Vegan Leather is Bad, Real Leather is Worse. So what’s the Solution?

Beads of sweat form into the nooks and crannies of toes, and slowly, gradually, find their way to the surface of a sock; embedding themselves in the underlining of a pair of shoes…forever. The smell of a used shoe.

Ugh… a shiver makes its way down my spine.

The only words I can think of are “clammy” and “humid”.

You’re probably thinking; “what a drama queen” and “she has some weird ass feet”.

You’re right, but in my defence, I spent 18 years on a tropical island where 30 degrees Celsius is the norm. I’ve had my fair share of sweaty shoes and the idea of sharing, swapping or buying someone else’s pre-owned footwear is not a pleasant thought, to say the least.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big advocate of wearing pre-owned clothes.

It’s the second most eco-friendly thing, right after being naked.

But my ‘inability’ to wear second-hand shoes (if you held me at gunpoint I would probably yield in to the idea), leads me to an impasse.

It leads me to a conundrum. A conundrum that divides ethical bloggers and sustainability advocates all over the world: Real leather or fake leather?

Truth be told, they’re both terrible. If you don’t know why they’re both terrible, this article on The Ethical Resistance website will enlighten you.

Real leather is not great for various reasons. First of all, it involves the use of skins of animals which entails… the killing of animals. Both the meat and leather industry are imbued with such acts of cruelty that I would rather not have anything to do with them.

Real leather also involves curing the skins of animals which can be done through chrome tanning or vegetable tanning.

Chrome tanning is like applying a used charcoal foot pad on Mother Earth’s face (it’s extremely polluting) and vegetable tanning is like pulling all of her hair out (it requires a lot of natural resources).

Well, that puts real leather out of the equation then.

So here I go, turning expectantly towards vegan leather, only to be faced with more soul-destroying facts.

Vegan leather can stink too. Most vegan leathers are made of PVC which the Greenpeace deems as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic.”

So I can’t use PVC leather either? Darn it.

I go back to the vast internet and do my research. A few hours later, I sigh with relief. “Thank goodness, there’s PU leather!”

The sigh of relief is replaced with one of despair very quickly.

PU leather is definitely better than PVC but is also derived from fossil fuels and is quite polluting in the making. 🤦

What do we do? Walk barefoot for the rest of our lives?

So I turn to alternative ‘leathers’. They’re not really leathers but they’re called that.

I learn that cork and pinatex ― a material made of leftover pineapple leaves ― are used to make shoes.

Ahhhhhh, thank you, Lord Jesus. This dilemma is over. Finally.

Waaaaait, what? Cork and Pinatex are not COMPLETELY waterproof? They’re just water resistant? But I live in the UK, it’s constantly raining. What if it’s snowing? Surely, a pair of impermeable shoes is not too ostentatious of me to ask? Right?

So after hopelessly ploughing the internet to no use , I decide a compromise has to be made.

A stratagem is formed; a solution bubbles to the surface.

It’s not perfect.

But it’s the closest I’ll get to being a sustainable shoe-wearer I think. Feel free to borrow this solution or tweak it to your own needs.

Ready? Here it goes:

Buy one or two excellent pairs of real leather shoes or PU leather shoes in a classic, timeless style. I know I said it’s like pulling Mother Earth’s hair, but wait for it.

For the rest of your shoe collection (if you need to build a collection still), opt for cork and pinatex materials instead as those are 100% sustainable.

However, before buying PU leather shoes or real leather shoes make sure it conforms to the checklist underneath as you want it to last you a lifetime. Yes, a lifetime.

  • Made of vegetable tanning. Vegetable tanning is more eco-friendly but also more durable as it turns out. Durability is a key factor in this solution, so make sure you go for the veg option.
  • Made by an ethical brand that only employs adults and remunerates those adults with at least a minimum living wage. Supporting ‘made to order’ or/and ‘handmade’ is also a very nice touch.
  • Made fo great quality – Look for strong seams and good grip on the sole as those are the shoes you’ll be using in adverse weather conditions.
  • Comfortable. If it’s not comfortable, then…what’s the point?
  • Practical. Avoid cute cut-outs or zips that lie too close to the sole as they might let water in.
  • Classic, timeless style that will suit most occasions and most outfits.

I personally ended up going for a pair of chelsea boots and a pair of combat boots.

Chelsea boots are great for work and casual occasions. They look professional and complement most outfits.

Combat boots look incredible on jeans but also work well on feminine dresses as it adds an element of edge to them especially if you’re wearing them with tights (as you would during winter).

And to satisfy any other shoe needs you might have — heels, sneakers, other boots, flip-flops — there is always cork and pinatex to help you accomplish your shoe goals.

The two leather shoes are there just to cover your bases in case there are adverse weather conditions such as torrential rain and snow. In all honesty, your pinatex and cork shoes will probably withstand a drizzle or even a shower. Just don’t pull them out during the April showers or that one day of snow we have in London.

If your PU leather shoes (or any of your shoes for that matter) get broken, take them to the cobbler and get them repaired. Just like the good old days. You’ll be helping a small business out and you’ll also be doing right by mother nature.

Keep in mind that the one/two leather shoes that you buy will most likely be expensive. If you choose right and go for great quality; they definitely will be. But in the long term, the savings you’ll be making are immense because you won’t have to buy a new pair every month.

Remember that if you’re paying for a pair of cheap shoes, someone, somewhere is paying and that someone is NOT the brand. It’s the people in poor countries who can barely scrape enough money to feed their families.

However, more expensive does not always mean better quality or more ethical.

So make sure you check the shoes properly before buying them. Justine Leconte has a handy guide on how to spot good quality in shoes, which I think you’ll find super useful.

What did you think of this solution to the leather problem? What do you do to fulfil your shoe fantasies without being unkind to the planet? I can’t wait to hear your suggestions and ideas!

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