Ethical Shoes

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 42 shoe brands

We look at vegan shoes and synthetic faux leather alternatives, harmful chemicals, sexism, forced labour, local cobblers and give our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying shoes:

  • Do they talk about the environment? The shoe industry regularly uses toxic chemicals and non-biodegradable materials. Find a company that carefully selects materials with the environment in mind

  • Are they vegan? Leather is not a by-product of the meat industry – it is a profitable co-product. Those concerned about animal rights or environmental impact of animal agriculture should invest in a vegan pair of shoes.

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

What not to buy

Many shoes retailers are yet to step up to their responsibilities in terms of workers', animals' and environmental rights.

  • Do they use toxic chemicals? Most leather is made using the toxic chemical chromium in the tanning process. Tanneries can cause serious problems for local communities if waste is not responsibly disposed of. Avoid by choosing chromium-free leather or vegan alternatives. However, some alternatives also contain toxics.

  • Do they respect the rights of workers? Violations of the right to unionise is a key issue in the shoe industry. Larger companies tend to source materials from several countries – so look out for a supply chain policy that assures all workers the right to unionise.

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 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

If you want something tougher than a textile shoe, choosing footwear can pose some real ethical dilemmas for consumers. 

Animal rights

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.

 

Carbon Footprint

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. 

 

Sexism

Is also an issue in the shoe industry, and it seems like major shoe companies are falling behind on gender equality.

 

Score table highlights

 

Excessive directors’ pay

Eleven brands featured were owned by companies that paid directors excessive amounts of money – over £1 million per year. These are KangaROOS, Red or Dead, Hush Puppies, Keds, Teva, UGG, Schuh, Clarks, Crocs, Timberland and Office. The highest paying company was VF Corporation – one director was paid approximately £14 million in 2019.

 

Tax avoidance 

The owners of the following brands received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies: Red or Dead, KangaROOS, Keds, Hush Puppies, Dr Martens, Office, Truworths, Ecco, Timberland and Crocs.

Wolverine World Wide (which owns Keds and Hush Puppies) looks particularly suspicious. It has subsidiaries in Delaware, Netherlands, Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Hong Kong, Mauritius and Bermuda – all jurisdictions Ethical Consumer considers to be tax havens.

 

Cotton

Green Shoes, Allbirds, Freet and Crocs do not use significant amounts of cotton.

We rated all other companies for their use of GM, pesticides, and sourcing from Xinjiang, China, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan.

Po-Zu and Will’s Vegan Shoes had adequate policies addressing all these issues (Will’s Vegan Shoes uses only recycled cotton).

 

Toxics

For a best rating companies must use 100% sustainably sourced materials, be listed as a leader in the Greenpeace Detox Campaign, or have a turnover of less than £10.2m and provide an environmental alternative (including using mechanical as opposed to chemical extraction).

Companies receive a middle rating if they are a member of ZDHC, are classed as in 'evolution mode' by the Greenpeace Detox Campaign, or have gone beyond the ZDHC MRSL basic package, or have over 50% sustainable cotton or upcycled materials.

Failing this or if the company makes no mention of pollution and toxics, it receives a worst rating.

 

Leather Shoes

It’s true that leather shoes often last a long time. There’s a reason for this: the tanning process. Tanning prevents an animal’s skin from decomposing. The vast majority of leather available today was made using the chemical chromium – and it’s highly toxic. Other harmful chemicals can also be used in leather production, ranging from formaldehyde and arsenic to cyanide.

Many brands are increasingly sourcing leather certified by the Leather Working Group. At the highest “gold” rating, this represents progress on the issue of tannery chemical use. However, you are still left with the hefty environmental impacts of cows, and exploitation of animals.

There are leather-free shoes available from most shoe makers which come in all the same styles that leather shoes come in. Just check that the shoes or their packaging do not contain a leathermark.

 

Faux Leather Shoes - more ethical?

Non-leather shoes can be made from a variety of materials. Faux leather, vegan leather or pleather (plastic leather) is usually made of PU (Polyurethane) and polyester or nylon.   

While they still have problems (e.g. toxics used in their manufacture), the environmental impact of vegan leathers has been improving enormously.

The plastic coated onto fabric is generally polyurethane (PU) rather than the more toxic PVC. The newest forms use a water-based method to apply the PU to the fabric rather than the highly toxic solvents that were traditionally used.

A 2017 report produced by Global Fashion Agenda, the Boston Consulting Group and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition called ‘Pulse of the Fashion Industry’ assessed the environmental impact per kg of leather and synthetic leather, using the Higg Materials Sustainability Index.

The index measures chemical use, rate of depletion of natural resources, eutrophication (releases of nutrients that upset the balance in ecosystems), greenhouse gases, and water.

Synthetic leather material had, on average, less than half the greenhouse gas emissions and overall environmental impact than real leather per kg, although there are concerns that it may last less long which may counteract some of this.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) should be avoided. This is a synthetic plastic polymer that cannot be recycled. It contains carcinogenic chemicals, and its production process results in toxic wastewater.Polyurethane (PU) is an environmental step up from PVC, although as with most plastic materials, it does not decompose in the environment.

Our last guide to shoes introduced the fruit-based leather alternative Piñatex (pineapple leather), which has since become very popular. Piñatex is made from 80% pineapple leaf fibre, and 20% polylactic acid (a vegetable-based plastic material which comes from a renewable source). It is meshed rather than woven, looks like leather and is strong and breathable. 

The by-product of making Piñatex can also be converted into fertiliser or biogas. It is however coated with PU, but is REACH compliant.

 

Vegan shoes

Two main things make footwear vegan:

1) no leather, and
2) no animal-based glue.

So, whilst lots of footwear is not leather, it is not truly vegan unless the manufacturer can guarantee that the glue is non-animal. And a lot of companies either use animal glue or can’t guarantee that they don’t.

So, to be totally sure that you are avoiding animal glue, look for the vegan brands listed in our shopping guides. They appear on the rankings tables with [A] after their brand name.

 

The brands selling more sustainable vegan shoes

These brands are leading the way in terms of eco leather alternatives:

  • Will’s Vegan Shoes developed a vegan leather alternative material from a mix of bio oil (from organic cereal crops in Northern Europe), and polyurethane.
  • Po-Zu is currently in the process of phasing out all leather and becoming 100% vegan. The company uses Piñatex and also Frumat™, which is made in part from the fibrous waste of the apple juice industry – pretty sweet way to make use of fruit waste, although it is also 50% polyurethane. The company uses a range of alternative materials – coconut husk, cork and natural rubber.
  • Some Vegetarian Shoes products use Piñatex, Cork and Vegetan Uppers. The Vegetan Uppers are 70-80% biodegradable. The company also however uses non-biodegradable alternatives including Vegetan suede, micro, active and bucky.

 

Returns policies on vegan shoes

If you’re interested in trying a synthetic alternative to leather, have a look at the detail of their returns policies.

Two sellers – Will’s Vegan Shoes and Po-Zu – offer a returns period of a whole year. Will’s Vegan Shoes states “We want to make it easy to try sustainable, ethical, vegan fashion”. This means if the shoes start to wear out after a few months, you’re not stuck with them.

Freerangers, Vegetarian Shoes, Office, Dr Martens, Vivobarefoot, Beyond Skin and Eco Vegan Shoes all allow you to return unworn shoes for at least 28 days.

 

Forced cotton labour in Turkmenistan

We’ve reported on the forced labour in Uzbek cotton extensively before, but not so much the issues in the Turkmenistan cotton industry.

Every year in Turkmenistan thousands of public sector employees including teachers, doctors, hospital personnel, bank employees, and gas and electricity agency staff are forced to help farmers pick cotton under threat of dismissal.

In September and October, over 50% of teachers are estimated to be sent to pick cotton. Businesses are also forced to contribute labour, under threat of being closed. To fulfil quotas, parents often have to recruit their children’s help, despite national and international laws against child labour.

According to the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), the entire Turkmen cotton production system is “tainted with forced labour of children and adults” based on the identification of seven indicators of forced labour. These are:

  • Coercive recruitment
  • Forced overtime
  • Limited freedom of movement and communication
  • Degrading living conditions
  • Pre-existence of a dependency relationship on employer
  • No freedom to resign in accordance with legal requirements
  • Withholding of wages.

In a country marginally better than North Korea for press freedom, reporting on the issue is dangerous. On 6 September 2019, journalist Gaspar Matalaev was freed from prison after serving a three-year sentence for reporting on the cotton harvests.

Avoiding cotton from Turkmenistan

Although cotton is Turkmenistan’s largest export, it exports less than 1% of the world’s raw cotton. However, there may be a higher chance of it being in European textiles: Turkey is the main investor in Turkmenistan textile production facilities, and the third largest textile supplier to the EU. The Turkish company Calik Holding has subsidiaries that own textile production facilities in Turkmenistan.

A March 2019 report by Anti-Slavery International stated that brands listed on Calik Holding subsidiary websites include Topshop, Zara, H&M and River Island.

Ethical Consumer has long marked companies down under our Workers’ Rights category if they do not have a policy against cotton sourcing from Uzbekistan. We now require a boycott of Turkmen cotton too.

Patricia Jurewicz of the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN) stated,

“Things are starting to change in Uzbekistan after many years of engagement. Turkmenistan is a lot like Uzbekistan as it has an authoritarian government that controls the entire cotton industry. We can’t feel confident that any cotton produced in Turkmenistan is produced without any forced labour in it.”

She added “We are hopeful that changes are taking place […] I really hope it’s not going to take as long to encourage the Turkmen government”.

Cotton sourced from the Xinjiang region in China

Equally, the End Uyghur Forced Labour (EUFL) says that there is evidence of the Chinese government using “forced labour as a means of social control” throughout the cotton-producing Uyghur region of Xinjiang.

Brands are being urged to cut ties with the Xinjiang Uyghur Region of China as a result. Find out more in our feature on Uyghur Muslims.

Where are your shoes made?

Several of the brands we looked at do not disclose where their shoes are made. Most of the other big companies relied on outsourced cheap labour mainly in Asia. Even a generic ‘Made in Europe’ label is not enough to guarantee workers’ rights, say Labour Behind the Label.

Those at the top of the rankings table showed some commitment to protecting workers’ rights in their supply chain. They included explicitly unionised labour, or companies that made most of their shoes through close relationships with factories in Portugal, Spain or the UK.

 

Five top tips for making your shoes last longer

  1. Invest in quality.
     
  2. Buy sole protectors. Stick these under your shoe to prevent holes developing.
     
  3. Give your shoes a spa. Remove and soak laces, and clean shoes gently with a toothbrush. Don’t use a washing machine!
     
  4. Keep them dry. Moisture is the enemy of shoes. Store in a dry place, and swap for wellies when rain is forecast. You can also get waterproof spray.
     
  5. Get stuffing! Stuffing shoes with newspaper can prevent wilting and creasing, especially at the ankles.
image: green shoes children's shoes gender neutral
Companies such as Green Shoes make all kids’ shoes gender neutral.

Girls’ feet bear the brunt of gender stereotypes

In 2017, Clarks came under fire when a mother’s Facebook post about Clarks Shoes went viral. Jemma Moonie-Dalton argued that the company sold boys’ shoes that were sturdy and weather-proof – designed with running and climbing in mind. In contrast, girls shoes had inferior soles and poor ankle padding. This sparked a national debate.

A BBC article highlighted how 52 of 78 styles of Clarks girls’ shoes were open topped (none of the boys’ were). Shortly after, the company announced its Spring/Summer 2018 school shoes line would be entirely unisex. Stereotyped brand names such as ‘Dolly Babe’ and ‘Leader’ were discontinued.

We checked to see if Clarks is still falling behind when it comes to gender equality in children’s footwear. You can filter the ‘Girls casual shoes’ range according to ‘Heel Height’. A range of heeled (2-4cm) boots were found. Unsurprisingly, no boys shoes are listed as having heels.
 

Freeing children’s feet

Francesca Mallen, founder of Let Clothes be Clothes, a campaign organisation calling on retailers to end the design and marketing of children’s wear based on outdated gender stereotypes, told Ethical Consumer:
 

“Recent marketing trends focus on creating mini versions of adult footwear. We’re increasingly seeing shoes made for children that are heavily styled around gender stereotypes. In particular this means heels and flourishes for girls; and solid trainer-style shoes for boys. Our concerns aren’t just the stereotyping and unhealthy pigeon-holing of kids. What we’re most worried about is how parents tend to think that if a pair of shoes is sold in a shop, it must be okay for their child’s feet. In reality, heels and wedges are extremely damaging to growing feet."

Supporting local cobblers

Dan Nelson is a seventh-generation cobbler with a shop in Settle, North Yorkshire. His great, great grandfather – also named Dan – began the family business in 1752.

shoe repair shop yorkshire cobbler

What shoes can you repair?

We get jobs from all over the country. We can usually do something. A lot of welded shoes are easy to repair, and anything handmade (such as Conker or Totnes shoes) can usually be taken apart and fixed. Shoes made in small factories are likely to be easier to repair. We’re still here making shoes that last 20-odd years.

What shoes can’t you repair?

A majority of shoes now have polyurethane soles – after 10 years they start disintegrating whether you’ve worn them or not. You can’t do anything with that sole. You also have to think about the economic value. Someone came in the other day and asked how much it cost for a stick-on rubber sole. I told him £9 – well, the shoes only cost him £8!

What’s the future for the cobbling industry?

There are still quite a few highly skilled cobblers, but definitely fewer. Sometimes the old guys go, get replaced, and their skills have gone and they didn’t pass them on. No one wanted to learn about it. They want more glamorous jobs.

Donating shoes during coronavirus

Recyclatex told Ethical Consumer that the government is encouraging all consumers to hold on to any textile household recycling (clothing, household linens, etc) until after charities reopen.

Some people have been leaving items in bags outside closed charity shops and at the side of already-full banks. This is classed as fly tipping. Having it removed costs charities a lot of money.

Some Household Waste Recycling Centres remain open during the crisis. Shoes donated there are taken by companies that resell them for reuse. If you can’t reach a shoe donation point now due to the pandemic, hold onto them until you can.

Shoe Aid donates shoes to people in the UK who need them. See their website for where you can donate footwear.

Company behind the brand

Dr. Martens was acquired, in 2014, by Permira Holdings, a global investment firm. While many still remember Dr. Martens’ special place in the history of British subculture, now only 1% of its shoes are made in the UK.

Permira lacked developed policies that most large companies would be expected to have, such as a detailed environmental and supply chain management report.

The company was also marked down under Arms & Military supply because, in 2017, Permira Debt Managers was the sole lender in the acquisition of Dunlop Aircraft Tyres by Liberty Hall Capital Partners, a US sponsor specialising in Aircraft and Defence.

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. 

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