Eco-Friendlier Alternatives to Leather Shoes

March 25, 2012 View all articles in General

Leather is one of the most popular materials used in the shoe industry. It goes without saying, however, that a lot of chemicals and heavy metals are used in the tanning process required to keep hides from decomposing in your closet. Tanneries produce toxins like aluminum, iron, zirconium, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, chromium, cyanide-based oils and dyes, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids. All of these are hazardous materials that contribute to waste in the environment. And let's not forget that leather producers tend to get their hides from the meat industry, which requires a great deal of feed, land, water, and fossil fuels, and which generates the most damaging threat to American waterways: livestock pollution from excrement.

Fake leather, though good for livestock, is made from the eco outlaw PVC, or vinyl, the production of which creates vast quantities of chlorine-rich hazardous waste and carcinogens. In addition, the phthalates used to soften vinyl off-gas throughout a shoe's lifetime, potentially disrupting your hormones as they do so!

Being good to the planet doesn't mean you have to go barefoot, of course. Here are some earth-friendly footwear brands you may want to consider when shopping. Even if none of these brands offer shoes in your taste or budget, we hope their commitment to cruelty- and toxic-free footwear manufacturing will inspire you on your path to greener living.


  • El Naturalista acquires their leather from Spain, hand-working them and introducing semi-vegetable tanning processes wherever possible. Though their leather comes from the meat industry, El Naturalista makes the point that this increases the animals' lifecycle and thereby reduces the environmental impact – a point which may be arguable, but expresses the brand's eco-mindedness.
  • Think! uses only vegetable-tanned leather, 100 percent of the time. They obtain the natural tannins from ground bark extracts of plantation-planted trees. Though vegetable-tanned leather is more costly to produce and more difficult to process, it's hypoallergenic, moisture-absorbing, and toxin-free, posing no risk of heavy metal allergies.
  • MooShoes, Inc. is a vegan-owned business in New York City that sells an assortment of cruelty-free shoes and accessories. Their imitation leather shoes are made from a polyurethane synthetic microfiber that is free of PVC vinyl. The material breathes, stretches, and acts just like real leather, but without the huge eco impact.
  • Novacas, taken from Spanish and Portuguese for “no cow,” produces footwear made from the highest quality synthetic, PVC-free microfibers. Their shoes are ethically manufactured in Portugal at worker-friendly factories that abide by European Union labor standards. Novacas shoes contain absolutely no toxic products and the materials used are highly biodegradable. In fact, the uppers, wherever possible, are 100 percent biodegradable. You can't purchase Novacas shoes through their website, but you can purchase a limited selection through the Compassion Couture Shop's website.
  • Olsenhaus produces footwear that's made from nontoxic, environmentally preferable synthetics such as organic cotton, linen, and cork. In addition to offering cruelty-free shoes, Olsenhaus actively participates with animal advocacy organizations through financial and product support.


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