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Producing vegan footwear

Companies offering vegan products have various checks to make before placing them on the market.

by John Hubbard

On occasions, footwear manufacturers and retailers find themselves having to respond to customers’ questions relating to the possible presence in footwear materials of certain substances that are either harmful to health or the environment, or to which the wearer may be allergic. Through a combination of material specifications and laboratory testing, an accurate answer based on suitable evidence can normally be provided.

In recent years, there has been a growth in the supply of ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ footwear to meet the concerns of customers who have adopted these lifestyles. Everyone who chooses to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products will have to make personal decisions about the extent of their participation, and there is a wide range of views about the inclusion of animal-based products in non-food items. Many vegetarians still wear leather shoes. They reason that the animals are not raised for their hides, but rather are a waste product of another industry that would need to be disposed of if not used to make leather.

However, some vegans hold that no animal-based products are acceptable in the non-food goods that they buy. The UK’s Vegan Society has provided limited guidance to their members about possible issues when buying footwear. The three main areas of concern are leather, animal fibres (wool and silk) and adhesives.

Leather

Leather is the most widely-used shoe upper material, which may also be selected for solings and shoe linings. In European legislation, leather parts of a shoe are indicated with a special pictogram, so should be easily recognisable by the consumer. Although surface coated textiles or leathers and PU uppers can look similar, suppliers can often easily identify leather materials by examining a cut or open edge by eye or under a microscope.

Several alternative upper materials have been proposed as alternatives to leather (see the article on page 10 for examples). As long as these are plant- or oil-based, they should be acceptable to vegans.

Animal fibres

In a vegan diet (as opposed to vegetarian), no food of animal origin is permitted, even if no slaughter is involved. This removes eggs and milk-based dairy products, as well as honey.

That principle extends into vegan footwear, with wool being unacceptable even though harvesting of this material is carried out on live animals. Identification of fibre type can often be carried out by relatively simple microscopy, burning or chemical spot tests.

Likewise, decorative trims on slippers or boots – ‘faux fur’, can be analysed or visually inspected to confirm that real fur has not been used (further information can be found in the article ‘Testing for animal fur’).

Adhesives

Historically, some adhesives have been made from rendering down animal connective tissues (frequently equine) to form protein colloid glues. These have been largely superseded by synthetic adhesives. As a result, animal-derived adhesives, are less likely to find an application in the footwear industry. Adhesive type can often be identified by FTIR Spectroscopy of the bonded surfaces.

Vegan claims

In the absence of a recognised scheme for labelling vegan footwear against a fixed set of criteria, brand owners wishing to market vegan footwear must ensure that their claims are not misleading, and that consumers understand the extent or limitation of the claims. It has been reported that some vegan groups would prefer to go further than the steps above and have products for vegans manufactured away from animal-based materials, without sharing tooling or handling facilities. A commercial decision would need to be taken on whether this was appropriate for a company or not.

Veganism is just one of a series of ethical and environmental issues that manufacturers and brand owners may encounter – often from younger consumers. Dialogue with customers normally reveals some outline of their demands, which can be applied through the supply chain to determine if a particular product meets the required specification. Any company claims would need to be backed up by results from laboratory tests alongside effective supply chain auditing.

How can we help?

Please contact eco@satra.com to request information about laboratory testing for identifying materials or ensuring compliance in the supply chain.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 30 of the July/August 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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