The first pair of “eco vegan” shoes I purchased were made of recycled rubber and plastic and made a loud thumping sound when I walked—alerting humans and animals many miles away that I was approaching. The edges of the shoe, especially around the top of my foot, were so sharp that they felt like knives, while the biodegradable cork insole was as hard as cement. Did I mention they were ugly? Saving the earth used to be ugly. And very painful.

You might be surprised to know that times have changed—dramatically. Now you can purchase shoes, coats, purses, belts (and so much more) from big brands like Reebok, Adidas, Tom’s and many others that are not only animal- and earth- friendly, but also fashion-forward, comfortable and sustainable. Plant-based materials are now leading the way when it comes to sustainable fashion— especially when it comes to footwear.


The reason animal leather is ubiquitous is because of its suppleness, breathability and durableness but those attributes come with a high cost—the most obvious being that it comes from an animal. Animal leather is unnecessary and cruel. And, making leather is also harmful to the planet, as the resins, dyes and other chemicals used in the manufacturing process are horrible for the environment.

“Fake” leather, or pleather, as it’s often called, has existed for a long time—at least since the dawn of the modern animal rights movement. Even die-hard vegans like myself have bad associations with it, as it notoriously created a greenhouse effect on feet because of its extreme lack of breathability and suppleness.

Pleather also tended not to be durable over time, and the animal-exploiting fashion industry liked to say that it was worse for the earth than animal skins (NOT TRUE, as this tactic—like the animal-fur-versus-fake-fur argument— is used to divert the conversation from the ethics of killing animals).

Twenty years ago, pleather looked and felt more like plastic than what it attempted to replicate—because it was made from petroleum byproducts. But now, vegan leathers are being made from a variety of natural plant fibers indiscernible, in many cases, from their animal counterparts. They’re also lightweight, affordable and long-lasting and sometimes completely biodegradable, which means your footprint (pun intended!) is a lot less. Even better, the new generation of plant-based leathers are truly kind to animals.

New York-based animal advocate Joshua Katcher, who owns the men’s fashion label Brave Gentleman, uses “future leather” to create his line of shoes, belts, wallets and brief cases. Future Leather is made in Italy of plants and recycled fibers that are more breathable and waterproof than animal skins. I own two pairs of these shoes and a belt and can attest that future leather truly is revolutionary. A 10-year-old pair of boots I own still looks practically new and the belt is still going strong after several years. 

Another new and revolutionary leather is made from, of all things, pineapple. Called Pinatex, this patented leather product achieves something remarkable: It has almost zero environmental impact. That’s because it’s made completely from a waste product—leaves that are discarded from pineapples grown for food. No pesticides, land, water or fertilizers are used to manufacture it. You can now purchase baby shoes, bags, wallets, credit card holders, fashionable boots and more products made from this plant-based leather, the creation of which took nearly a decade. Hugo Boss now makes an entire classically-styled vegan shoe line from pineapple leather. Even the box they come in is biodegradable. The upscale vegan fashion brand, Borgeoise Boheme, also makes an entire shoe line out of pineapple leather that’s available on its website.

The iconic brand Birkenstock has even created a vegan leather version of its popular Arizona, Boston clog, Mayori and Madrid designs using a microfiber upper and lining and cork footbed. Its version of vegan leather is made from soft acrylic and polyamide felt fibres with a durable, smooth, leather-like finish.


Reebok, one of the largest and most popular athletic manufacturers in the world, has gotten in on the plant-based shoe game too. The company has taken things even further with an eye on developing footwear that biodegrades more quickly. Reebok recently released a line of sneakers for men and women made of cotton, castor bean oil and corn that’s going to be a game-changer for the 20 billion pairs of shoes that are manufactured each year and end up in landfills at the end of their life cycles. Reebok’s shoe line—aptly named Corn + Cotton—was born from an initiative to revolutionize the sneaker industry so that shoe manufacturing practices become an earth- and animal-friendly endeavor. And Adidas, the parent company of Reebok, teamed up with an ocean advocacy non-profit Parley and began making a sneaker from recycled plastic cleaned up from the oceans— simultaneously raising awareness about our deteriorating oceans and doing something to help them.

For many years, I thought I’d have to suffer through ugly footwear options forevermore—a small price to pay, I thought, for being vegan and caring about animals. But I am grateful things have changed. People used to look at my shoes and make a snarky remark. Now, more often than not, it’s, “Where can I get those shoes?”

Dustin Rhodes is development director of Friends of Animals. He lives with two perfect rescue dogs in Asheville, N.C. and has been referred to as the vegan Imelda Marcos.

This article originally appeared in FoA’s  spring 2019 edition of Action Line.