The vegan revolution is coming for your shoe cupboard! Here's how to get involved like Meghan Markle

Lighter mornings, daffodils, mini eggs, could it be… Yes! Spring is here. Finally, the seasonal switch-up is upon us which means one thing – spring shoes. Bye bye winter boots, hello flippy-flappy sandals and six months of pedicures. So, which au courant style are we buying this season? Square-toed pumps? Micro-wedged mules? (Yes, they’re a thing). Or how about a pair of pineapple-leather slip-ons? Or recycled rubber courts? With more and more brands offering animal-friendly alternatives, shoes of the vegan variety are undoubtedly at the top of the footwear agenda.

The V word boom

Of course veganism is currently big news, especially amongst the ‘woke’ generation. Rachael Stott, senior creative researcher at trend agency, The Future Laboratory, tells me that “42% of vegans in the UK are aged 15-34 so Gen Z is a key driving force in this movement. They are conscious shoppers who want to know where and how their products are made.” Indeed, from recipe books to Gregg’s headline-grabbing vegan sausage roll, the V word has altered our eating habits as more of us make the switch to plant-based snacks. According to reports, this January saw a record-breaking 250,000 people worldwide sign-up to Veganuary. Meanwhile, our beauty stashes have also had a vegan overhaul with a huge rise in brands offering animal-free make-up, skincare and perfume. In response to a 73% increase in online searches for ‘Vegan Beauty’, has just launched a dedicated vegan beauty hub, stocking products from Herbivore, Hourglass, Pixi and Le Labo.

But the latest area to undergo the vegan treatment is fashion. February saw the very first vegan fashion week take place is Los Angeles, whilst the undisputed street style hit of New York Fashion Week was a vegan leather puffer jacket by Budapest-based ‘it’ label, Nanushka. “Nanushka successfully launched for Cruise 18 and has continued to perform exceptionally well ever since”, says a spokesperson for Net-A-Porter who explains that the brand’s vegan leather styles (such as the Ania croc-effect vegan leather pencil skirt, Naum croc-effect vegan leather shirt and Penelope vegan leather wrap midi dress) have been driving sales. Said puffer jacket (worn by street stylers Xenia Adonis, Danielle Bernstein and Christine Tyler aka @nycbambi) has nearly sold out in several colourways.

“Compassion, sustainability and innovation are shaping today’s fashion industry – and as the number of people adopting a vegan lifestyle keeps increasing, the industry is stepping up its cruelty-free game”, says Dominika Piasecka, spokeswoman for The Vegan Society.

Getting your vegan kicks

There’s no denying that our wardrobes are riding the vegan wave and the one area riding it the highest is our shoes. Last year vegan footwear accounted for 16% of the total UK market – a number that is surely set to rise in 2019 thanks to both high-street and designer shoe brands offering more stylish vegan options than ever before.

After seeing a 200% increase in online searches for vegan related products, this spring Marks and Spencer has launched a 350-strong vegan-friendly shoe collection. The styles, which span women’s, men’s and kidswear, are a development on its existing synthetic shoe offering, with all components now not including anything animal-derived. “After increased customer interest in veganism and a rise in online searches for related products, we decided to investigate the possibility of expanding our vegan-friendly offering into footwear and accessories. Over the year we have analysed our products and gone the extra mile to ensure we offer a great selection that comply with all vegan requirements,” says Senior Footwear Technologist, Rachel Smith. The M&S Collection almond-toe court shoe is currently a best seller.

Elsewhere on the high street, Office has launched an online vegan destination stocking brands such as Dr Martens and Blowfish. “We are excited to be stocking vegan product through our brands and are sure that there will be more coming in the next few seasons, as we are seeing ‘vegan shoes’ as a popular search term across the board and know there is demand,” explains PR Manager, Hannah Bearryman.

Last September, Stella McCartney launched the first fully vegan Stan Smith trainers in collaboration with Adidas. Beloved by Madonna and Meghan Markle who have both been spotted in a pair, they were also worn by actress Emma Thompson when she collected her damehood from Buckingham Palace.

As well as adding to its vegan apparel offering with OCHI (look out for the lilac faux-leather dress) and vegan leather jackets from Oresund Iris, this season Net-A-Porter has also upped its vegan shoe game with ankle boots and sandals from Nanushka and vegan suede trainers by Veja. With increased site searches for ‘vegan shoes’ and ‘vegan boots’, both brands are already proving popular sellers.

Vegan vs animal

So what actually makes a shoe vegan? “Vegan shoes are made without the use of leather, exotic skins, wool, fur, or any other animal-derived material.” explains PETA’s Sascha Camilli. This means everything from the uppers to the glue that sticks the sole on is free from animal components. “Brands often put little symbols on the sole. If you see a symbol that looks like a cowhide, leave the pair on the shelf, as it’s made with animal leather. If all the symbols look like diamonds or woven fabric, the materials aren’t animal-derived, so the shoes are vegan.”

With over 1 billion animals being killed for leather every year, it’s easy to see the ethical benefits of choosing vegan alternatives when it comes to shoes, but the environmental impact is worth considering too. “Leather production is a major contributor to the depletion of water, fossil fuels, and pastureland as well as to climate change, largely as a consequence of the methane gas released into the atmosphere by the cows, goats, pigs, and other animals exploited by the global leather industry. “ says Camilli, who goes on to explain that like fur, leather is treated with up to 300 different chemicals – many of which are toxic – during the tanning process to stop it decomposing.

“The 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report ranked cow leather in the top spot on its list of the most polluting materials for cradle-to-gate impact per kilogram’, says Camilli. But with several vegan shoes being made from synthetic fabrics such as polyurethane and polyester, is this alternative any better? According to PETA, though these materials are not without issue, they are, on balance, more environmentally friendly. Stella McCartney (which makes shoes and bags from a polyester/polyurethane mix called alter-nappa) states in its Environmental Profit and Loss that using recycled polyester instead of Brazilian calf leather creates twenty four times less environmental impact.

Style and substance

If the thought of PU loafers is leaving you uninspired then happily several plant-based materials are being used to make vegan leather alternatives, which as well as being biodegradable and recyclable are giving the luxe appeal of animal leather a run for its money. “Cork ticks loads of boxes. It’s environmentally friendly, biodegrades, is super durable, waterproof and also looks beautiful” says sustainable fashion expert Alice Wilby, who recommends looking at shoe brands Po-Zu and Sydney Brown. “I’m also excited about the development of mushroom leather. A company called Bolt Threads has developed a fantastic vegan leather called Mylo. Made from mushroom mycelium, it’s incredibly strong, easy and environmentally friendly to grow. Stella McCartney is currently using it to make her iconic Falabella bag, so hopefully we’ll see some shoes soon.” Other plant-based leathers to look out for are those made from wine grapes, apples, kombucha and Pintax, a by product of pineapple leaves.

Another development to look out for is lab-grown leather, which as Camilli explains “is real leather grown from cells without raising or killing an animal.” Currently being explored by Stella McCartney, the innovation will allow designers to use leather without harming animals and with less impact on the environment.

It’s clear that the shoe world is undergoing a vegan revolution but is this just a passing fad or something with longevity? “This is definitely a growing and evolving trend” says Stott, “textile technology will continue to drive the vegan trend further as genetically engineered fabrics are developed that not only imitate the properties of animal-derived fibres but also transcend them.” Gone are the days when ethical fashion meant compromising on aesthetics, we’re now entering a world where the sustainable alternative looks even better. But, as Stott explains, the fashion industry needs to wholeheartedly get on board, “If fast fashion brands took time to support and develop such alternatives, they would boost global production and access… The fashion industry needs to combine technology, research and major companies’ capital to revolutionise material innovation and ethics.”

So how do we join in? Brands such as Toms, Beyond Skin, Po-Zu, Matt & Natt, No One’s Skin, Bourgeois Boheme all offer vegan shoes with plenty of style-factor. And if you’re looking for a designer pair then check out Stella McCartney and Nanushka (the Yola sandals are tipped to be big for summer). If you’re in any doubt as to what’s vegan and what’s not, have a look at the list of ‘PETA-Approved Vegan’ brands on PETA’s website. As for the non-vegan shoes in your closet, don’t despair, “using up what we already own is more environmentally friendly than throwing away your leather shoes the second you become vegan” says Wilby, “the best thing we can do for the environment is to buy less, at better quality, care for what we have and prolong the life of our products as much as possible.” So enjoy wearing what you already have but when it comes to your next shoe splurge, it’s worth considering the V word.


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