Why Shoe Sustainability Is Important For The Environment

The blame factor is frequently attached to the fast fashion industry when considering fashion’s environmental impact on the planet. However, the footwear industry also has a significant part to play. 

With billions of shoes ending up in landfill every year, the footwear industry, as it stands today, is an unsustainable model if the focus is to be shifted towards sustainability and on lowering its environmental impact.

In this blog, we’re looking at the footwear industry’s current model and its impact on the planet, ways to become a more considered shoe shopper and the truth behind sustainable leathers to help you to make a more informed decision the next time you shop for shoes.

Table of contents: 

The problems with the footwear industry and the environment 

What is sustainable footwear?

How do sustainable shoes help the environment?

Are vegan shoes sustainable?

Are leather shoes sustainable?

A hand places wooden blocks bearing sustainability symbols on the side

The problems with the footwear industry and the environment 

The impact of footwear on the environment doesn’t come from wearing or owning shoes but from the manufacturing processes and the amount of shoes that are sent to landfills every year.

According to National Geographic, in 2018, around 24 billion shoes were made worldwide; that’s three times the number of people on the planet. In most cases, the manufacturing of these shoes creates excessive amounts of Carbon Dioxide, which largely contributes to global warming through an increase in Greenhouse gases from the fossil fuels used to power factories and the actual manufacturing processes. 

A landfill on the beach

Many shoes are manufactured worldwide every year, but the sad reality is that 22 billion of them end up in landfill, according to Circular, most of which are made from non-biodegradable materials. Whilst natural materials such as leather and rubber may take around 50 years to biodegrade, the synthetic materials used in shoe production, such as plastics and glues, may take a thousand years to break down.

Shoe waste contaminates the environment, as synthetic materials can emit chemicals and dyes into the soil and groundwater as the soles start to decompose and the dyes from the shoes are released. A solution to the landfill problem was to burn unwanted shoes; however, this emits the same harsh chemicals into the air, causing pollution and significantly altering the air’s quality. 

Ways to improve shoe manufacturing

It’s clear that for our planet to survive, significant changes must be made to shoe manufacturing to reduce the number of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change and the number of shoes ending up in landfills.

A power plant at sunset in the background of a water scene

Although this is a long and difficult process, many brands have started to recognise the need for change. They are improving their manufacturing processes to reduce their carbon footprint and improve their brand image. And with more eco shoes being created, brands are looking for ways to preserve natural resources, ensuring their designs are sustainable from design to production. 

3D printing to reduce emissions, using completely natural materials in shoe production and offering recycling for old shoes are all innovative ways shoe brands attempt to become more sustainable. But we must also be mindful consumers, reselling and recycling our old shoes where possible.

What is sustainable footwear? 

Whether or not footwear is sustainable is dictated by its environmental footprint, which includes the materials used to make it, the working conditions for the shoe brand’s manufacturing staff and the processes used to make and transport the shoes. 

A brand’s entire production process, from start to finish, must have zero impact on the environment. 

Materials used in sustainable footwear 

For shoes to be considered sustainable, the materials used in making them must be fully natural or be made from recycled materials.

An artisan shoe maker hammers parts of a shoe to a last in the Rosamund Muir atelier

Natural fibres are defined as anything from an animal or a plant, such as organic cotton, hemp or wool. However, not all natural fibres, such as leather, can be considered sustainable, as cattle are responsible for agricultural emissions. Cotton that hasn’t been sustainably sourced also comes under this category since cotton production requires excessive amounts of water. In contrast, other natural fibres like hemp require little water and land to grow. 

However, there are some grey areas. 

Many shoe manufacturers prioritise vegan leather to ensure their products are more ethical and sustainable. However, whilst natural fibres are cruelty-free and kinder to the planet, it’s important to consider how they are processed and manufactured into vegan leather before they can be considered a viable, sustainable solution.

Similarly, whilst natural leather isn’t considered sustainable because of agricultural emissions and the animal cruelty aspect, leather is biodegradable and, when dyed with plant dyes, much safer if disposed of in a landfill than synthetic materials.  

At Rosamund Muir, all of our shoes are made from surplus stock leather that has been discarded as waste, the fabric left over at the end of a production process. By sourcing this high-quality leather, we prevent it from ending up as landfill waste, and our small-batch production means minimal waste from our shoe production. 

Our shoes are handmade in small batches by skilled artisans in our atelier rather than being mass-produced in large factories. Any leftover leather off-cuts from our shoes are donated to local schools for craft projects. Read about our sustainability efforts to learn more about our small-batch production. 

When considering ethical or sustainable shoes, research how each brand manufactures its shoes, and consider the materials used to help you make an informed decision before you shop.

How do sustainable shoes help the environment?

The sustainable shoes that help the environment the most are made from natural materials that will biodegrade in landfills. 

However, the best way to limit your shoes’ impact on the environment is to continue to wear and take care of them

Throwing away your shoes isn’t your only option. If your shoes start to wear, take them to a cobbler who will usually repair and resole heels and soles. 

Shoes being mended by a cobbler

If your shoes are fine but no longer to your taste, why not resell or donate them? Thrifting and second-hand buying are hugely popular and a circular, more planet-friendly way to shop. So why not do your bit and help contribute to it?

When your shoes eventually wear out, why not send them to a company that can recycle them for you, so they don’t have to spend many years in landfill? Many initiatives, such as Jog On Again, will recycle or donate your running trainers on your behalf, or Schuh’s Sell Your Soles that will recycle yours and offer money off your next pair in their store. It’s never been easier to become a more sustainable shopper!

Are vegan shoes sustainable?   

Vegan leathers are made from artificial or plant products instead of animal skin, mimicking leather and offering a cruelty-free alternative. 

Vegan leathers are becoming so advanced that they’re often mistaken for the real thing. Usually created from plastic polymers to mimic a wrinkled leather texture, from recycled plastics or plant-based leathers such as mushrooms or bananas, the issue with vegan leathers is that they aren’t all created the same.

A belt beside a mushroom - made from mushroom leather

Whilst some vegan leathers impact less on the environment in the short term than the deforestation and water use required to farm natural leather, in the long term, vegan leathers made from or containing plastics can impact the environment at the end of their life. Taking years to degrade and releasing toxic chemicals into the environment during the process, they also create harmful microplastics. Microplastics can end up in water streams and food chains, so it’s important to research both process and product to know exactly what you’re investing in before favouring vegan leather. 

Are leather shoes sustainable? 

Leather is a natural by-product of the meat industry. Although it is natural and will biodegrade in much less time than its plastic vegan leather alternatives, it cannot be considered sustainable because of the environmental impacts of the agricultural emissions caused by rearing cattle. 

Natural leather can be safely discarded at its end of life without impacting the environment, particularly if it has been dyed by tanners using safe, ethical dyes that aren’t harmful to wildlife and aquatic life. Biodegrading much more quickly than synthetic materials, natural leather also eliminates the risks caused by microplastics.

The most ethical way to invest in leather shoes is to shop secondhand or invest in good quality leather shoes built to last a lifetime away from landfill. 

As all of our leather shoes at Rosamund Muir are made from high-quality excess leather that would otherwise go to waste, you can rest assured that our shoes have been created sustainably as possible when you shop with us.

Shoemaker making the leather parts of shoes in the atelier

Implementing traditional shoemaking practices for our small-batch production and eliminating the need for large-scale production, our shoes are made using natural products, minimising negative environmental impact from design to manufacturing and distribution. 

Shoe sustainability and the environment: The highlights

Currently, the footwear industry contributes massively to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and excessive waste heading to landfill every year. 

Whilst changes won’t happen overnight, brands are starting to recognise the problems associated with the manufacturing of footwear, improve their processes and prioritise greener materials to minimise these impacts for the safety of our planet. 

Although there are some grey areas surrounding what is considered sustainable by the footwear industry, prioritising footwear made from natural materials such as organic cotton, hemp and rubber that biodegrades naturally without contributing to the microplastic problem can help to counteract the landfill problem.

The best way to implement shoe sustainability is to look after your own shoes, only shop for new shoes when necessary and recycle, donate or sell your unwanted shoes to prevent them from ending up in landfills.

Always research before investing in vegan leather to ensure that the shoes you’re buying won’t negatively impact the environment at the end of their life. Or, if you are investing in natural leather, choose high-quality leather shoes that have been created using sustainable practices to minimise environmental impacts.

Shop Rosamund Muir for shoes built to last a lifetime

Invest in high-quality leather shoes made from surplus stock leather at Rosamund Muir. Our shoes are made by hand in the atelier, preventing surplus leather from going to waste, using small batch production methods and prioritising natural materials, such as our wooden heels, where possible. Whether you invest in boots, sandals, wedges or pumps, find shoes with a conscience that offer a lifetime of wear!

Related posts: 

What Is Luxury Sustainable Fashion?

Here’s How To Care For Your Designer Shoes

Best Sustainable Footwear Brand

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