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Published on November 26th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


Step Lightly with Eco-Friendly Footwear

Footwear manufacturing is known as one of the most environmentally unfriendly industries out there.  The modern process of tanning leather, in particular, is especially toxic—many tanneries sit firmly upon the EPA’s Superfund list.

Until recently, we were not offered a wide range of alternative choices to shoes made with standard processes and corporate-owned manufacturers.  Environmentally friendly footwear options of the past were limited to just a few models of sandals and tennis shoes, which were usually quite expensive.  That’s all changing now…

Practical and Fashionable Options Galore with Recycled Footwear

Increased awareness of the need to honor the earth in all areas, including clothing and footwear manufacturing, has spurred high consumer demand for shoes that are eco-friendly in materials, processing, and packaging—green shoes, if you will.

Trends in Footwear: Ecotoxic to Eco-ideal

The process of curing leather involves the use of a very toxic compound called Chromium 6 (hexavalent chromium), which makes leather soft and easy to work with, but results in one of the most noxious pollutants known to humans.  Exposure to Chromium 6 can cause gene mutations, cancer, and skin and lung irritations.  Some factories utilize the less poisonous Chromium 3 (trivalent chromium) that is really no better because Chromium 3 chemically alters during leather processing, transmuting into Chromium 6.

Other ecotoxic materials used in the production of most mainstream shoes include harsh chemical solvents, toxic glues, petroleum products, polyurethanes, PVC, and other harmful ingredients that can offgas, affecting factory workers’ health and contributing massive amounts of ecotoxic waste.

New products and techniques have been created from the need for less toxic materials in shoe manufacturing.  Leather tanning can now be accomplished with a curing process that involves vegetable tannins, and some companies are reverting to older practices such as using wood smoke and fish oil to cure the leather.  Footwear companies are catching on—many are changing their manufacturing processes to include less toxic materials, such as water-based glues and solvents.  These eco-friendly practices are also extending to the packaging department, producing an abundance of recycled shoeboxes decorated with soy-based inks.

Customers in search of earth-friendly footwear now have an extensive array of options: recycled footwear (most are made from old tires), hemp shoes, vegan shoes (no animal products are involved in the process or packaging), and more.  A quick Internet search reveals many truly creative, innovative, and earth-friendly solutions that different manufacturers are offering.  Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Companies that make the soles—or the entire shoe—from recycled tires, or recycled foam and rubber from factory floor droppings.  Some implement shoe recycling programs by which they re-use materials or donate used shoes.  These old goods are then converted to items like tracks or playground flooring.
  • Companies that take it a step further and integrate ultra-sustainable ingredients such as  hemp and bamboo, which utilize fast-growing plant crops.
  • Companies that focus their efforts on fair trade and fair factory labor practices.

All of the creative practices footwear makers are coming up with help to green the process from start to finish, making shoes a more sustainable industry for the earth.

The Friendly Footprint is One that Disappears

The Earth-Friendly Footprint

One of the very first eco-conscious shoe manufacturers was the maker of the famous 1970s-era Earth Shoe.  Developed in 1957, the negative-heel design by Scandinavian Anne Kalso was meant to mimic the position of the foot while walking in sand—a natural design aimed at correcting spinal alignment and relieving other physical discomforts.  The natural, anti-fashion statement of the Earth Shoe became fashionable and many people then sported the boxy style with its earthy colors.

After a bit of a design-related hiatus from the market, the Earth Shoe is back and more eco-friendly than ever.  The current incarnation of Earth Shoes offers a great variety of styles, including vegan shoes, sandals, tennis shoes, hiking shoes, and walking shoes.

And while Earth Shoes are certified by The Vegan Society, it’s important to note that consumers need to do their research when looking for earth friendly shoes.  Just because a label says its vegan doesn’t mean that it’s manufactured in an environmentally responsible way.  It is definitely true that current leather processing techniques create some of the most harmful pollutants, but chemically toxic byproducts generated by the polyurethane and vinyl substitutes–made to look or feel like real leather–aren’t any better for the environment.

Some companies bypass and supersede new manufacturing regulations entirely by using all-recycled products for their footwear.  Shoe company Terra Plana sports a line called Worn Again, which was born of a collaboration between the shoe company and an environmental action group called Anti-Apathy.  The shoes are made of 99% recycled materials such as old blankets, junked car seats, military overstock, recycled rubber, old suit jackets, and the like.  Even better, a percentage of the sale price of each Worn Again product goes to an organization called Climate Care to offset the carbon footprint of the shoe’s manufacture and shipping.  To top it off, the shoes are groovy-looking and uniquely fashionable.  You have to check it out to believe it.

Splaff makes 100% waste-free sandals that are made from recycled race car tires and bicycle inner tubes, with an optional hemp footbed.  The sandals are surfer-tested and approved—said to be so durable that the company offers a guarantee.  Other companies that use recycled materials in their shoes include: The Vegetarian Site, which offers a hemp and recycled-tire loafer for adults and children, and Simple Shoes.

Another creative alternative to conventional footwear materials is hemp.  This fast-growing, renewable plant product:

  • is easily grown
  • does not require chemicals or pesticides
  • produces four times as much cellulose fiber as trees
  • is just as mold-resistant as nylon

All in all, hemp is stronger, less toxic, and far more sustainable than cotton, vinyl, polyurethane, or just about any other material used to manufacture footwear.  In addition, hemp contains natural anti-microbial properties, making it ideal for shoes—no stinky foot odor!

Companies such as Rawganique and Ecolution (wholesale only) offer a wide variety of hemp shoes, including tennis shoes, sandals, boots, clogs, slippers, and kid and baby footwear.  As an added bonus, the other materials used in the shoes are all chemical-free and eco-conscious, courtesy of companies that pride themselves on environmentally sustainable practices.

Sustainable Footwear Can Change the World

Many of the companies featured bring innovative ideas into sustainable shoe production.  Rawganique is based on a small island in British Columbia.  Their store is 100% solar- and wind-powered with a large organic garden that sustains the company and its employees.  The founders claim that their aim is to make a better planet, not a lot of money.  Their website states, “ wasn’t created to make us rich; rather it was created with love to make sure we’re doing the best we can to stop disintegration and to build trust, peace, love, and health for all, one ripple at a time.”

Another pioneering company in the natural shoe business is Simple Shoes.  Simple Shoes employs a process called Green Toe, their effort toward making their shoes and their company 100% sustainable.  Green Toe is a company rating system that rates their products at good, better, and best to show which are the most environmentally-conscious choices.

Simple Shoes uses materials such as recycled tires and other reclaimed post-consumer materials; natural plants such as bamboo, cork, and jute; and less toxic manufacturing components, such as water-based glues (which do not off-gas fumes as they dry).  In addition, Simple Shoes makes efforts to reduce their corporate footprint by mandating office recycling, using biodegradable dinnerware at company functions, and encouraging their employees to carpool or bike to work.

If you’re in search of a more earth-, people-, and animal-friendly footwear product to lighten your environmental load, don’t give up!  There are plenty of attractive and environmentally-conscious options produced with 100% sustainable, all-natural, recycled, and organic materials.

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