If you want something tougher than a textile shoe, choosing footwear can pose some real ethical dilemmas for consumers.
Leather isn’t an inconsequential by-product of the meat industry, but an economically important co-product so buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and abattoirs. Therefore, on our ranking tables, companies using leather are marked down under Animal Rights.
There are leather alternatives available and the number of brands offering vegan options has increased since our last guide.
The carbon footprint of a pair of leather shoes is higher than a pair of synthetic ones, largely because of the carbon intensity of cattle farming. See our veggie vs meat feature for more on this.
Of the total carbon footprint of a pair of leather shoes, around half is down to the leather, a quarter to the energy used in manufacture, 15% is transport, 5% the shoebox and 5% other parts of the life cycle.
Another issue is the sourcing of cotton from Turkmenistan.
Toxic Chemicals and Pollution
One of the riskiest processes of leather production is the tanning phase – a process that mainly uses toxic chemicals to turn animal skin into leather and stop it from decomposing.
One of the most problematic chemicals used is chromium which is highly toxic to people and the environment, but used in 85% of shoes. Chromium produces the toxic chemical by-product hexavalent chromium, which is a known human carcinogen. Many other hazardous chemicals are used including arsenic and cyanide, which add to the pollution of waterways.
Is also an issue in the shoe industry, and it seems like major shoe companies are falling behind on gender equality.