Sustainability has become a significant concern for many individuals, and living sustainably requires taking small steps every day. One such step is choosing to wear ethical shoes. However, with so many brands claiming to be ethical, it can be challenging to distinguish between truly ethical brands and those that are greenwashing.
This article aims to provide an overview of some of the best ethical shoe brands available, including Allbirds, Christy Dawn, and Darzah. These brands are not only sustainable but also stylish, making it easier for consumers to make ethical choices without compromising on fashion. The article also includes information on how the list was compiled to ensure that readers can trust the recommendations provided.
ABLE is an ethical luxury shoe brand that focuses on empowering women around the world by paying them well above living wages. The Nashville-based company started with scarves, but now they have a range of clothes, leather bags, jewelry, and some of the most ethical shoes available.
ABLE sells a variety of shoes made from different materials such as microsuede (polyester), TPR (a mixture of rubber and plastic), cotton (for laces), and cow-based leather. It is worth noting that ABLE only uses leather that is a byproduct of the meat industry, which uses less energy than the production of vegan leather. However, there are a few exceptions such as their napa leather (made from sheep, lamb, or kid skin) and snake leather, which raises questions about their sourcing.
Despite these concerns, ABLE’s transparency and accountability in their supply chain and labor practices make them stand out. In 2018, ABLE became the first fashion brand to publish their lowest paid wages, with a goal to end the cycles of poverty in the fashion industry. They have since released their Nashville and Ethiopia wages, and are in the process of publishing wages for all manufacturing partners. ABLE also ensures that their workers’ rights, equality, child labor, forced labor, and more are upheld and clearly stated.
ABLE also places a strong emphasis on the environmental sustainability of their operations. They repurpose shipping boxes, are transitioning from poly bags to cloth dust bags, and use FSC-certified packaging for their footwear. While leather tanning is the most eco-friendly process, ABLE mitigates its impact by only working with leather tanneries that use clean water practices.
Overall, ABLE is a brand that is making strides towards ethical and sustainable practices. While there is room for improvement in some areas, their transparency and commitment to empowering women make them a brand worth considering for ethical footwear.
Allbirds is a certified B-Corp that has gained a cult following for their comfortable and sustainable shoes for men, women, and kids. In addition to ethical sneakers and sustainable running shoes, they also offer loungers, breezers, skippers, and toppers, all with adorable designs.
Allbirds was co-founded by American renewables expert Joey Zwillinger and New Zealander Tim Brown, and they operate out of San Francisco. The company uses four materials for their shoes: wool, tree, sugar, and Trino™.
Allbirds’ wool shoes are made of ZQ Merino, which is ethically sourced and requires 60% less energy to manufacture than synthetic shoes. Their tree shoes use TENCEL Lyocell (eucalyptus pulp) grown with 95% less water and produced in a clean, closed-loop process. When combined, tree and Merino create Trino™, a soft and breathable fiber that naturally reduces odor. Allbirds also maximizes the use of recycled content, replacing synthetics with recycled plastic bottle laces and bio-based TPU eyelets. They use partial castor bean oil midsoles, although it doesn’t entirely eliminate EVA.
Allbirds is also transitioning to using SweetFoam™, a Proforest-certified material made from sustainably sourced Brazilian sugarcane, for the outsoles. They use byproducts to power the mill and fertilize the sugarcane field, making Sweetfoam the world’s first carbon-negative EVA.
Allbirds ethically sources all merino from New Zealand using stringent animal welfare standards, and the wool is also mulesing-free. It’s then spun in Milan, Italy, in Europe’s only European Commission-certified sustainable wool mill. The TENCEL Lyocell is made from FSC-certified eucalyptus sourced from rainfall-fed South African farms, and the fabric is processed by Austria’s Lenzing. Finally, the shoes are cobbled in a handful of WRAP-certified factories in South Korea and China.
Allbirds went carbon-neutral in 2019 and purchases offsets for the full gamut of their business operations. They ship using 90% recycled cardboard packaging “because every box deserves a second chance.” Allbirds partners with Soles4Souls to donate lightly used or returned shoes to communities in need, reducing returned-product waste.
Overall, Allbirds is a leading ethical shoe brand that offers sustainable and comfortable shoes for everyone.
Nisolo is a Nashville-based company that is certified as a B Corp, which means they are committed to ethical and sustainable practices. They specialize in creating ethically-made, intentionally designed, fairly priced, and sustainable products such as jewelry, ethical handbags and purses, and shoes for both men and women.
One of the company’s main focuses is on creating sustainable women’s shoes. However, they also offer a wide range of ethical shoes for men, including boots, chukkas, sneakers, slip-ons, eco-friendly sandals, mules, and oxfords.
Nisolo’s materials are primarily suede and rubber, and they use leather that is a byproduct of the meat industry. They work with tanneries that are sustainably certified by the Leather Working Group. While vegan leather is not currently used, it may be an option in the future.
In line with their ethical manufacturing mission, Nisolo has their own Peruvian factory that is third-party audited and employs local artisans who receive above-fair wages. The company also provides additional financial support to their workers, such as assistance with home loans, and offers training and classes on finance, nutrition, English, and yoga.
Outside of Peru, Nisolo works with independent artisans in Kenya and factories in Mexico, all of which adhere to a strict Code of Conduct and pay higher than living wages. The company cofounded the #LowestWageChallenge with ABLE to encourage other brands to challenge the status quo.
Nisolo designs their shoes for durability, and their ethical leather sole shoes are meant to be worn for a long time. They also use carbon offset programs to reduce their emissions by supporting the Amazon rainforest-based projects.
As part of their community and charitable giving, Nisolo’s Shoe Reclamation Program sends returned or damaged goods to the organization Soles4Shoes.
Overall, Nisolo is a company that is committed to ethical and sustainable practices, from their materials to their supply chain and labor practices. They offer a wide range of ethical shoes for both men and women, and their focus on durability and carbon offset programs make them a great choice for those looking for sustainable footwear options.
Baabuk is a Swiss family-owned company that specializes in creating environmentally friendly shoes. The company prides itself on being one of the most popular ethical shoe brands, and its products are known for keeping customers warm and cozy even in temperatures as low as negative 40°F.
Baabuk’s founders, Dan and Galina, were inspired to start the company after trying a gifted pair of traditional Russian Valenkis. They were so impressed by the shoes’ warmth and comfort that they decided to replicate them and create a business around them.
Baabuk uses New Zealand ethically and sustainably sourced wool as the foundation for its sustainable shoes. The uppers and insoles are felted using just soap and water, without the use of harsh toxic chemicals. Felted wool is pressed onto a mold, which creates a fabric that is strong, hydrophobic, and fray-proof. This also increases insulation in the winter and keeps the shoes cool and refreshing in the summer.
In terms of supply chain and labor practices, Baabuk sources its wool from New Zealand and Portugal. The wool then goes to a workshop in Nepal, where mostly female artisans are employed and receive wages that are 25% higher than the national average.
Baabuk’s green business practices are reflected in the durability and longevity of its shoes. Wool, as a renewable resource, is a natural part of the carbon cycle and is responsible for sequestering a significant amount of carbon. Even if wool is not repurposed, it is biodegradable and provides essential soil nutrients as it breaks down.
Baabuk’s product line includes slippers, accessories, and sneakers, all made with the same sustainable and ethical practices. The company’s commitment to sustainability and ethical practices has earned it a Certified B Corp status.
Overall, Baabuk is a great option for those looking for environmentally friendly and sustainable shoes that are also comfortable and durable.
5. CHRISTY DAWN
Christy Dawn is a sustainable fashion brand that produces vintage-inspired clothing and footwear. The brand’s mission is to inspire people to connect with each other and the natural world through their products and practices.
Ethical and Sustainability Practices
Christy Dawn’s commitment to sustainability is evident in their materials, supply chain and labor practices, green business practices, and community and charitable giving.
The brand uses 100% naturally textured and untreated, upcycled deadstock leather for their footwear. This means that the leather is leftover from the textile industry and would otherwise end up in landfills. By using deadstock leather, Christy Dawn reduces waste and minimizes their environmental impact.
Supply Chain and Labor Practices
Christy Dawn values the people who contribute to their production process, from the farmers and weavers in India to the photographers and dressmakers in Los Angeles. The brand practices slow fashion by encouraging artisans to slow down and enjoy their work. This approach not only results in high-quality products but also promotes fair labor practices.
Green Business Practices
Christy Dawn is continuously striving to become more sustainable. They have established a regenerative cotton farm through their Farm to Closet Initiative, which supports sustainable agriculture practices. The brand offsets all shipping emissions and offers shoppers the option to make their shipment carbon positive. Additionally, Christy Dawn partners with the online thrift store ThredUP to encourage customers to recycle their unwanted clothes.
Community and Charitable Giving
Christy Dawn is known for hosting regular fundraisers to support local organizations, such as providing urban LA communities with healthy food. The brand’s commitment to giving back to the community aligns with their overall mission to promote connection and sustainability.
Overall, Christy Dawn offers unique and ethical footwear options for those who value sustainability and fair labor practices. The brand’s commitment to using sustainable materials, promoting fair labor practices, and giving back to the community makes them a leader in the sustainable fashion industry.
8000Kicks is a Portugal-based brand that has created the world’s first hemp-based shoe. The brand offers sustainable, non-toxic, and plastic-free shoes that are perfect for eco-conscious consumers.
Ethical and Sustainability Practices
8000Kicks uses hemp fabric to create their shoes. Hemp is a sustainable material that requires fewer inputs and is highly durable. Additionally, it can be composted in your backyard. The Explorer V2 shoes are not only strong but also waterproof and easy to clean.
The brand also uses Bloom algae, which is a material made from algae that has been cleaned up from waterways affected by algal blooms caused by nutrient leaching and fertilizer runoff. This material is used to cushion the feet, making the shoes not only sustainable but also comfortable.
Supply Chain and Labor Practices
8000Kicks sources hemp from countries such as Romania, China, and France. The shoes are then produced in China and Portugal. The brand is transparent about its factories and is happy to share specific details about them. Their Portuguese factory provides free education and healthcare to its workers.
Green Business Practices
To reduce shipping emissions, the brand now ships directly from warehouses in the US and the UK.
Overall, 8000Kicks offers unique and sustainable shoes that are perfect for eco-conscious consumers. The brand’s use of hemp fabric and Bloom algae, along with its transparent supply chain and green business practices, make it a great choice for those looking for environmentally friendly footwear.
Thesus, formerly known as Alice + Whittles, is a Canadian woman and POC-owned brand that focuses on creating sustainable rain boots and sneakers for outdoor activities. The brand aims to provide sustainable and traceable products in the footwear industry.
Thesus’ Ethical and Sustainability Practices
Thesus offers a range of sustainable vegan shoes for women, including the Weekend Boot, which is made without animal products and virgin plastic. They also use recycled post-industrial leather to create some of their sneakers. Thesus uses repurposed marine plastic, recycled synthetic wool, recycled rubber, recycled leather (from unlikely sources like car seats), and fairly-traded and sustainably-sourced rubber (certified by the Fair Rubber Association) to create their products. They even use eco-friendly vegan glue and recycled plastic laces.
Supply Chain & Labor Practices
Thesus has settled on family-owned factories in Portugal and Sri Lanka to manufacture their products. The brand regularly audits most of their supply chain to ensure that their products are made ethically and sustainably.
Green Business Practices
Thesus is dedicated to continual improvement and aims to make 100% of their materials sustainable and traceable. Currently, 90% of their materials are sustainable and traceable.
Community & Charitable Giving
Thesus created limited edition designs that benefit specific causes. Their current Well Beings collection directs 100% of profits to protect the Amazons.
Thesus is a responsible and sustainable brand that uses a variety of eco-friendly materials to create their products. Their commitment to ethical and sustainable practices, along with their charitable giving, makes them a great option for those looking to make a positive impact with their footwear choices.
Kyrgies, a Virginia-based slipper maker, is a brand that encourages people to embrace the “house shoe habit” by putting on ethically made shoes instead of removing their shoes to show respect for the craftsmen. The brand draws inspiration from cultures around the world and offers shoes for both indoor and outdoor use.
Kyrgies is one of the most affordable ethical shoe brands that offer shoes under $100. They come in all sizes, making them a go-to ethical shoe brand for kids.
Most of Kyrgies’ comfortable sustainable shoes are made with felted wool, which is processed with natural soap and dyed with low-impact dyes. The Kyrgies Classics are soleless and 100% wool, making them the most eco-friendly shoes from the brand. The Naturals and Tengries, on the other hand, have natural leather soles to tolerate outdoor conditions but will last longer if kept out of water. The Tengries also contain a small amount of elastane.
Kyrgies sources their wool from free-range sheep in Kyrgyzstan, where it’s also felted and carded in a factory that respects and utilizes traditional craftsmanship. The brand is committed to providing gainful employment opportunities to people in communities where options are few, thus their craftspeople are mostly women. However, the source of their leather is unknown, and the brand is yet to confirm its origin.
Kyrgies ensures that “not one gram of wool is wasted” and reprocesses any wool that doesn’t make it into their slippers for residential insulation. The brand offsets their entire carbon emissions by supporting renewable energy or carbon removal projects and aims to become Carbon Neutral Certified in the future. Kyrgies is also a member of 1% for the Planet and regularly contributes to One Tree Planted to support global reforestation.
In summary, Kyrgies is an ethical shoe brand that offers affordable, comfortable, and sustainable shoes made mostly with felted wool. The brand sources its wool from free-range sheep in Kyrgyzstan and utilizes traditional craftsmanship to produce their shoes. Kyrgies is committed to providing gainful employment opportunities to people in communities where options are few and supports global reforestation.
9. ORIGINAL CORK SHOP
Original Cork Shop is a family-owned Portuguese brand that specializes in eco-friendly flip flops made from cork, one of the world’s most sustainable materials. They are currently the only brand that makes fully compostable flip flops. The company’s founder was inspired to create a line of sustainable footwear after his search for eco-friendly flip flops proved fruitless.
Original Cork Shop’s ethical and sustainability practices are commendable. Their flip flops are made from 100% cork, including the grippy rubber cork sole. The majority of cork oak trees in the world are located in Portugal, so all sourcing and processing of materials happens there. The brand prioritizes localized supply chains, fair trade manufacturing, and cruelty-free vegan practices.
Original Cork Shop’s mission is to create a world where the environment doesn’t need protecting. They believe that sustainability is not just about protecting the environment but also creating a better world for future generations. Their commitment to using sustainable materials and ethical practices is evident in their products.
Original Cork Shop’s flip flops are available on Etsy. By choosing to support this brand, consumers can make a positive impact on the environment and support a company that prioritizes sustainability and ethical practices.
Chilote is a certified B Corp and one of the most ethical shoe brands that produces sustainable and eco-friendly wool slippers. Unlike traditional footwear companies, Chilote does not require a factory as their products are crafted slowly through a network of independent artisan women in Patagonia. The brand’s wool slippers are known for their softness and durability, and they are made with locally-sourced raw sheep wool that’s combined with organic vegetable-tanned saddle leather.
Chilote’s commitment to sustainability is reflected in their use of locally-sourced materials, which inherently have a lower carbon footprint. The brand also has slippers made from 100% raw Patagonian wool and another made with a unique material – salmon leather – that’s upcycled from the fishing industry and combined with sheep wool.
The women artisans who produce Chilote’s slippers benefit from employment with the brand, receiving wages that are 40% higher than the local average. This allows them to have confidence, independence, and self-esteem while doing what they love – knitting.
Moreover, Chilote collaborates with EcoSphere to support Peruvian forests, making their products socially and environmentally ethical. The brand’s carbon footprint is minimal, thanks to their green business practices and locally-sourced materials.
Overall, Chilote is a brand that prioritizes sustainability, ethical labor practices, and the use of eco-friendly materials. Their wool slippers are perfect for those who value comfort, durability, and ethical fashion.
Darzah is a Palestinian shoe and handbag brand that specializes in traditional “tatreez” embroidery. The brand works with women artisans in the West Bank and fulfills two missions: to create economic opportunities for refugee and low-income women artisans and to celebrate tatreez embroidery and Palestinian cultural heritage. Darzah’s products are 100% handcrafted, including their boots, mules, ethical formal black shoes, flats, oxfords, sandals, ethical heels, and even wedding shoes.
Darzah’s Ethical and Sustainability Practices
Darzah uses leather insoles and linings combined with a leather and natural rubber outsole in all their shoes. The brand has not disclosed information on how the leather is tanned and processed.
Supply Chain and Labor Practices
Darzah sources their leather from a family-run leather manufacturer and keeps everything local. Every step of their supply chain is located in Palestine. Additionally, Darzah is certified by the Fair Trade Federation and is working to reduce the West Bank unemployment rates for young women. As a not-for-profit brand, all revenue is redirected toward training and employment programs in the area. Darzah employs six full-time artisans and has 22 part-time artisans, some of whom are refugees.
Green Business Practices
Darzah is one of over 100 ethical brands that sell their products on Made Trade, an eco-friendly alternative to Amazon. The woman-owned company is certified Carbon Neutral and offsets the emissions associated with returns and shipping.
Community and Charitable Giving
Darzah is part of Child’s Cup Full, a 501(c)3 non-profit social enterprise that provides reliable work opportunities to Palestinian women.
Overall, Darzah’s commitment to ethical and sustainable practices is evident in their supply chain transparency, local sourcing, and fair labor practices. The brand’s dedication to preserving Palestinian cultural heritage through traditional embroidery techniques is also admirable.
NAE, which stands for No Animal Exploitation, is a Portugal-based and PETA-approved footwear company that offers a wide range of vegan-friendly shoes, sandals, boots, pumps, and handbags. The brand is committed to ethical and sustainable practices, making it a great choice for those looking for ethical vegan shoes.
One of the standout features of NAE is their commitment to using sustainable materials in their products. Customers can easily shop by material, with options including Piñatex (vegan leather made from pineapple leaves blended with PLA), cork, recycled PET, organic cotton, and vegan leather (a microfiber mix of cotton, polyester, and nylon, recycled whenever possible). These materials are combined with OEKO-TEX certified polyurethane lining, recycled polyester laces, natural cork footbeds, and even recycled car tires.
Supply chain & labor practices
NAE only works with European-certified factories in Portugal that demonstrate respect for their employees and use practices that don’t damage the environment. This commitment to fair labor practices and responsible sourcing is a key part of NAE’s mission.
Green business practices
NAE is also committed to minimizing their environmental impact through green business practices. They use a carbon-neutral manufacturing process and minimize their chemical and water consumption.
In addition to their commitment to sustainability, NAE also offers a range of unisex shoes, making them a great choice for those looking for gender-neutral fashion.
Community & charitable giving
NAE has partnered with organizations like PETA and the ReMove Project to support animal welfare and environmental causes. In the past, they have collaborated with PETA to create a special line of boots, with $5 from each sale donated to the organization. They also source ocean plastic waste from the ReMove Project to create their recycled PET products.
Overall, NAE is an excellent choice for those looking for ethical and sustainable vegan shoes. With their commitment to using sustainable materials, fair labor practices, and green business practices, NAE is a brand that customers can feel good about supporting.
Rawganique is a sustainable and ethical shoe brand that offers a variety of eco-friendly shoes for both men and women. The brand was founded by two off-grid homesteaders who wanted to take eco-friendly living to the next level. Rawganique is committed to using raw, organic, and unique materials in all of their products, including their shoes.
Ethical and Sustainability Practices
Rawganique’s commitment to sustainability is reflected in their materials, supply chain, and labor practices. The brand uses natural materials like organic cotton, linen, and hemp, and avoids toxic dyes, chemicals, and plastics. This means that their shoes are 100% biodegradable. Rawganique’s sustainable organic shoes are largely made with organic hemp, lined with organic cotton fleece or linen, and paired with a natural rubber sole.
Rawganique sources their unsubsidized and sustainably-grown raw organic materials from a single atelier in Europe, and only a small percentage of products are made or finished in Canada or the US. The brand does not use chemicals, advertising, or sweatshop labor, and prohibits harmful substances like formaldehyde, latex, dioxin, PVC, plastic, VOCs, and other harsh chemicals.
Rawganique offers a range of ethical vegan men’s shoes, including oxfords and sports shoes, as well as women’s shoes such as sandals, ballet flats, and boots. All hemp shoes come with a 100% natural wax to keep them waterproof, and low-impact dyes are used if the shoes are dyed at all.
Overall, Rawganique is a great choice for those looking for sustainable and ethical shoe options. The brand’s commitment to using natural materials and avoiding harmful substances sets them apart from traditional shoe brands.
WHY SHOE COMPANIES & CONSUMERS NEED TO (SUSTAINABLY) STEP UP
The footwear industry is one of the largest contributors to the fashion industry’s overall impact, generating 700 million tons of CO2 emissions annually. The sneaker industry alone produces 23 billion pairs of shoes each year, with over 300 million pairs ending up in landfills. Less than 5% of these shoes are recycled, leading to a significant environmental impact.
Leather is one of the most unsustainable materials used in the footwear industry, as it is often produced using animal byproducts, leading to the death of over a billion animals per year. The tanning process also involves the use of hundreds of heavy metals and chemicals, which can be harmful to the environment and tannery workers’ health.
However, sustainable leather shoes are possible. Brands that use upcycled/recycled leather prevent further landfill waste. Naturally sun-dyed leather uses no chemicals or natural additives to process the leather. Vegetable-dyed leather goes through the whole tanning process without toxic chemicals, relying on things like bark and other plants to preserve and protect the leather. Chrome-free leather is the least sustainable option, but it involves fewer heavy metals than other methods.
Consumers and shoe companies must take responsibility and opt for sustainable materials, such as organic cotton, natural materials, wool, hemp, and recycled rubber. Sustainable footwear brands also prioritize ethical production and fair wages for workers, as well as safe working conditions.
Certifications, such as B Corp and Leather Working Group, can also help ensure sustainable and ethical practices. Some brands, such as Rothy’s and Alohas, use recycled water bottles and coconut/sugarcane materials to create eco-friendly and versatile shoes.
In addition to the environmental impact, sustainable footwear also benefits consumers by providing comfort and durability. Handcrafted and artisanal shoes often have higher quality materials and construction, resulting in longer-lasting footwear.
Overall, the footwear industry must prioritize sustainability to reduce its carbon footprint and environmental impact. Consumers can also play a role by opting for sustainable footwear brands and recycling old shoes through programs such as Soles4Souls.
HOW WE FOUND THE BEST ETHICAL SHOE BRANDS
To determine which shoe brands were ethical enough, the team at this sustainable fashion publication utilized a set of criteria that focused on social and environmental responsibility. The criteria were divided into four major categories, which are discussed below.
The impact of a garment is largely determined by the materials used in its production. Therefore, the materials used in shoe production were a priority in determining ethical shoe brands. The team delved deeper into sustainable shoe materials, with a focus on the most sustainable options. The most sustainable shoes are those that use totally organic materials, such as natural rubber soles and uppers/liners made from jute, hemp, or bamboo fabric. After organic materials, recycled synthetics (like recycled PET and Econyl, made from plastic bottles and harvested ocean plastics) and deadstock (made from recycled shoes or post-production leftovers) were considered. While not biodegradable, they help reduce waste of materials already in existence.
Supply Chain & Labor Practices
Transparency and traceability of all entities responsible for making shoes were crucial in determining ethical shoe brands. The team looked for companies providing transparency in their supply chain and labor practices to ensure artisans were paid fairly and working in safe, ethical environments. Third-party auditors and certifications, like B-Corp and Fair Trade, were also considered to avoid doubts cast by greenwashing.
Green Business Practices
This category encompasses the various ways a company takes into account their environmental impact outside of material choice. The team looked for companies that purchase offsets from the best carbon offset providers, have product recycling programs, use low waste shipping and packaging materials, use renewable and resource conservative production methods, and create lasting designs.
The team also considered companies that work to make the world a better place by contributing either time or funding to social and environmental causes.
In determining the best ethical shoe brands, the team also considered the most sustainable materials for shoes. Fabric is the most important consideration because it has the largest bearing on a garment’s impact, as well as the safety of manufacturing and material sourcing conditions. The team also looked for non-toxic shoes, or those that are processed without the use of many chemicals. Certifications like those by WRAP and OEKO-Tex 100 were considered to help ensure non-toxic shoes.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SUSTAINABLE SHOE BRANDS
As one of the most polluting industries in the world, fashion needs a major reform. The team believes that fashion choices have an enormous impact, and starting from the ground up (i.e. with a pair of sustainable ethical shoes!) is a great way to make reforms. The team encourages readers to support ethical shoe brands and promote those brands that are changing the ethical shoe game from the inside.