Skip to main content

Ethical Shoes

How to find eco friendly, vegan and sustainable shoe brands.

We rate and review 36 brands of shoes, investigate how sustainable or ethical leather and synthetic leather are, vegan shoes, workers' rights in the footwear industry, how to repair shoes, options for buying secondhand shoes, and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a shopping guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

Learn more about us  →

What to buy

What to look for when buying shoes:

  • Do they respect the workers? Larger companies tend to have long complex supply chains which are likely to contain serious issues. Look for companies that are clear about where they source from and show that workers’ rights are important to them.

  • Have you tried leather alternatives? Leather production involves animal slaughter, and is also often highly toxic. There are an increasing number of alternatives, many now using plant-based materials as well as synthetic.
     

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What not to buy when looking for shoes

  • Do you need new shoes? First of all, you might be able to repair an existing pair. Also, for many types of footwear, a secondhand pair is a great low-impact solution

  • Are they paying tax? Many large companies are using tax havens, and keeping profits for their directors and shareholders, rather than reinvesting in society.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 100) Ratings Categories

Our Analysis

In this ethical shopping guide to shoes we focus on a number of issues, from workers' rights to the sustainability of the materials used. We look at the pros and cons of synthetic leather versus animal leather, and the price of ethical shoes.

Which shoe brands are in this guide?

This guide to ethical shoes rates 36 brands of shoes, including popular high street favourites like Crocs, Dr Martens, Skechers and Vans, to smaller and specialist often vegan brands like Will's Vegan Shoes and Vegetarian Shoes.

Disappointingly, nearly half the brands scored under 25 points (out of 100). But, we did find some ethical brands to recommend as best buys, as well as some secondhand retailers. For more brands which sell only sneaker-type shoes see our trainers guide.

Where are shoes made?

There used to be much more shoe manufacturing in the UK than there is today. Very few companies still manufacture in-house. From the 1970s, production was increasingly outsourced to lower-wage and less regulated economies. It’s certainly not made easy for workers to resist, especially if their right to organise is limited. Organising to improve conditions is even harder for homeworkers in the shoe industry. In South Asia alone, the ILO estimate there are 50 million home-based workers serving different industries.

The problems with leather

Well-made leather shoes can last a long time, but there are strong arguments for avoiding leather. Not only is leather made from the skin of animals raised and then slaughtered for sale, but the process of making it into a durable material is typically highly polluting. Leather accounts for about 5-10% of an animal’s sale value, and over 50% of leather is destined for footwear.

Read more about leather in footwear in our separate article.

Animals and deforestation 

It is also estimated that 90% of deforested Amazon land is occupied by cattle pastures. JBS is one of the biggest Brazilian slaughterhouses, and also one of the world’s largest leather processors. In 2009, Greenpeace signed the Amazon Cattle Agreement with JBS and others but quit in 2017 after the company was found to have bought cattle from illegally deforested areas.

Although the agreement had led to huge improvements in monitoring, JBS was unable to monitor indirect suppliers who sold to farms that it bought from. JBS was then found to have bought almost 9,000 cattle between 2018-2022 from a criminal rancher’s family that had also been illegally deforesting land in the Amazon.

Chemicals in tanning industry

The majority of leather tanning is done with heavy metals like chromium, lead, and mercury. The Guardian reported in 2017 on tanneries in Hazaribagh in Bangladesh, where chemicals were entering the waterways. It said that many workers living in slums around the tanneries were dying before the age of 50. Eventually the government moved the industry to a new industrial zone in Savar, but Hazaribagh was not cleaned up, and pollution is now entering the river in Savar too.

Are there any vegan shoes?

Our animals category gives highest marks to companies which do not use leather or other animal products. Many companies have non-leather options, but only four on our table are fully vegan companies.

The four vegan footwear companies are:

Most leather alternatives have until recently been oil-based. However, if you compare impacts such as carbon emissions, even oil-based synthetics come out better than leather on average

Since we last reviewed the shoe industry, we've seen an increase in plant-based alternatives to leather, including non oil-based materials. 

Our separate article on leather vs synthetics footwear has more information on these topics. 

Sustainable footwear materials

Our footwear materials rating awards most points to companies which appear to be making systematic attempts to manufacture with lower-impact materials and practices such as those highlighted in the table below. 

The highest scoring brands for the footwear materials category were the three secondhand brands (Depop, Oxfam and Vinted), plus Viron and Will's Vegan Shoes

The lowest scoring brands for footwear materials were Asda, Crocs, Pavers, Sainsbury's TU, Schuh, Shoe Zone, Skechers and VF Corporation (Timberland, Vans).

This table shows the 15 companies which scored more than 50 in the footwear materials category (out of 100). 

Shoe brands that are using more sustainable materials (listed by A to Z of brand)

 
Re-use and recycling Repairs offered Biodegradable Bio-based leather alternatives Recycled materials used Leather but designed for durability Secondhand only
Allbirds
 

 
Mirum Eucalyptus Yes
 

 
Birkenstock
 
Yes
 

 

 
Yes
 
Camper Recrafted range
 

 

 
Yes Yes
 
Depop
 

 

 

 

 

 
Yes
Dr Martens
 
Yes
 

 
Yes Yes
 
Dune Reskinned
 

 

 

 

 

 
Ethical Wares
 

 

 

 
Yes
 

 
Good News
 

 

 

 
Yes
 

 
Oxfam
 

 

 

 

 

 
Yes
Po-Zu
 

 

 
Apple leather Yes
 

 
Start-rite
 

 

 

 

 
Yes
 
Vegetarian Shoes
 

 

 
Apple leather
 

 

 
Vinted
 

 

 

 

 

 
Yes
Viron LOOP
 

 
Apple leather Yes
 

 
Will’s Return to recycle
 
Fully biodegradable trainer! Cereals, eucalyptus Yes
 

 

Biodegradable shoes

We only found one company with an officially biodegradable option available. Will’s Vegan Shoes sell fully biodegradable trainers for £86. The upper is made from Tencel, derived from wood, and the soles are made from a biodegradable bioplastic. Allbirds came close, with its Plant Pacers for £120. The uppers were made from Mirum, which they say does not meet “the rapid regulatory timeframe of ‘biodegradability’”, but that “when they do biodegrade, they contribute nutrients instead of pollutants to the environment.

The company Vivobarefoot is working on a compostable shoe by 2025. It would be made to measure, 3D printed, and composed of a 50% bio-based, durable thermoplastic that is recyclable or industrially compostable at the end of its life. Look out for VivoBiome, but only if you can afford £260 a pair!

More bio-based leather alternatives

Canvas shoe options have been available for years (see our trainers guide which has some sneaker-style canvas pumps), but we found a number of companies were now beginning to also offer sturdier bio-based leather alternatives, ranging from materials based on apple leather (Po-Zu, Vegetarian Shoes, and Viron), to corn and cereals (Kickers and Will’s), and eucalyptus (Allbirds and Will’s). These all included some synthetic content too, but we hope the experiments will continue to generate improvements.

Recycled materials in shoes

Many companies are now using recycled materials in a variety of component from the liner (Allbirds, Camper), rubber or EVA outsoles (Camper, Clarks, Good News, Po-Zu, Viron, Vivobarefoot, Will’s), leather (Dr Martens, Po-Zu), to metallic heel loops, faux fur, insoles and laces (Dr Martens). 

We also found scrap yard car seat uppers (Ethical Wares), denim uppers (Freerangers, Viron), and even coffee ground uppers (Freet). And bigger brands such as Deckers, Schuh, and Skechers use recycled synthetics in some trainers.

Three pairs of shoes on a doormat

Disposing of shoes 

A staggering 24 billion pairs of shoes are produced globally each year, with millions also being discarded, and most ending up in landfill.

Our separate article on upcycling and recycling shoes has more information about what you can do when your shoes have reached the end of their life. 

Shoe recycling, refurbishment, and repair

Shoes are notoriously difficult to recycle, due to the complicated mix of materials.

In fact, some experts are calling for a ban on metal components, so that old shoes can be more easily shredded and the materials reused for other purposes.

Better than shredding though, we found several companies which were doing things differently e.g. 

  • refurbishing returned shoes for resale (Camper and Dune)
  • reusing the materials to make new shoes (Viron and Will’s).

Only three companies were found to offer a repair service that did more than just replace the sole (Birkenstock, Dr Martens and Vivobarefoot).

Buying secondhand shoes 

For the first time in a shoes guide, we have looked at (mainly online) retailers of secondhand shoes, although charity shops have been around for years. 

However, having shoes that fit well is important, and we do understand that this can make buying online a problem for footwear particularly. Returns of shoes bought online can also end up being wasted especially if not in perfect condition.

Some of the the higher scoring secondhand retailers are included as our best buys. 

Shoes for rent

Start-Rite was the one company we found that was making its shoes available for rent, through a website called thelittleloop, which describes itself as “the UK’s first shared wardrobe for kids”, though of course passing on children’s wear through friends, family or charity shops is nothing new! We also came across a project to make children’s shoes expandable, and hope to update this guide online with more news on that soon.

Repairing and caring for your shoes

With high quality shoes, it can be cheaper to resole a good shoe than buying a new pair. Timpson, the UK’s largest shoe repair chain, was an early supporter of Fair Tax Mark and is one of the largest employers of ex-offenders in the UK. Approximately 10% of its workforce is made up of people who have criminal convictions.

According to Nikwax (see Paramo in outdoor clothing guide) it is good to look after your shoes by stuffing them with newspaper if they get wet, rather than drying them on a radiator. Nikwax also have PFC-free products (see our separate article on PFCs and PFAS) to reduce cracking and improve water resistance. Rinsing off dirt with water can also reduce abrasion too. 

Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.

aerial view of 11 feet in a circle

Workers' rights in the footwear industry

In our new workers column, companies can accumulate points for positive steps like honest disclosure of who supplies them and convincing strategies to deal with the issues that come with complex supply chains. If we then find news reports of fundamental problems, we will deduct points. 

Which shoe brands scored best for workers' rights in the footwear industry?

The highest scoring companies were Dr Martens, Oxfam, Pentland (Kickers) and VF Corporation (Timberland, Vans). 

The lowest scoring were Asda, Etsy (Depop secondhand), Good News, Shoe Zone and Skechers. Detailed explanations are linked from our score tables. 

In many cases, scores are lower than those of clothing companies as conditions in the footwear industry are said to be ten years behind the garment industry, partly because the supply chains are longer and harder to monitor.

Dangerous conditions for shoe workers

Lack of regulation is a huge health issue in an industry using toxic glues and cleaning agents, as workers may not have proper protections. 

There have also been building safety disasters. In 2022, a footwear factory fire in Bangladesh left three people dead and 40 injured. Just two years after the well-known Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, a shoe factory collapsed in Wenling in China, crushing at least twelve shoe workers to death.

Over 60% of global footwear production takes place in China, with most of the work done by internal migratory workers. Another tragic consequence of this system is the estimated 66 million children that, due to costs and legal barriers, get left behind when their parents search for work.

Which brands still make shoes in the UK?

Only one company on our table manufactured all its own products in the UK. Freerangers stated "All our own styles are made to order by hand in our own workshop here in the UK and we share the same working conditions you expect for yourself."

Ethical Wares stated, “Where we can, we support the UK footwear industry as this has been hit so very hard by cheap imports from abroad, forcing much of the domestic industry to close down.” You can see in the description of each product on its website, if it was made in the UK.

Brands who make shoes in Europe

Birkenstock is a German company and 95% of its products are manufactured at the company’s own production sites in Germany. 

Other companies also deliberately chose factories in Europe instead of Asia, such as Vegetarian Shoes ("All of our shoes are made within the EU [UK, Spain, Italy, Poland, and Portugal]"), Viron (both of its supplier factories were located in Portugal), and Will’s Vegan Shoes (“Our fashion collections are made in Italy and Portugal”).

However, in general you might want to ask questions if you see a label such as 'Made in Italy', as it can hide the fact that some aspects of production might be outsourced to Eastern European countries where shoe workers can earn just 25-35% of an estimated living wage, according to campaign group Labour Behind the Label. Companies should really say more about these issues so that we can see what’s really happening.  

Supply chain transparency in footwear industry

Publishing a list of suppliers is seen as an important step towards holding brands accountable for conditions in their supply chains. 

Which shoe brands publish their supplier lists?

Twelve of the companies we looked published their first tier of suppliers. 

These were: Allbirds, Birkenstock, Camper, Clarks, Deckers, Dr Martens, M&S, Pentland, Sainsbury’s, Vagabond, VF Corporation, and Vivobarefoot.

However, only Clarks, Pentland, Vagabond (some tanneries), and VF Corporation were found to publish some suppliers beyond the first tier. These more distant suppliers can easily harbour more problems because there is less scrutiny. Sometimes though, a story hits the headlines, and in 2016 it was widely reported that many child refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war ended up working in second- and third-tier shoe factories in Turkey. While an EU-Turkey deal was negotiated to send refugees back from the Greek islands to Turkey, much of Turkey’s refugee-made shoe exports were welcomed to enter the EU and the UK.

Several other companies we looked at didn’t name actual suppliers, but did state which countries their products were made in:

  • Crocs named (in order of number of factories used) China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Brazil, Bosnia, and Argentina. 
  • Po-Zu discussed its “carefully sourced” supplier factories in Portugal and Sri Lanka and said they had a strict non-toxic policy. 
  • Vivobarefoot published a supply chain map of suppliers, partners, and manufacturers, but stated that it had not received some permissions to publish more detail on supplier names and addresses. 
  • Freet said that with 14 years of manufacture in the same town (in China), it had “evolved to working only in the best factories with the best workers’ rights."

Purchasing practices of shoe brands

The Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) guide to buying responsibly states: "Conventional purchasing practices, including aggressive price negotiation, inaccurate forecasting, late orders, short lead times and last-minute changes put suppliers under intense pressure and lead directly to poor working conditions and low pay for workers."

We only found one company directly using the language of purchasing practices. This was Dr Martens, which said that, in 2023, it had worked on a Purchasing Practices Charter and discussed forecasting and pricing as elements of this.

Camper stated “85% of our production is made in factories that are part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC)”, a body which includes work on purchasing practices. Pentland said it was a member of ACT, the Ethical Trading Initiative Act on Living Wages. According to its website "ACT aims to achieve living wages for workers through collective bargaining at industry level, freedom of association and responsible purchasing practises."

However, any advance towards living wages appears glacially slow.  

Pair of smart black shoes for wearing with suit

How do shoe brands rate for tax conduct and high pay for directors?

Tax avoidance channels profits to shareholders and directors rather than paying back into society for public services we all depend on. 

The worst shoe brands for tax conduct, scoring 0/100 for Tax Conduct were:

  • Asda
  • Birkenstock
  • Clarks (Viva Goods)
  • Crocs
  • Etsy (Depop)
  • Pentland (Kickers)
  • Skechers
  • Teva
  • UGG (Deckers)
  • VF Corporation (Timberland, Vans)
  • Wolverine (Hush Puppies, CAT).

Unsurprisingly, we found that all of these company groups (except Viva Goods and Asda for which details were unavailable), had directors that had been paid over £1m a year. In the case of Birkenstock, its immediate private equity owner’s pay details were not found, but LVMH which backed the investment paid over £1m.

Cost cutting in the footwear industry: from automation to Africa

As described above, many of the brands on our table are designed to funnel wealth up and away, with directors getting excessive compensation, shareholders getting their cut, and precious little being paid back in worker wages, or in taxes to fund social systems we all depend on.

Companies like these tend to ruthlessly keep labour costs down, in order to make more profit. Automation is not in itself the biggest threat to workers in shoe supply chains, but while we’re in such an exploitative and unequal system, the use of robots could end up making things even worse.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been advising southeast Asian nations to diversify away from their dependence on garment and footwear manufacturing, because of the threat of robots that could do the work faster.

Replacement of people by machines is likely to accelerate with shoes before clothes, as the materials are more sturdy and robots can handle them more easily. Clothing production, which if you’ve ever used a sewing machine you’ll know fabric can scrunch up and get out of control, is harder to automate. Although footwear workers are heavily exploited, being made redundant by robots could mean losing what autonomy these jobs gave them, and the majority who are women could find themselves even more disempowered.

Another threat from the hunt to reduce costs, is the transfer of jobs to new countries, where workers have to start from scratch to organise for better conditions with new employers.

Ethiopia, for example, already has a large leather industry, and its government has decided to make footwear an industrial priority and offer tax breaks to foreign investors. However, it does not have a consistent minimum wage.

What’s more, the ILO has also warned that temperature increases due to climate change are going to result in lost working hours and, although Ethiopia should be cooler than other parts of Africa due to its higher altitude, it will still be affected. Rather than spreading the problems of the footwear industry further, especially at a time of increasing vulnerability, perhaps countries could be less exposed to global supply chains, and more organised around domestic requirements and regional trade.

According to the authors of Fashioning the Future, only “a free and fair system that allows the Global South to properly use its own labour, land, people and resources for the common good, rather than multinational profit-generation will end the artificial scarcity of jobs and income that keeps so many people poor and dispossessed.”

Read more about workers in the footwear industry

Foot Work – What your shoes tell you about globalisation, by Tansy Hoskins (2020). This book provided several important stories that have been included in this article. (Use our open guide to bookshops to find an ethical bookshop, order from an independent bookshop or ask if your library has the book.)

Tansy Hoskins was also a co-author on a new report by War on Want which is free to download and explains how we got to where we are and what we could do about it: Fashioning the Future – Fixing the fashion industry for workers and climate (2023).

The price of an ethical pair of shoes

Prices vary a lot but our Best Buys and Recommended brands begin from around: 

  • £2 for Vinted secondhand
  • £5 for Oxfam secondhand
  • £35 for Ethical Wares
  • £60 for Will’s
  • £70 for Dr Martens
  • £80 for Freerangers and Vegetarian Shoes
  • £90 for Po-Zu
  • £180 for Viron

Ethical prices often reflect the true costs involved in producing an item.

What are shoe brands doing about their climate impact?

Two companies with more than £500m turnover each, had surprisingly little information on their websites about their climate impacts, with no reporting on emissions or reduction targets found there.

Clarks had an Environment section, with only a Restricted Substances Policy and policies related to animal materials. Its Sustainability page did mention using durable materials, but both the Origin shoes it highlighted as its most sustainable shoe, and its organic cotton children’s shoes, did not appear to be available for sale.

Birkenstock’s sustainability pages talked about using cork and water-based adhesives, but no mention of carbon emissions or reducing climate impacts was found.

Will’s Vegan Shoes scored poorly in our climate category. It lost marks for claiming that all its products were ‘carbon neutral’. Claims like this, that use carbon offsetting to justify suggesting that a purchase will have no impact on the climate, are also beginning to be banned in the EU. 

The very lowest scoring companies for climate were Asda and Crocs

The highest were Dr Marten's, Ethical Wares, Good News, Marks & Spencer, Po-Zu, VF Corporation and Viron

This guide appeared in Ethical Consumer Magazine 208.

Company behind the brand

Crocs highest score was in the animals category, but it could not get full marks there as it has bought another brand, HEYDUDE, that uses leather. It is working on changing the materials used for its famous soft clogs to halve their carbon footprint. The new bio-based material is being developed with the Dow Chemical Company and will be based on a by-product of wood pulping. It has also been criticised by Greenpeace for including some palm oil in this material.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.