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The Vegan Advantage: Why Footwear Companies Should Prioritize Plant-based Materials

As footwear companies make a greater commitment to environmentally responsible business practices and creating sustainable product, there has been an increased focus recently on vegan fashion options.

Experts say this should become a serious commitment among shoe manufacturers for a range of reasons — first being a response to consumer demand. “What we’ve seen from research and data is that more and more consumers are looking for products that meet a stringent criteria in terms of sustainability and the ethical treatment of animals,” said Joshua Katcher, designer of the Brave GentleMan vegan footwear brand and author of the book “Fashion Animals.”

For designer Alfredo Piferi, founder of the luxury vegan shoe label Piferi, it’s a matter of catering to all people. “If you think about it, leather shoes are not for vegans, while vegan shoes are for everybody,” he said. “So the result is an element of inclusiveness, because you a produce a product with no limits in terms of wearing it and enjoying it.”

But even more important are the environmental impacts of footwear, especially leather-based products, noted Katcher and Piferi, while speaking on the “Tough Truths: Vegan Footwear” panel during Fairchild Media Group’s virtual Sustainability Summit.

“The first [myth about vegan fashion] is that leather is natural and biodegradable, which is not completely true,” explained Piferi. “Sure, it’s a natural source, but on the way to becoming a jacket or a pair of shoes, it’s treated with chemicals that make it last forever.”

Katcher added that current scientific findings show that of all the materials used in fashion, leather has the largest environmental impact — even more than oil-based polyurethane leather alternatives, which have faced their own share of criticism.

But he pointed to a range of innovations for plant-based materials that are opening up a world of new possibilities, including Mylo by Bolt Threats, made from mycelium fiber (aka “mushroom leather”), and Mirum, produced from agricultural waste.

“There are ways to go about having a responsible brand that are only limited by your imagination and by the scale of this innovation that’s available now,” said Katcher.

In his own brand, Piferi utilizes Bio Vegan Nappa made with 48% polyols derived from corn, and suede that comes from 100% recycled PET, or recycled plastic bottles. But the designer — who won the FN Launch of the Year award in 2020 — said the key to being environmentally conscious is to create product that lasts.

“Responsibility starts from the sketch,” said Piferi. “If you design product that is timeless, you can wear them through the seasons and they can come with you on a journey. This is the best way. Because when we design product that is strictly seasonal and fully embellished, after three or four times of wearing them, then you don’t want to wear them anymore. And then even if they’re fully sustainable, are they sustainable?”

Recently, a number of major brands have begun incorporating vegan or plant-based materials into their collections, though few have created quite the stir that Hermès did in March, when it announced a partnership with California-based startup MycoWorks to use its mycelium-based material in a new version a classic travel bag.

Katcher and Piferi said that the arrival of these heavyweights has both upsides and downsides for the marketplace.

“The downside is that often they sign exclusivity agreements, and they limit people like me and Alfredo from having access to these materials,” said Katcher. “But the upside is that these luxury brands create desire and aspiration around what they’re making, so if they’re using mycelium leather or lab-grown leather or recycled plastic, then that’s going to create more demand in the market and soon after, smaller designers like us will have access.”

But as more fashion companies strive to improve their environmental impact, Piferi emphasized that honesty and transparency are vital components in this journey.

“I talk about responsibility … more than sustainability, because to promise full sustainability, we have a long way to go,” he said. “We need to be very careful in what we promise the customer. The best attitude we can promise today is to look forward to new materials and new technologies, and in the meantime make responsible choices.”

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