Making Vegan More Eco-Friendly

In the vegan footwear marketplace, animal-free is no longer enough.

As consumers increasingly demand both animal-free and eco-friendly goods, more brands are trying to respond. But just because a shoe is vegan doesn’t mean it’s green. In fact, the manufacturing process can often involve dangerous, earth-unfriendly chemicals. And using more sustainable materials is made more difficult by the characteristics of vegan brands — usually smaller and newer to the market — and overwhelming price pressures.

Still, a few brands are making progress.

“Vegan shoes are leaning more toward being eco-friendly because [both ideas] go hand in hand,” said Arti Upadhyay, owner of vegan brand Neuaura Shoes. “We also see that consumers are much more responsible and aware of the products they are wearing, which is affecting their buying decisions.”

Core vegan brand OlsenHaus designer Elizabeth Olsen agreed: “[There is] a fast-growing interest in issues — animal rights and the environment — that is affecting us all, and therefore growing a demand in vegan footwear. It’s a more universal understanding of what the word “vegan” means. It’s not an alternative, hippie, fringe choice; it’s an awareness of what’s going on, a wake-up call.”

Neuaura Shoes and OlsenHaus are just two of the brands moving toward a more sustainable process, including using more recycled and earth-friendly components, such as water-based glues.

Cri de Coeur founder and designer Gina Ferraraccio has incorporated more green materials — including ultra-suede made from recycled plastic and textiles — after seeing a surge of people interested in living more sustainable and humane lifestyles over the past three years. There is room for improvement, she acknowledged, in some of the components.

“More recycled options are on our wish list,” Ferraraccio said. “Using fabrics made from recycled raw materials is one of the best ways to lessen our footprint on the environment.”

Abigail Afman of the Simple Shoes product team said that eco-friendly is the main concern when looking for materials for the brand, which includes a few select vegan styles. “We focus on using innovative materials such as recycled car tires, certified organic cotton, recycled PET and hemp, which allows our products to all fall under the eco-friendly category,” she said.

Olsen, too, is thinking out of the box as she searches for new all-vegan, eco-friendly materials for OlsenHaus. For her collection, she uses recycled industrial-waste ultra-suede, natural cork, cotton rope, canvas and recycled tire rubber.

And she has recently branched out to conquer another environmental problem. “The highlight [of the collection] is the first heel made from recycled plastic bottles — attacking the island of trash in the ocean,” Olsen said.

The plastic water bottles are ground into flakes and formed into sheets from which the heel is developed. “This is only the beginning of working with this and other materials that take our human waste and make it into art, beauty, fashion and function,” said Olsen.

One challenge, Ferraraccio said, is finding materials that fall into both the vegan and eco-friendly categories. “A lot of non-leather materials can be toxic to the environment and to you, such as vinyl and PVC, which both contain volatile compounds,” she said. “We use a lot of polyurethane made from environmentally friendly, raw materials that don’t emit any toxic gases.” Ferraraccio added that she’s always on the lookout for new materials, and searches anywhere from footwear supply stores to automobile upholstery suppliers.

But these better-for-the-environment items come with a hefty price tag.

“Right now, the textiles we use are great, but they’re very expensive because we demand that they have qualities such as sustainability and durability, which end up raising the bar in quality and expense,” said Ferraraccio.

Designers must keep this in mind when it comes time to convince retail accounts to take a chance on them, especially because consumers seem to have a limit on how much they’ll spend for the product.

Jackie Horrick, owner of retail store Alternative Outfitters, has had a hard time finding shoes in the price range her customers want.

“Buying vegan shoes should be affordable so everybody has the option to not buy leather,” she said. “It’s clearly nice to have designer vegan shoes, but generally, we have found that most people shopping for vegan shoes do not want to spend a great deal of money.”

Online retailer Veganessentials.com customer service manager Colleen Ernster said her prices reflect the affordability that her customers demand. “Our average price point for shoes has gone down to about $65 per pair from around $95 per pair in reaction to people looking for lower-priced styles these past few years,” she said.

Though demand for affordable, eco-friendly and vegan shoes has increased, Ernster said, she has also had to respond to increased competition in that marketplace. Larger retailers such as Zappos.com have jumped into the selling ring and snagged shoppers from small vegan boutiques, luring them with discounted prices, free shipping and free returns.

While the added competition is tough on independent stores, the forecast looks good for vegan and eco-friendly brands going mainstream. What is currently a small market could see rapid growth in the near future.

Ernster added, “Why would [these sites] be focusing on vegan styles if they didn’t feel there was sufficient need?”

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