An In-Depth Guide to Vegan-Friendly Footwear
Ask just about any sneakerhead for their feelings towards animals and the chances are high they'll tell you that they love the furry (and not so furry) little (and not so little) critters. Unfortunately, there's one sad reality that we, as footwear fanatics must face: for millennia, footwear has come at the expense of animals. From leather to suede to glue, traditionally nearly every component of a shoe has required animals to be slaughtered en masse to keep our feet looking fresh. However, in the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin'!
Compassion, consideration, and technological innovation are altering the industry like never before, so it has never been easier to build up a kick-ass collection without a single animal being harmed. Without further ado, here is Sneaker Freaker's guide to vegan-friendly footwear.
Check the Label
How can you determine whether a sneaker is vegan? Don't worry – it'll tell you before you even ask. Jokes aside, sneaker brands are proud to label their offerings as 'Vegan' on their product pages and on the shoe box labels. Just a few years ago, it was rather difficult to find a shoe from a major brand explicitly calling out this feature, but now it's easier than ever to look up on any web store using the right search terms.
That being said, more often than not, the vegan version of a sneaker will look almost identical to the regular edition, such as the adidas Samba. This is also the case with the upcoming New Balance 990v5 'Vegan', which is virtually indistinguishable from its pig suede brethren save for the green V logo on the heel!
What's the next easiest way to work out if a shoe is vegan-friendly? Check the material list on the insole sticker of course! Some shoes will give in-depth material breakdowns, naming and attributing every last material that has gone into the manufacture of a shoe, but that's not always the case — especially if you're copping a pair without the box and the tags all messed up!
Sometimes you'll need to rely on a bit of code-breaking to uncover the truth, and we're here to help. Often when reference is made to a shoe's 'leather' upper, it's not actually leather at all! More often than not, it is a synthetic designed to look like the real deal, but is entirely synthetic. If you're in a store, with shoe in hand, you should easily be able to work out whether it is genuine leather or not simply from the way it feels. Genuine leather sneakers will tend to carry additional box markings. In Nike's case, the use of 'Premium' in a shoe's model name should raise an immediate red flag that the shoe uses the real deal. Over at ASICS, an 'L' designation in a shoe's name has the same effect.
Shoe-making is a profession steeped in tradition and, as such, much of the terminology and markings are an enigma to modern society. Instead of words, many sneakers come with stickers on the insole that break down each and every component of the shoe, including the material they are made from. On first impression, these are about as puzzling as the goddamn washing instructions printed on minimalist clothing (what does a triangle with an 'X' through it mean?) but they are actually quite simple once you know.
The symbol that looks like interwoven toenails is a 'Woolmark', indicating the presence of wool. The symbol of criss-crossing horizontal and vertical lines indicates a textile — either natural or synthetic. The one that looks like a cow hide laid flat, believe it or not, indicates leather (or suede). This same mark with a diamond inside means coated leather, while a diamond on its own refers to the use of 'other' materials — e.g. unconventional materials like plastics, rubber or wood.
Beyond the initial identification of a sneaker's vegan status, actually assessing its construction at face value is the best way to determine whether it's an animal-friendly shoe. Natural and synthetic textiles are generally vegan: popular choices like canvas, nylon and polyester are all clear. The exception to this, of course, is wool, which, while natural, comes from sheep.
However, beyond the obvious animal-free fabrics is a growing industry of alternative materials that meet the big V. Plant-based 'leathers' and next-generation solid compounds are proving to be a new pathway into the future of sneaker production. Learn about some of those here.
A consideration one needs to make when consuming vegan sneakers is that not all vegan materials are necessarily better for the environment. Polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC, and its popular cousin polyurethane aka PU are two leather alternatives that are inherently vegan, but also rank way down on the sustainability scale. Also, uppers and soles free of animal product does not make a vegan sneaker. Sometimes, the bonding agents, ie glue, is full of it...
Not All Glues are Made Equal
When Round Two co-founder Sean Wotherspoon took out 2017's Vote Forward competition, the Nike community erupted in celebration. But, as always happens, there were a few haters wanting to rain on Wotherspoon's parade. Sure, we all know corduroy and velvet — the core materials used in Wotherspoon's Air Max 1 x Air Max 97 fusion — are free of animal products, but what about the glue? Surely that's full of horse hooves! After all, Nike don't make vegan shoes... or do they?
Well, believe it or not, the Wotherspoon AM1/97s are — like Sean Wotherspoon himself — 100 per cent vegan! In fact, they're not the only certified vegan footwear to bear the Swoosh. There are literally hundreds of animal-free Nikes on store shelves around the globe right now, with many hundreds more in the pipeline. Nike eliminated animal-based glues from their manufacturing a number of years ago in favour of a 100 per cent synthetic alternative.
Fortunately, Nike aren't the only sneaker manufacturers to get rid of animal-based glues in production. The use of synthetic glue has now become the norm — not the exception! The likes of adidas, Brooks, Globe, Mizuno, Reebok, Vans, Converse and ASICS all embrace synthetic glues or offer specific vegan-friendly styles that can guarantee the glue is 100 per cent animal-free.
If in Doubt, Purchase from an All-Vegan Brand!
If you are struggling to find what you are after from the major brands, then it's time to broaden your scope beyond the Swoosh and Stripes. With the rising interest in vegan fashion, new vegan-focused footwear brands are emerging left, right and centre — and they certainly have what it takes to give the industry giants a run for their money!
If you're after simple sophistication, ekn is certainly worth a look. ekn was established with a focus on small production runs that are handmade in Portugal from purely organic materials. Their designs are best described as minimalist, with just the right amount of flair to set them apart from the herd.
At the other end of the spectrum, rising European brand Rombaut — which we previously covered in our list of 7 Underground Sneaker Brands You Need to Know! — was established on vegan values and has established a reputation off its avant-garde, and often outlandish, designs that truly explore the cutting edge of, not just vegan footwear, but the industry as a whole! The brand is, perhaps, infamous for its 'lettuce' slide, but they also offer designs a little more in-line with tradition. Rombaut is one of the most experimental manufacturers in the game, creating footwear made with everything from natural rubber and cotton — as is to be expected — to coconut fibre, tree bark and stone! Whether or not you could actually see yourself pulling off their styles, Rombaut's designs are well worth a look.
These are just two of a myriad of vegan sneaker brands out there, so get Googling!
In the words of Shia La Beouf 'don't let your dreams be dreams!' If you are really struggling to find the perfect pair of vegan-friendly — and have some extra cash to spend — then there is another solution available: make your own! No, I'm not saying you should take up shoe making — leave that to the professionals — but there has never been more bespoke sneaker ateliers in the scene than there is right now.
We've come a long way since the turn of the millennium, when the only way to customise your sneakers was typically with a marker or a shoddy airbrush job. Today's modern cobblers are able to intricately dissect existing footwear favourites and reconstruct them from scratch to meet your own individual requirements. By taking the bespoke route, you also have a greater selection of materials at your disposal, including many innovative new vegan textiles — some of which can almost perfectly replicate genuine premium leather, without unnecessary slaughter.