Ethical shoes guide 2: Where to shop

In the first part of the Ethical shoes guide I talked about all the hard questions around sustainable and ethical shoes and gave you no clear answers. Now, here is what you have been waiting for: a list of 14 more ethical and sustainable shoe brands.

Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list, but simply the brands I have come across in my own search for more ethical shoes. If you know of others deserving a mention, please share in the comments! Also, none of the brands listed are perfect. So, don't forget to think for yourself. Right, let's go!


14 shoe brands pushing for good



Sustainable materials, fair trade

Trainers, flats and sandals for men and women.
Headquarter in Germany, production in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.

Starting out as a sports brand, with the first fairly produced football on the market in 2004, the company has since 2007 produced shoes using its existing supply chains. It sources natural rubber from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) plantations on Sri Lanka, certified organic cotton from India and was certified in 2010 with the fairtrade seal for organic cotton.

At the manufacturing facility in Pakistan Ethletic has implemented its own scheme, where it pays an additional 15% of the value of their orders to an employer-represented elected body or “welfare society”. The society uses these extra funds for social benefits of their own choice, like health insurance, doctor visits, clean drinking water and so on.

On Rank A Brand’s dutch site Ethletic was rated with a B.



Sustainable materials

Trainers for women, men and kids.
Headquarter in France, production in Brazil.

The shoes are manufactured in Brazil and made of organic cotton, recycled materials, natural rubber from the Amazon, and “low chrome” leather. The association of cotton farmers they work with are fairtrade certified.

There is a fair bit of information about their commitment to sustainability on its site, including prices on natural rubber and cotton, and social audit reports from their manufacturing facilities from 2008 and 2009. The company also openly acknowledges some of the challenges it faces with respect to its production.

In Rank A Brand’s test Veja was rated with a C, doing well on labour conditions and environmental protection, though facing the complaint that its sustainability reporting should be more up-to-date.



Sustainable materials, vegan

40+ sustainable shoe brands for men, women and kids.
Based in Berlin.

Avesu brings together a wide range of ethical, sustainable and vegan shoe brands with everything from trainers and hiking boots, to lace-ups and heels.

Avesu ensures the brands they stock meet its standards of fair working conditions by inspecting the brands' non-EU supplier factories. The company states that the majority of the shoes are sourced within the EU where there are already strict laws to ensure fair working conditions. However, as mentioned in the first part of the Ethical shoes guide, a recent report by the Clean Clothes Campaign and Change Your Shoes describes the shoe industry in low-wage European countries as notorious for poverty wages and bad working conditions.

Avensu offer some interesting input to the discussion of leather, stating that all skins go through a chemicals-intensive tanning process whether or not this is labeled “vegetable tanning”.



Sustainable jobs in Africa

Leather shoes for men, women and babies.
Headquarter in Canada, production in Ethiopia.

Oliberté started out in 2009 partnering with factories and suppliers in Sub-Saharan Africa, later establishing its own factory in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 2012. All its shoes are made there, and the factory became the world’s first fair trade certified footwear manufacturing factory in 2013.

Materials are sourced from within Africa: leather from Ethiopia (mainly form a tannery which is said to have the world’s only chrome-recycling system), natural rubber from Libera, South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia, and tags and insoles form Mauritius.

Oliberté is a certified B-Corporation.


Sole Rebels

Sustainable jobs in Africa, fair trade

Boots, flats and sandals for men and women.
Headquarter and production in Ethiopia.

A range colourful and fun shoes made of hand-spun and hand-woven cotton, reclaimed textiles, hemp and old tires. The company puts emphasis on job creation and fair working conditions, stating for instance that its workers are paid three times the average wages in the industry. They creatively re-use materials and support traditional handcraft techniques.

Sole Rebels is a World Fair Trade certified company.


The Root Collective

Supporting small-scale artisans in Guatemala

Boots and flats for women.
Headquarter in the US, production in Guatemala.

A small range of handmade shoes in leather and cotton, produced in partnership with small-scale artisans in the poor areas of Guatemala. The fabric is handwoven by women in Guatemalan highland villages using the traditional back-strap weaving technique. The shoes are stitched in family workshops in the slum of Guatemala City.

The Root Collective is a certified B-Corporation.



Sustainable materials

Wool trainers for men and women.
Headquarter in the US, production in New Zealand and Italy.

Allbirds produce trainers made of merino wool from New Zealand processed into a special fabric in Italian textile mills. The shoes are said to have a 60% reduction in carbon footprint compared to standard trainers of synthetic materials. The natural properties of the wool help minimise odour, regulate temperature and wick moisture.

The merino wool is ZQ certified and the company is in the process of gaining a B-Corp certification. However, there is no mention of where the shoes are manufactured, working conditions, detailed supplier lists or a code of conduct.


El Naturalista

Own most of its supply chain

Shoes, boots and flats for men, women and kids.
Headquarter in Spain, production in Spain, Italy and Morocco.

The shoes are mainly made of leather, which is claimed to be “chrome-free”. There are also some vegan alternatives made of poly microfibres.

El Naturalista own three manufacturing factories across Spain and Morocco, and all its shoes are produced in these. Leather and other shoe components are sourced from Italy.

There is a code of conduct and a supplier list available for download on the site. However, in the report "Trampling worker rights underfoot" by Change Your Shoes it is pointed out that the factory in Morocco and the tanneries in Italy are not included on the list. The report concludes that while the company report generically on supply chain responsibility on the website the whole supplier chain is not included.

In Rank A Brand’s test El Naturalista was rated with a D, faced with the complaint that the company should be more transparent about its sustainability policies.



One for one model

Canvas flats for men, women and kids.
Headquarter in the US, production unknown.

The company's focus is on the "one for one" model and its promise to give away a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair bought. So far, about 60 million pairs of shoes have been given away through various charities and local organisations in over 70 countries.

As mentioned, in the first part of the Ethical shoes guide, the TOMS model has received criticism regarding its shoe donations. This led to the investigation of the impacts of TOMS shoe donations in this recent paper published in the World Bank Economic Review.

Regarding corporate responsibility TOMS states that it is working towards more sustainable materials for its shoes, like organic cotton, hemp and recycled polyester. In general terms the company states it is committed to fair labour practices and require its suppliers to comply with their code of conduct. However, I found no information on suppliers or the code of conduct vaguely referred to on the site, except for casual reference to production in China, Ethiopia and Argentina.



Own most of its supply chain

Mainly leather shoes for men, women and kids.
Headquarter in Denmark, production in Indonesia, China, Thailand, the Netherlands and by other subcontractors.

Ecco emphasises quality in production and take pride in craftsmanship. It states that it is the only major shoe company to own its own production and retail facilities, which suggests that it has better control both with the quality of the production and the working conditions at these sites. Ecco’s code of conduct is publicly available on the website.

Ecco did not partake in the company assessment report by Change Your Shoes. The report confirms that Ecco owns most of its supply chain, but also remarks that it uses subcontractors. The report concludes that it is fair to assume that Ecco takes responsibility to ensure fair working conditions, though it is unclear whether they have a comprehensive human rights due diligence procedure in place.

In Rank A Brand's test Ecco was rated with a D, for although the company fares well with regard to its tanneries and energy efficiency, other criteria regarding labour conditions and the environment are left unanswered.



Job-creation in Germany

Sandals and flats for men, women and kids.
Headquarter and main production in Germany.

Birkenstock is a family-run business in its 6th generation, claiming roots back to 1774. The company has a strong emphasis on quality and comfort in its shoes.

The classic Birkenstock sandals are made of natural cork leftovers from the wine industry, sourced mainly from southern Portugal, and with soles of natural latex (or “rubber milk”). Most models have leather components, though they also have some vegan models made of poly microfibres.

The company’s code of conduct is available on the website.

In Rank A Brand’s test Birkenstock was rated with a C, doing well on labour conditions, but lacking information on environmental policies and climate change.



EU Eco-label

Leather shoes for men, women and kids.
Headquarter in Sweden, production in Bosnia, Sweden and by other subcontractors.

A Swedish company with roots back to 1945, though not established as a brand until the 1970s. There is a small production facility in Sweden, maintained in cooperation with a local industry museum. The company owns a factory in Bosnia, which was established 2009 as a response to the influence of many Bosnian refugees that came to Sweden in the 1990s. This factory complies with ISO standards 9001 and 14001, and the EU Eco-label. The company also uses subcontractors, but don’t present a detailed supplier list.

On its website, Kavat states that more than 50 models are certified with the EU Eco-label.




Mainly leather shoes for men and women.
Headquarter in Germany, production in Portugal.

A small company based in Berlin, working with a shoe workshop in Porto in Portugal who manufacture the shoes. Atheist started as an art project, but grew into business in 2012 after an image of the first shoes went viral and led them to start a kickstarter campaign and launch their business.

The shoes are mainly made out of leather, which is said to be “natural and unprocessed”, only vegetable dyed and gently tumbled (but see also what Avesu write about vegetable tanned leather, above). There are also one or two vegan alternatives made out of microfibre from recycled plastic. The soles are made of natural rubber.

There is no specific mention of working conditions or the origins of the materials they use.

On a side note, Atheist offer a very unusual, and rather macabre, custom shoes option where you can get shoes made from your dead pet’s skin.


The White Ribbon

Handmade, reclaimed materials

Leather boots, sandals and flats for women.
Based in Berlin, Germany.

A small artisan company designing and making shoes by hand in their Berlin workshop. The shoes are made of leather from over-production in the Italian fashion industry, and also reclaimed vintage fabrics.

Ethical shoes guide 1: Talking about sustainability

Are you looking for ethical and sustainable shoes? Me too.

But the search for “good” shoes is easier said than done. In the process I stumbled upon dark reports on the shoe industry’s supply chain issues. Then I was dazzled by the bright images and eco jargon of “good” footwear brands. Organic, vegan, recycled, high-tech, fairtrade or “one for one” – how to make sense of it all?

This guide is in two parts. Next week I will list some shoe brands pushing towards good and worth looking into. But today I address the elephant in the room: what is a sustainable and ethical shoe, really?

I will break it down with four questions to ask yourself the next time you buy shoes. Consider yourself warned: there is no black and white answer.


What makes a shoe ethical?

While we are well accustomed to the terms ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ and ‘ethical’, it is not easy to translate these big words into concrete action. For there are the environmental, social and economic impacts to consider, and not only through production but also through consumption, use and waste. There are limits on available information, but also limits to the amount of information we can absorb as individual consumers.


Four questions to ask yourself next time you buy shoes

1. Who made them?

Demanding respect of human rights and a living wage for the workers who made your shoes is a perfectly fair request to set any shoe producer.

Unfortunately, this demand is difficult to bring about in practice. Subcontracting production to suppliers abroad is just business as usual in the shoe and garment industry. This leads to fierce competition that pushes prices down. There are also many women who take part in the invisible workforce of home workers who earn poverty wages and retain no job security.

As the average brand is the end station of complex and far-spread supply chains, it is challenging for them to have complete overview, not mentioning control, over their entire supply chain.

Made in Europe is no guarantee of good

The garment and shoe sectors in Eastern European countries are notorious for bad working conditions and poverty wages, according to the report "Labour on a shoe string" by the European collaborative initiative Change Your Shoes. In fact, the report states that there are European countries where workers in the shoe industry have about the same purchasing power as equivalent workers in Indonesia and China.

“Made in Italy” is not the same as actually made in Italy

A strange EU trade scheme, the "Outward Processing Trade" (OPT), makes it possible for Western European countries, like Italy, to export pre-cut materials to low-cost European countries for assembly and manufacturing. The shoes are then re-imported for the final stages of packing and labelling.

See the illustrations below from the report "Labour on a shoe string", published 2016 by Change Your Shoes and the Clean Clothes Campaign.


Look for supplier lists and a code of conduct

At this point you may be drowning in despair. There is hope: transparency.

Why does transparency matter? Because brands that publicly publish a code of conduct, list their suppliers and report on sustainability issues make themselves open to public scrutiny. It means they can be held accountable for failures in their supply chains. Just as importantly, it implies they are making an effort to gain better knowledge and take greater responsibility for their products.

Noticing a problem is the first step towards solving it. Yet transparency is not a solution in itself. In all practicality, it is impossible to trace where a pair of shoes were made on the basis of a brand's list of hundreds or thousands of supplier factories. Smaller brands dealing with fewer suppliers are easier to hold accountable.

Big brands: greater influence, but more complex supply chains

Presumably big brands with high turnovers and large market shares, have greater potential to push towards positive change. For instance, the Adidas Group had a €16.92 billion (€16,920,000,000) turnover in 2015, according to another report “Trampling worker rights underfoot” by Change Your Shoes. On the other hand, the Adidas Group’s products were produced in over 1,100 supplier factories spread over 61 countries. That means getting a complete overview over their supply chain a very difficult task to accomplish.

Seeing that the big brands are the ones making the most money as things are, one could argue they are also the least likely to change the system and disrupt status quo.

Buy one, give one

What about TOMs, you ask? They have made successful business on their “one for one” model, donating a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair sold. Ten years in and they have given away 60 million pairs of shoes, but they have received some criticism concerning the effect of their donations.

This paper published in the World Bank Economic Review found no significant negative effect on local markets of TOMs donations, but neither did the donated shoes make a big impact on the lives of the children who received them.

Whether good or bad, the TOMs model addresses a symptom of poverty, rather than poverty itself.


2. What are the shoes made of?

Choosing recycled materials seems a good option when looking for sustainable shoes. The Adidas Recycled Ocean Waste shoes, for instance, are made partly from drifting fish nets. The production of these shoes involve both reusing a waste material and clearing the ocean of nets that cause problems for dolphins, sharks and other sea animals.

While shoes made of recycled plastic bottles and fish nets divert waste materials from landfills and oceans, they may contribute to another problem: micro synthetics seeping into our drinking water and food.

Almost all materials pose some environmental challenges, but you can look for certifications like the fairtrade label, GOTS cotton and other multi-stakeholder initiatives.

3. How long will the shoes last?

More than 24 billion (24,000,000,000) pairs of shoes were made in 2014, states the report “Trampling worker rights underfoot”. About 300 million pairs of shoes end up in landfills each year, according to this article, where the soles of most trainers are said to take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Recycling shoes is a challenge as they are typically made up of many different materials: cotton, synthetics, leather, rubber, metal and glue. Nike seems to be an exception to the rule on this point with their shoe recycling programme “re-use a shoe”. The resulting “nike grind” material is used for running tracks, and even garments, yarns and trims.

Most shoes, however, will eventually be thrown out as waste. To slow down the waste spiral, choose well-made shoes of quality materials, that can be be repaired when worn down.

Quality leather shoes, for instance, can last for years if well cared for. But then again, the leather industry is not the cleanest. Apart from the obvious fact that animals were killed in the process, the leather industry generates a large amounts of chemical waste, including chromium and sulphide. (Take a look at this report, for instance.)

4. What is the best you can do? Aim for the 80% rule

One thing is clear: there is no easy answer.

The number one thing you can do is to choose a pair of shoes that fit you well, both on your feet and with your lifestyle. Shoes you will want to use until they are worn out.

Next, what is the best you can do given the restrictions you face?

We all have some limits in terms of money to spend, time to research or access to better brands. Not everyone can afford shoes handmade in Western Europe or the US. Not everyone has the time or patience to read lengthy sustainability reports. And no one can change the whole system on their own.

Aim for the 80% rule. It is hard to get it all right, both as consumers and producers. Even the best brands will falter and stumble upon their way. So will you and I. Do what you can when you can, and I am cheering for you!