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THE METEORIC RISE OF VEGAN FOOTWEAR

From Dr. Martens to VEJA, footwear brands are taking a step in the right direction.

In the last two years, Dr. Martens have seen sales of a single shoe rise by 279%. Two-hundred-and-seventy-nine-per cent. We’re no Casio heads, but that’s a crazy stat to wrap your noggin around. 

The item? Vegan crepes. We’re not talking about the soy-milk, egg-free, coconut oil-infused dessert, as ace as they are. It’s shoes that we have on the brain. From brogues to boots, sneakers to sliders, brands are taking note of the plant pound when it comes to footwear. And it’s paying off, big time.

For iconic punk label Dr. Martens, it all began back in 2016. They’d experimented with synthetic materials before, but it was only three years ago that they genuinely went hell for leather with the whole hell to leather hype. Unveiling the ‘vegan line’, it swapped animal products for polyurethane plastic. It still featured the same 1460 design, hard-as-nails sturdiness and punky, spunky energy. But it allowed you to take a walk in a cow’s shoes: crucially, without taking a walk in a cow’s shoes.

Sales soared. They flew off depot shelves, Hermes couriers moving footwear as quickly as Herme’s winged feet. The result? They proved that vegan substitutes don’t have to be a knock-off, ersatz goods. Along with Beyond Burgers and bamboo bags, substitutes have moved forward by leaps and bounds, spreading to the $250bn footwear market.

People haven’t just been slipping into DMs. Trainer companies have also got involved, like ethical sneaker brand VEJA. They only released their first vegan range earlier in the year, even though they’ve been dedicated to charitable, moral purposes for the past fourteen years. Why? It’s the problem with pleather.

Pleather – the kind of plastic leather substitute that Dr. Martens use – makes a great alternative in terms of animal issues. But when it comes to the environment, plastic, as we all know, isn’t very good. It’s certainly less harmful than leather, but it’s more a case of a best-of-the-worst rather than an ideal solution.

Enter VEJA’s vegan Campo trainer. Its design is genius: canvas waxed with a corn waste compound, creating a leather feel. “Replacing leather with plastic does not seem like a good solution to us,” co-founder Sébastien Kopp told Fast Company at the time. This use of canvas mirrors what Converse and Vans have been doing for years, but replaces every plastic aspect with a perfectly curated substitute.

High-end companies are taking experimentation even further. BOSS recently released a range of shoes made using Pinatex, a natural material that’s derived from pineapple leaves. YSL made waves when they debuted their effort on Miley Cyrus, at this year’s Met Gala.

Of course, finding niche materials to replace standard products like leather or plastic proves expensive. This naturally trickles down to the consumer: VEJA’s trainers are always more than a hundred quid a pop, compared to sub fifty quid options from Nike or Reebok. 

But, as is shown by the huge success of companies like Dr. Martens and VEJA, people are happy to pay a premium for plant power. Fast fashion multinationals like Primark and Boohoo may still tempt consumers in with impossibly low prices. But as growth in veganism continues, growth for companies that can’t keep up is likely to turn stagnant.

After all, companies with no particular history or interest in ethical issues are making vegan shoes their cash cows. Nike have their Flex and Free models, Asics have their Onitsuka Tiger range and Adidas have their Parley shoes. Outside of sportswear, everyone from New Look, Topshop and M&S have stepped in to join them.

It’s ace, of course, that these companies are getting involved. But it’s a bit like the situation with McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway getting on the vegan food hype. By buying their vegan products, you’re still boosting the profits of a firm that makes millions from the deaths of animals. Which, if you’re of the vegan persuasion, isn’t too tasty a thought.

It’s worth remembering, then, the smaller indie companies that took small steps to vegan footwear in the first place. Will’s vegan shoes, for example, have been around for seven years, solely focusing on vegan soles. Every single product is PETA approved, carbon-neutral and designed without plastics. 

Or, further back, Beyond Skin, who have been doing it for eighteen years, designing for celebrities like Natalie Portman. Special props have to be given to Vegetarian Shoes, who, as any Brighton resident will know, have been killing it without killing anything for the last twenty-eight years. It’s companies like these that must be remembered as the true pioneers of the movement, as risk-takers and disruptors that are copied insidiously by mega-corporations.

Regardless of it being a huge firm or a tiny stall, positive change is at least being made. Fashion’s dirty secret of its unbelievable amount of waste, animal cruelty and pollution isn’t a secret anymore. This transition to vegan footwear, then, is a step in the right direction, a necessary move towards saving our ill-fated Earth. It’s exactly what the Doctor ordered.

Words by Kyle MacNeill

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