for sustainable vegan shoes, as you should!
But before you head off, we want to give a shoutout to our vegan sneaker brand of choice, Etiko.
Etiko makes stylish vegan sneakers that are sustainable, organic, fair-trade and affordable (considering the quality of materials used). They tick all of the boxes, and we stand by them here at Veggie Adventures.
Thanks for reading this post, and happy vegan sneaker shopping!
Posted on by Author Michael Ofei