It’s 2023 and we’re in the era of the plant-based sneaker. From hemp to canvas, mycelium to pineapple, even waste materials from the tequila industry, there have never been more animal-free options for constructing high-quality sneakers. And, of course, there have never been more high-quality, plant-based sneakers on the market than there are right now.
All of which is great, of course. Or, at least, all of which looks great on paper. But there’s something not quite right in the vegan sneaker sphere: a trend that calls the commitment and the underlying philosophy of brands into question. Namely that a lot of these shoes end up not being vegan at all.
Take the recent New Balance 550 Hemp, for example: a shoe that couldn’t feasibly sound more plant-based if it tried. The sneaker’s upper, as you’d expect, is constructed from soft, sustainable and cruelty-free hemp textile – a fast-growing, low-impact material and progressive choice that extends so far as the mesh of the tongue. But, unfortunately, that’s as far as it goes.
Now, you might be wondering – given all that hemp – what could possibly be left to go wrong. You might be asking, “Where did they need to add the animal-derived elements to this shoe to make it structurally sound?”.
And it is a good question. But, ultimately, it’s the wrong question. It’s not about “need”: funnily enough, there’s no requirement for suede accents to keep a New Balance 550 from falling apart. This is about style. This is about want. It’s about desire.
The fact is, right now – despite, or perhaps even because of the daily rollout of alternative materials and fully plant-based footwear options – animal leather, much like fur, is still used to indicate luxury. It’s a false equivalence, of course, but it’s a deep-rooted one as far as the sneaker industry and consumers are concerned.
A cursory google on the subject will turn up countless results when asked why this holds true. These totally impartial answers – from websites with names like “Leather Naturally” – will reel off the same set of bullet points, more or less verbatim: in various forms, they’ll cite the “durability,” “versatility,” “comfort,” and even the “beauty” of animal-based leather as hard-and-fast reasons it remains the dominant material form, at least so far as luxury is concerned.
But there are (at least) two things wrong with this. First, none of these qualities are exclusive to animal-derived leather. At this point in time, materials like Natural Fiber Welding’s MIRUM® alternative could easily be considered to fulfil each of these requirements. And that’s just one example of many.
Second, none of these are reasons why brands are still using animal-derived leather today – only, at best, an explanation as to why it may have been useful in the historical sense. Before, that is, we had so many other options. Before, you might say, we necessarily knew any better.
The fact remains, though: there are other options. We do, in fact, know better. So why is a brand like New Balance pushing out a pair of hemp-based sneakers only to sully their cruelty-free credentials with suede for suede’s sake?
Again, for the most part, it’s about perception. Hemp isn’t considered luxurious or high-end, but leather is: a sneaker brand can sell a hemp-based shoe with animal-derived accents as sustainably progressive yet still luxurious, giving the majority of its consumer base a warm, fuzzy feeling about doing something good without sacrificing quality or style. And, in that sense it’s also about a lack of conviction: New Balance isn’t a vegan brand – even if this sneaker were 100% plant-based, most of their offering wouldn’t be – and it doesn’t serve the company to criticize the majority of its current stock.
“Putting our faith in established brands is a quick path to disappointment: so many of them are unwilling to alienate potential consumers by contradicting the line that they’ve been selling for so long.”
They’re not the only ones of course. Just the other week ASICS gave us a GEL-LYTE III sneaker naturally dyed with tea residue, made in part from recycled materials, with an upper constructed from cotton. With all of these forward-thinking, sustainably-inclined elements, though, the brand still couldn’t help but add the same kind of suede accents that appeared on the 550. Once again its inclusion in the shoe’s construction is entirely useless – other than to market the idea of the material itself; to signal something that ASICS, like New Balance, clearly believe that plant-based materials don’t have the capability to deliver.
More striking still is that the lack of overall belief in vegan footwear, as a viable future for the industry and as a high-end product in its own right, is so strong it has sent brands as big as adidas rowing back on its plant-based promises. Having released the Velosamba as a self-described “vegan cycling shoe” back in 2022, adidas has since opted to produce a version featuring – you guessed it – animal-derived suede.
Why? Once again, the only answer here is sales. That the suede-accented version is more expensive tells you basically everything you need to know. If the vegan Velosamba is hardy enough, comfortable enough and versatile enough to function as a cycling cleat and an everyday sneaker, then there’s absolutely nothing here for animal leather to add. Nothing but some misguided notion of “premium” material.
The fact is, within the current system, putting our faith in established brands is a quick path to disappointment: so many of them are unwilling to alienate potential consumers by contradicting the line that they’ve been selling for so long, or to risk the wrath of shareholders by investing in an untested future.
The catch-22, of course, being that things are only untested until the point at which they aren’t. The proof of progress is in the production and the purchase. And, realistically, one will follow the other. It’s just that no one wants to stick their neck out and be the first to say it with their chest, preferring instead to bring in collaborators: a third party influence whose credibility – as with Sean Wotherspoon for adidas or Story Mfg. for Reebok – can deliver on the vision for a single product outing without affecting the main brand.
(Nike Space Hippie 01, wholly vegan and entirely game-changing – relegated to a lesser-known sub-label.)
Back to that first question, then. “Why do sneaker brands keep on adding unnecessary, animal-derived elements to otherwise vegan sneakers?”
In short, it’s because – for lack of moral backbone, under the scrutiny of the markets – they feel like they have to. It’s because years of pushing leather as the hallmark of high-end construction is almost impossible to undo without a heavyweight advocate. Because no one, as yet – beyond perhaps Billie Eilish for Nike – has even come close to taking up the mantle of influence on this and pushed them hard enough from the inside.
To move forward, we need better education. That means we also need brands who are willing to educate. Willing to accept that their current infrastructure isn’t future-proof or bigger than the environmental and ethical crises in which the industry is wholly complicit.
What we need is for big names to follow the lead of their smaller, more adventurous peers. For brands like adidas and ASICS and New Balance and Nike to listen to the likes of UNLESS and Flamingo’s Life – to look at what Rombaut or norda are doing – and even learn from the successes of their very own sub-brands.
Most of all, though, we need them to step up.