Shoes

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 32 shoe brands

We also look at the use of toxic chemicals, workers' rights, leather, shine the spotlight on the ethics of Clarks 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.

What to buy

What to look for when buying shoes:

  • Are they vegan? Two main things make footwear vegan – no leather and no animal-based glue. Vegan shoes come with a far lower cost in terms of the environment as well as animal rights, so are a good ethical option.

  • Do you need new shoes? The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the UK. Help the environment by shopping second hand or repairing and recycling your shoes.

  • Are they Fairtrade? Many shoe retailers rely on overworked and underpaid garment workers to continue to churn out cheap footwear. Buy Fairtrade to ensure you are supporting the livelihood of the person who made your shoes.

Best Buys

Our best buy brands all offer vegan options:

Recommended buys

For leather shoes we recommend Po-Zu, soleRebels, Green Shoes or Vivabarefoot.

For those available on the high street, Birkenstock, Hotter and Clarks scored reasonably well.

What not to buy

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

  • Is it leather? Leather has a high cost in terms of the environment as well as animal rights. To reduce the carbon footprint of your trainer, look for vegan alternatives.

  • Do they use toxic chemicals? Shoe manufacturing often uses numerous chemicals that are then released, seriously damaging the environmental. Avoid companies that use toxic chemicals.

  • Do you know where they were made? Shoes retailers often rely on sweatshops owned by other companies – thereby abdicating responsibility for workers rights. Opt for companies that can tell you about the factories where their shoes are made. Avoid brands that receive a worst rating for Supply Chain Management in the People category.

Companies to avoid

The following brands all score worst for workers' rights in their supply chain:

  • Russel & Bromley
  • Dune
  • Brantano
  • Keds
  • Hush Puppies
  • Office
  • Pavers
  • Shoe Zone
  • Wynsors
  • Ecco
  • Schuh

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Blackspot shoes [A, O, S]

Company Profile: Adbusters Media Foundation
16.5

Eco Vegan Shoes [A]

Company Profile: Eco Vegan Shoes
16

Po-Zu Vegan shoes [A, S]

Company Profile: Po-zu
15.5

soleRebels vegan shoes [F,S,A,]

Company Profile: soleRebels
15.5

Freerangers vegan footwear [A]

Company Profile: Freerangers
15

soleRebels [F, S]

Company Profile: soleRebels
15

BoBo Shoes [A]

Company Profile: Bourgeois Boheme
14.5

Po-Zu shoes [S]

Company Profile: Po-zu
14.5

Vegetarian Shoes vegan footwear [A]

Company Profile: Vegetarian Shoes
14.5

Wills vegan shoes [A]

Company Profile: Wills Vegan Shoes Ltd
14.5

Beyond Skin Shoes [A]

Company Profile: Beyond Skin
14

Ethical Wares vegan footwear [A]

Company Profile: Ethical Wares
13

Green Shoes vegan footwear [A]

Company Profile: Green Shoes of Totnes
13

Vivobarefoot Vegan Shoes [A]

Company Profile: Vivobarefoot Ltd
13

Green Shoes footwear

Company Profile: Green Shoes of Totnes
12.5

Vivobarefoot Shoes

Company Profile: Vivobarefoot Ltd
12.5

Birkenstock vegan footwear [A]

Company Profile: Birkenstock Orthopädie GmbH & Co.KG
10

Russell & Bromley footwear

Company Profile: Russell & Bromley
10

Birkenstock footwear

Company Profile: Birkenstock Orthopädie GmbH & Co.KG
9.5

Crocs vegan shoes [A]

Company Profile: Crocs, Inc
9.5

Dune shoes

Company Profile: Dune Holdings Limited
9.5

Crocs shoes

Company Profile: Crocs, Inc
9

Brantano shoes

Company Profile: Brantano UK
8.5

Hotter shoes

Company Profile: Hotter Ltd
8.5

Office footwear

Company Profile: Office Retail Group LTD
8.5

Pavers shoes

Company Profile: Pavers Limited
8.5

Shoe Zone shoes

Company Profile: Shoe Zone Group Ltd
8.5

TOMS Shoes vegan footwear [A]

Company Profile: TOMS Shoes UK Ltd
8.5

Wynsors shoes

Company Profile: Courtesy Shoes Ltd
8.5

Dr Martens vegan [A]

Company Profile: Dr Martens
8

Ecco shoes

Company Profile: Ecco Sko AS
8

KangaROOS shoes

Company Profile: Pentland Group plc
8

Red or Dead shoes

Company Profile: Pentland Group plc
8

TOMS

Company Profile: TOMS Shoes UK Ltd
8

Clarks footwear

Company Profile: C&J Clark Ltd
7.5

Dr Marten shoes

Company Profile: Dr Martens
7.5

Schuh footwear

Company Profile: Schuh (Holdings) Ltd
7

Hush Puppies shoes

Company Profile: Wolverine World Wide Inc
6

Keds shoes

Company Profile: Wolverine World Wide Inc
6

Teva shoes

Company Profile: Deckers Outdoor Corporation
6

Timberland shoes and boots

Company Profile: Timberland
6

UGG shoes

Company Profile: Deckers Outdoor Corporation
6

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

On the table above we have rated some of the biggest names in the shoe industry to see where they stand on some of the key ethical issues in the sector. We also introduce some alternatives who are leading the way in producing shoes that respect workers and the environment. 

Ruth Strange introduces the 3 main issues in the footwear industry.

Toxics

We rated all the companies in this guide on their toxic chemicals policies beacause of the number of hazardous chemicals, such as PFC’s, PVC, dyes and adhesives, used in the footwear industry. 

We were looking for a policy that identifies and quantifies the chemicals used in manufacture and sets targets for the phasing out of the most dangerous. Those companies that had banned hazardous chemicals received our best rating, those making progress got a middle rating and those doing nothing were given a worst rating.

Best rated companies: 

Blackspot, Eco Vegan Shoes, Po-Zu, Green Shoes and Vivobarefoot.

Companies were also marked down under Pollution & Toxics if they:

  • Used leather, unless it was chromium free (as in the case of Po-Zu, Green Shoes and Vivobarefoot),
  • Used non-organic cotton, as cotton is conventionally grown with high amounts of pesticides (e.g. TOMS, which had many cotton shoes but no cotton policy), 
  • Used alternatives to leather that did not have clear environmental merits (e.g. Birkenstock vegan options were made from PVC).

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 (Blackspot), or companies that made most of their shoes through close relationships with factories in Portugal (Bourgeois Boheme, Po-Zu, Vegetarian Shoes, Wills, Eco Vegan Shoes), Spain (Beyond Skin) or the UK (Ethical Wares).

The few who owned their own production facilities were:

  • soleRebels in Ethiopia,
  • Freerangers and Green Shoes in the UK,
  • Birkenstock in Germany, and
  • Hotter in Lancashire, UK.

It should also be noted that even smaller companies did not get a best rating for supply chain management unless they gave some detail about the specific factories they worked with.

Change Your Shoes!

In 2015, 18 human rights, workers’ rights and environmental organisations across Europe, India, and China launched ‘Change Your Shoes’, a global campaign aimed to address the systemic workers’ rights abuses plaguing the shoe industry.

Image: Change Your Shoes advert
Change Your Shoes advert

Due to restrictions on collective bargaining and freedom of association, many workers lack the possibility to improve their conditions; such as low wages, illegal levels of overtime and poor health and safety measures. Poverty wages are endemic, with approximately only 2% of the price of a pair of shoes being paid to the workers who made them. 

Ethical Issues in the Footwear Industry

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.

Environmental issues

The carbon footprint of a pair of leather shoes is nearly twice as much as 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.

Toxics in tanning process

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.

On the table above those using leather that is not chromium free where marked down in the Pollution and Toxics category.

Is Faux leather 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 (which Birkenstock uses for its vegan options). Furthermore, 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.

Image: material labels

What makes a shoe vegan?

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.

Two main things make footwear vegan – no leather and 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 the individual guides. They appear on the rankings tables with [A] after their brand name.

Pineapple leather 

Piñatex (pineapple leather) was developed by a Spanish designer, inspired by shirts she had seen made from pineapple leaves in the Philippines. It is meshed rather than woven, looks like leather and is strong and breathable. Piñatex is made of 80% pineapple leaf fibres and 20% PLA fibres (from biodegradable plant resources). It takes the leaves from about 16 pineapples to make 1 metre squared of Piñatex.

Ananas Anam, the company behind this new material, works with pineapple-farming communities and states that it wants to ensure “that commercial success is integrated with, and promotes social, cultural and ecological development.” The by-product of making Piñatex can also be converted into fertiliser or biogas. Po-Zu and Bourgeois Boheme have started to use Piñatex this year.

Company behind the brand

Clarks was the only large company which responded to our questionnaire. It did take more responsibility for its supply chain management than many of the other large companies on our table, but still was only seen to have a rudimentary supply chain policy as it did not state that weekly working hours before overtime should not exceed 48 hours, nor mention living wages.

Stop Child Labour’s 2013 report ‘Working on the Right Shoes’ rated Clarks as ‘good’ for its attempts to tackle child labour in its supply chains, stating, “The fact that Clarks made use of our report in a positive way, and their open approach to our campaign is being appreciated”.

75% of leather used by Clarks was from Leather Working Group medal-status tanneries, which are audited against environmental standards. The company also stated, “We do not currently have a cotton-sourcing policy but options for sourcing certified cotton (e.g. BCI, Fairtrade) are currently under review.”

The company was also marked down under anti-social finance for paying two of its executives over £1 million in 2015.

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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