Oct 19, 2023
by Karl Smith
The Best Vegan Dress Shoes: Circular, Sustainable & Cruelty-Free
by Karl Smith
Oct 19, 2023

PU – that’s a kind of fossil-derived plastic, and it’s also the sound you make when you hold your nose because something smells bad. This is not a coincidence.

Far too often, footwear brands offering what they call a “vegan leather” shoe are actually selling polyurethane, trading animal-derived materials like traditional leathers for a plastic-based alternative marketed as progressive on a technicality. And, frankly, that just isn’t good enough. While these brands may liberally play the cruelty-free card because they aren’t benefiting directly from harm done to animals, you still have to ask: can a product that’s actively bad for the environment – actively doing harm to the world in which humans, animals and plants exist – really ever be cruelty free?

And, having asked that question, you kind of have to come to the conclusion that the answer is – surely – no.

Which is why, in putting this list together, we’ve avoided the PU problem wherever possible. In fact, we’ve also ruled out recommending shoes where we can’t verify what the material choices are – something that happens more often than you’d think, with brands as big as Dr. Martens, whose “Felix Rub Off” leather alternative will cop to no more than simply being “synthetic.”

Still, if you’re think these exclusions leave us with precious little choice, you couldn’t be more wrong. The fact is, there are brands out here doing it better – proving that plastics aren’t necessarily a part of the deal. (Or, at least, not a big part of it: there are still, where fruit-based and plant-based alternatives are concerned, parts of the process that use PU coatings for things like added durability. But, really, that isn’t the same as turning out a big chunk of plastic and calling it a Derby.)

So, here it is: the Earth-friendlier footwear we recommend for occasions, for everyday use if you’re scoring high on the dapper scale, and for all those other times when a sneaker just won’t cut it.

“Blaze” Boot in AppleSkin™ from Good Guys

Made with the bio-based AppleSkin leather alternative, these boots make for a sturdy transitional favorite on multiple fronts: day to night, and in that weird time between the end of summer and the middle of fall – the bit where it isn’t cold, exactly, but where you start to feel a little exposed in your regular shoes.

Based in Paris, Good Guys manufactures its footwear in Italy, Spain, and Portugal at ethical production facilities – making sure both ends of the progressive spectrum are considered – and also has the interesting distinction of being France’s first vegan shoe brand, despite having formed as recently as 2011.

According to the Good Guys website, “The APPLESKIN™ is made from organic wastes from the apple juice industry in Bolzano (Italy). The carbon footprint of polyurethane (foam) is 5,28Kg CO2 eq/Kg PU; in comparison, recovered waste has zero impact. Therefore, every Kg of apple residuals used to substitute PU means 5,28Kg of CO2 saved.”

It’s also worth noting that, with its distinct black and yellow branding, these – as well as the brand’s much heftier “Oliver” Chelsea Boot – make for a fairly good Dr. Marten’s substitute.

RRP: $184 USD, from Good Guys.

MIRUM Collection from Drew Veloric

Drew Veloric is something of a master when it comes to alternative materials, producing plant-based and planet-friendlier versions of everything from furniture to footwear. Although, of course, it’s the latter that we’re here for.

Crafted from Natural Fiber Welding’s plastic-free MIRUM, there’s a total of nine pieces of footwear in this collection – a real showcase for what’s possible when craftsmanship and base materials are each operating at the top of their game. The shoes pictured above – which take an everyday silhouette and imbue it with a bolder sense of style – also call upon the skills of the New York Embroidery Studio and craftsman Alex Dabagh, and shoemaker Danilo Zambrano.

With zero skimping on attention to detail, these shoes are handmade, and handlasted in New York, embroidered at New York Embroidery studio and braided at park avenue trimming with MIRUM custom-braided laces. They also feature a custom MIRUM welt with white contrast stitching, an antimicrobial silver organic cotton knit lining, and Lactae Hevea boot sole.

RRP: $2,000 USD, directly from Drew Veloric.

Bridge-Bit Cactus Leather Loafer from Ross Oliver

If you’ve ever seen a cactus out in the wild – or even at a particularly good garden center – then you know how sturdy and resilient these plants can be. Making them into shoes might not exactly be a case of 2+2=4, but it’s certainly close.

These particular shoes, from British brand Ross Oliver, are a pretty strong example of classic shoemaking mixed with contemporary material choices. A good stand-in for GUCCI’s horse-bit loafers (which are made from what the label calls “black shiny leather”), the Bridge-Bit loafer is made with nopal cactus leather from the folks at Desserto, locally grown in Mexico with little-to-no impact on the immediate or wider environment. In fact, according to Desserto, “this material, in the place of animal skins or traditionally made synthetic leathers, may result in a 3242% reduction in plastic waste, depending on the amount of cactus used.”

RRP: $282 USD, from Immaculate Vegan.

Weejun 90 Cactus Leather Penny Loafers from G.H. Bass & Co.

We’ve reported on these shoes before, and we’re sticking to our guns.

Yes, these are another pair of loafers made from cactus leather – from Desserto’s cactus leather, even – but they’re also a classic. Having picked up on the potential of the humble cactus back at the end of 2022, G.H. Bass & Co. converted its signature style into a planet-friendlier piece of footwear – without compromising on style or structure. They’ve not converted the whole business to an animal-free enterprise – so, if you’re looking to support a vegan company, these aren’t the shoes for you – but it’s definitely a start.

RRP: $200 USD, from Mr. Porter.

Chunky Grape Leather Derby from Bohema

For some reason, when it comes to statement shoes Earth-friendlier brands often can’t seem to get it right: at some pivotal moment in the design process, it feels like someone decided it was either going to be style or substance and there wasn’t any way of combining them. (Labels like KOI, for example, which pumps out “vegan” shoes at a maddening rate, deliver on the bold stylistic elements but fall flat when it comes to materials and quality.)

But, this doesn’t have to be the case. As Bohema’s chunky derby proves, there’s room for material innovation – the upper of these shoes are constructed from Vegea®’s grape leather, finished with a recycled rubber sole – and there’s room to make an aesthetic statement, too.

RRP: $155 USD, from Immaculate Vegan.

“Advocate” Tassel Loafer in MIRUM from Brave GentleMan

Yes, we’ve gone hard on the loafers. But loafers are a good shoe – reliable, stylish, even somehow verging on playful just by virtue of their silhouette. And the “Advocate” loafer from Brave GentleMan – contrasting somewhat whimsical tassels with a thick-bodied construction – very much fill those criteria.

More than that, though, they’re made with Natural Fiber Welding’s MIRUM material – a distinction which sets these shoes apart from many of their peers, being not only free from animal-derived elements but also free from environmentally disastrous plastics. Constructed from “47% Natural Rubber, 25% Natural Fibers and Fillers, 28% Plant Oils and Waxes,” they’re also manufactured fairly, in Brazil.

RRP: $310 USD from Brave GentleMan.

Plant-Based Oxford Brogue from Solari Milano

Holding up Milanese craftsmanship as a bastion of shoemaking quality may be something of a cliche in 2023, but – actually – there are some cliches that exist for a reason. And so it goes with Solari Milano – footwear artisan’s from Italy’s fashion capital making classic, handcrafted shoes with the added bonus of valuing the Earth and their art in equal measure.

The Oxford Brogue is the perfect example of this dual vocation: not just a classic shoe, but possibly even the classic shoe – the kind of product so archetypal that, when you think of a dress shoe, an Oxford Brogue is probably what comes to mind – reimagined in planet-friendlier materials. Boasting a corn-based upper, bamboo lining, recycled rubber sole and organic cotton laces, this is – ultimately – a timeless piece of footwear, brought firmly into the present day and expertly built for the future.

“We are proud to produce a truly cruelty-free shoe, which is consciously green and embodies Italian elegance,” the brand’s website reads. We’re inclined to agree.

RRP: $200 USD, from Solari Milano.

Harlow Chelsea Boot in Cactus Leather from Voes & Co.

Ah, the Chelsea Boot – stalwart of the semi-casual, capable of pretty much anything in one format or another. Crafted from a cactus leather in what Voes & Co. refers to as a dedicated, “100% vegan facility,” these PETA-approved boots are stacked out with material qualities to keep them comfortable and durable.

They’re breathable, bacteria and mildew resistant, easy to clean, UV and cold-crack resistant, and they’re partially biodegradable. Sure, they’re not waterproof – so this isn’t the shoe for rainy autumn days – but, hey, you can’t have everything.

RRP: $250 USD, from Voes & Co.