I was asked recently for some pointers on buying vegan shoes. After a few minutes' conversation, it dawned on me that there is a much longer reply than just handing out a couple of vegan shoe contacts.
In fact, we've realised that after 16 years of being vegan we have come to the (initially awkward) conclusion that with our footwear, it really does have to be about the wider picture. We make no secret that we are vegan and live our lives as ethically as possible, with the smallest footprint (er, pun, soz) that we can manage practically and economically, but the place we have arrived at is one that has formed gradually from a mid-90s fug of confusion, severely limited options and no internet, to one of well-stewed consideration, thought and rationalising, as time-served shoppers.
Our criteria, for every purchase we make, covers the source of the object, its manufacture (location and process), transit, and ingredients. For shoes - the topic I was originally consulted on - we can no longer make 'but is it made of animal parts?' our only consideration.
So in compiling my response, I thought it might be helpful to others vegans, or potentials, to share it. Here goes.
A shoe-buying decision ends up being almost mathematical, for example using these scenarios. It's a X or a √.
They're all based on personal experience.
Recycled Plastic + Made In Taiwan = x
(Why? Recycled plastic better for environment, but cancelled out by exploited workers earning 1p a day with no wee breaks + cost to the environment of shipping)
Plastic + Made in the UK = √
(Why? Plastic is environmentally unsound, but supporting a British-based company outweighs this. No air freight. Recycled plastic + Made in the UK would obviously be ideal, but doesn't yet exist)
Chrome-tanned Leather + Made in the UK = x
(Why? leather = unappealing for us as vegans + chrome tanning is catastrophic for the environment, regardless of where shoes are constructed)
Vegetable-tanned Leather + Made in an Ethically-approved Chinese Factory = √
(Why? Unappealing for us as vegans BUT veg tanning is virtually harmless to the environment, and ethically-approved factories in China are acceptable, though cost to the environment of shipping must be thought about too)
Vegetable-tanned Leather + Made in the EU - √√ (
Why? unappealing for us as vegans BUT veg tanning is virtually harmless to the environment + EU manufacturing is safe + shipping most likely by sea or land)
Second-hand shoes = always a √√√
Once you also factor in the durability of non-leathers, like Pleather, plastic, PVC, nuede, fabric and nylon, you can see there is more to working this out than first thought.
Here are some examples.
£150 vegan shoes which last 2 years = x (expensive, should last but rarely do in my experience, and thus uneconomical)
Second-hand leather shoes = animal copped it years ago. The shoes are likely to last - they have done so far. If they don't though, you've only spent a few quid, all of which went to charity = √√√
Nice £70 Tom's brand shoes = vegan, every pair you buy the company donates one pair to someone in a third world country.
Thus, your £70 actually pays for two pairs. Great ethics.
However, they are fabric and are thus strictly dry weather summer shoes - a good investment? Could last many summers? Only you can decide this for yourself!
Made in China...but they are working to maintain standards. Make of those kinds of statements what you will - some will be genuine.
£10 non-leather shoes from the High Street = x (will be made in the Far East where at least one human if not several in the chain are being exploited - leave well alone. ANYTHING AT ALL from Primark is poison, non-leather or not. I care not how skint you are - you can make better choices with that hard earned fiver.)
£60 leather shoes from Clarks = traditionally, they will last a long time, but they are a) leather b) made now in the Far East! and c) definitely not vegetable-tanned
£50 shoes from Vegetarian Shoes = not, in our experience, built to last = x
Thus you will most likely end up buying another pair in a year = 200% more synthetic materials used to make shoes in a period which one pair of properly-made shoes should have covered.
Consider instead the possibility of ONE pair of well-made properly sourced leather shoes which will last for many more years.
Total toll on humans and environment is therefore much lower, though animals skins HAVE been used.
You can begin to see why it really isn't that simple. And only you can decide what feels right.
Hot tip: I do a LOT of phoning companies ahead to find out where things are really made. Sometimes they are hostile towards you, or defensive. Don't be put off. Companies need to get used to answering such queries. If they have nothing to hide, they'll answer you.
I do not eat or use animals in ANY part of my life and haven't done for 16 years - this extends to cosmetics, all bathroom stuff, food, drink, materials, clothing, shoes - everything - with the first pair of leather shoes bought earlier this year, after much research and reading and thinking. So I do not take the decision to buy them lightly. I DO put human suffering above animal suffering, since the reality is I feel I have more control over that, but my entire lifestyle is built to cut out my part in any and all animal suffering, and has been for a very long time.
But I would always, always say, however, that it is worth it. Always. My conscience is tortured by many things, but playing a part in inflicting damage on any other living creature is not one of them.
My entire shopping archive is below, male and female, organised by type - and not just shoes!
Enjoy the freedom.
Smedley (BEAUTIFUL knitwear)
Oliver Spencer (some things made in England)
(Japanese/English/Swedish made, organic denim, no sinister finishes)
Dries Van Noten
Edwin Sen jeans on Liberty website
J Lindeberg (navy trousers etc. made in Croatia)
(has an actual UK factory shop near Derby too)
Beavers of Bolton! 'Country attire' - fitted coats and Tweed
Thundercrackers, smalls etc.:
Philip James Hinckley: Socks, Pantherella
Socks by HJ Hall, made in Hinckley
Howies: Long Johns
Underwear: look for handmade on eBay
http://www.nancydee.co.uk (you'll LOVE THESE - clothes manufactured in Leicester!)
(check both of these first - a lot of things still made in China, but a lot in the EU - based in Leicester)
http://www.wolfordshop.co.uk (tights, stay-ups etc.)
http://www.vivienofholloway.com > Bernard wedding outfit!
http://www.ethicsgirls.co.uk - they're particularly good
http://www.moloh.com - SUPERB coats and shirts
http://www.littledyehouse.co.uk (nice tops)
Cardies and cute dresses:
Lace/crochet collars and things:
REAL NICE Dresses:
We live across the road from an enormous tights and stockings factory, Pamela Mann.
We watch tights being made in hundreds of colours and styles.
You can't get much more ethical than that.
For legwear a little more sturdy, try
http://www.falke.com/gb/home (German engineering, incredibly hardwearing)
and the Austrian wonder that is
with is AWESOME near-porn photography. Everyone's a winner!
These till will probably outline you. My peacock-feather-topped stockings and winter tights are testament.
+ Your creative mates!
Most of my jewellery is either second hand, inherited, my own but decades old, or made by chums as pressies etc.
Some Co-op bags are vegan and not made in China - check the labels.
Handmade hemp/nylon bags ACE!
http://www.think-shoes-online.co.uk (beautiful and very hardwearing/practical)
Loints of Holland
Hotter (British company, but check the things you like for manufacturing)
CLOTHES SUPPLIERS (general):
Actual physical shops:
Junky Styling, Dray Walk, off Brick Lane, London
Equa Clothing Limited
28 Camden Passage (just off Upper Street)
(market stall nearby)
Ekyoga 186 Kings Road SW3 5XP
Oxfam Boutique 123a Shawfield Street SW3 4PL
Viv Westwood! 430 Kings Road SW3
Top Shop's basement, Oxford Circus has local designers and very small independant makers
78 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002 USA