The challenges of vegan footwear
Exploring the finer points of a growing footwear sector which aims to provide products acceptable to vegans.
by Lucy Cove
Image © Rafa Jodar | iStockphoto.com
Over recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of people choosing to adopt a vegan lifestyle. This has created a demand for new and innovative products within the consumer products industry, as vegans not only abstain from the consumption of animal products as food, but also avoid the use of materials of animal origin in other forms, such as in the clothing and footwear they purchase.
It is estimated that in the United Kingdom, the number of individuals identifying themselves as vegan quadrupled between 2016 and 2019, and this growth rate is estimated to increase over the coming years. This presents both opportunities and difficulties for retailers, who must ensure that they can provide products to meet this growing demand, or risk the damage caused by alienating an ever-growing proportion of their customer base.
Defining a vegan product
The first challenge faced by the footwear industry is in defining what constitutes a ‘vegan-friendly’ product. Of course, brand owners making this claim should ensure that materials such as leather, wool or silk are not used in their product. However, the presence of animal derivatives is not always obvious, and hidden sources must also be considered.
Such examples include: i) collagen used in the production of adhesives, which has historically been sourced from the hooves of cattle or horses, ii) certain dyes produced from insects – for instance, the cochineal beetle, and even iii) beeswax, which can be used as a waterproof coating and leather treatment. The Vegan Society defines veganism as ‘a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose’.
This definition leaves considerable scope for interpretation, and even within the vegan community there will be differences in opinion regarding what is considered as ‘exploitation’. Some individuals find it acceptable to use an animal product if the animal is not harmed by the process, while others would consider any use of animal products to go against their philosophy.
The comment that ‘use of animal products’ should be avoided ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ is also interesting as, again, this can be interpreted in different ways. There is likely to be discrepancy between the brand owner, to whom the question of what is reasonable and practicable is significantly influenced by cost-effectiveness and profit margins, and the consumer, who will be more focused on personal ethics and principles.
Because of this, in many ways, the question of whether or not a product is considered to be vegan is determined by the personal views of the consumer. These are difficult issues for retailers to navigate as, ultimately, companies cannot make false or misleading claims. Generally speaking, a company wishing to promote a vegan product must be prepared to seek alternatives to materials of animal origin and, as far as possible, ensure that no substance is used that has been manufactured with the involvement of any species of animal.
Vegan versus traditional materials
Defining what makes a vegan product is only the first obstacle faced by brand owners wishing to capitalise on the growing trend. Another key issue that will need to be overcome is ensuring that the quality of the product is not compromised by the use of synthetic materials. In particular, leather is highly valued in the footwear industry for its durability, breathability and tensile strength, and this is difficult to replicate in a man-made fibre. Although this may not pose a significant disadvantage in the fashion industry, where the perceived value of a vegan product will still attract the target customer provided the product has a reasonable level of comfort and durability, it does present challenges for applications where performance is critical, such as the military and PPE industries.
The development of synthetic alternatives to leather has also resulted in opposition from the traditional leather industry over use of terminology. There are concerns that use of terms such as ‘vegan leather’ or ‘plant leather’ could be misleading to consumers. European regulations have very clear stipulations of what constitutes a leather article, with EU Directive 94/11/EC defining it as ‘hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact, which has been tanned to be rot-proof’. Applying the term ‘leather’ to plant-derived materials is therefore controversial, and several countries have taken measures in order to legally ban the use of this word in descriptions of synthetic products.
Verification of vegan products
Perhaps the most pressing difficulty for retailers is how to verify that the claims they make about vegan products are valid. Given the highly emotive subject nature and rising interest in the vegan lifestyle, organisations that are found to be making false claims – even unknowingly – will suffer severe damage to their reputations.
One way in which companies can achieve a level of verification is through the use of a ‘supplier declaration’. However, while this is perhaps the easiest and least costly method to implement, it is also the least reliable. It requires a brand owner to have a very high level of confidence in its suppliers, along with a robust system for traceability and auditing. Ultimately, reliance on declarations will not provide sufficient proof to validate marketing claims should a dispute be raised, nor will it absolve the firm of legal responsibilities if it is found that false claims have been made. Because of this, many organisations choose to undertake testing to provide further verification of their claims.
Screening tests such as Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and optical microscopy can be used to identify the potential presence of animal proteins. FTIR does this by focusing infrared radiation onto the specimen and detecting the wavelengths absorbed. This method is commonly used to identify polymer types, as different molecules absorb different frequencies (depending upon their chemical structure), which generates a unique spectrum specific to the material being analysed. This spectrum can then be compared to a library of known substances to provide a form of identification.
It is also possible to look for certain peaks within the spectra that correspond to known substances, which could be applied to detect the presence of animal proteins such as collagen. The second commonly-used screening test – optical microscopy – is often used to identify fibrous materials such as textiles and leathers. This technique involves observation of a small, dissected piece of material under a microscope, and visual determination of whether the fibres appear to be of animal origin. While these screening tests are useful techniques, they do have limitations.
Optical microscopy is heavily reliant on the knowledge and skill of the individual performing the test and, as it uses visual identification rather than analytical techniques, it is subject to human error. Although FTIR is a more analytical method, it too has several drawbacks. The identification of a material using FTIR relies upon comparison of the spectra obtained to a known library which, by its very nature, limits the analysis to the scope of the library used. Furthermore, although specific peaks can be looked for to detect the presence of certain substances, this is not always a straightforward process. For instance, studies have shown that collagen obtained from different tendon types can give slightly different FTIR spectra, so this would need to be considered when analysing the results.
Other techniques offer the potential for more in-depth analysis of animal products in consumer goods. These include DNA and protein analysis techniques which test for the presence of animal substances at a molecular level. The DNA analysis is carried out by extracting molecules of DNA from the material being tested and amplifying it using a technique called ‘Polymerase Chain Reaction’ (PCR). The resulting DNA is then analysed for the presence of certain genetic markers which would indicate the presence of animal substances. This method can even be used to determine the species from which the substance is derived, by comparing the genetic code to known DNA sequences. Although this technique may seem to offer a robust means of verification, it is not commonly used at present. In part, this is because the testing is quite niche, with few commercial laboratories currently able to offer the service, and it is also more expensive than the screening tests.
In addition, DNA analysis is not a fool-proof means of demonstrating that a product is vegan friendly, as DNA is quite unstable in the environment. This is a particular problem for heavily-processed goods such as leather because, during the tanning process, the hide is subjected to a number of chemical treatments which can damage the molecules within the DNA. Testing for the presence of animal proteins may offer a more reliable method, as proteins are generally more stable than DNA, and hence are more likely to be detected if present. However, the application of protein analysis for vegan verification is still in the early stages, and is not yet a commonly-used method. Currently, the preferred approach to vegan verification appears to be using a combination of supplier declarations and audits alongside basic screening testing, with more in-depth DNA analysis available for use to confirm a positive result.
The future of vegan products
While at present the vegan footwear industry is in its early stages, it is likely that this will see significant growth as the vegan lifestyle gains popularity. One of the key influences in the rise of veganism has undoubtedly been the response of the food industry. In the not-too-distant past, vegetarian and vegan meal options were quite limited, but recent years have seen a rapid increase in the availability and diversity of plant-based foods. With the emerging demand for vegan-friendly footwear and clothing, we can expect to see a similar growth trend in these sectors, as brand owners seek to expand the range of vegan options they can offer.
This allows for exciting opportunities, but it also raises many challenges, as companies seeking to produce vegan items must have a means of validating their claims. At present, this can be difficult to achieve, and the majority of organisations rely on supplier declarations and screening testing. However, it is likely that the growing interest in these services will drive new developments in this field, and that we will see the development of a number of more robust testing strategies in the near future.
As well as having implications for the testing industry, the expanding market for vegan products is also likely to drive innovations in materials sciences. Many of the vegan products currently on the market are produced using synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels, such as the use of polyurethane (PU) as an alternative to leather. Although these are not derived from animals, it can be argued that they nonetheless have the potential to impact upon animal welfare, particularly regarding disposal at the end of the product’s lifespan. Concerns over such materials have already led to some interesting research on organic, plant-based leather alternatives, which would be much more sustainable to produce and have less of an environmental impact after disposal.
In spite of the difficulties faced by brand owners wishing to claim that their products are vegan-friendly, there is no doubting the potential offered if such challenges can be overcome. With veganism becoming ever more popular as a lifestyle choice, this is a very exciting time, with new innovations set to revolutionise the footwear industry and develop vegan products into a highly lucrative market.
How can we help?
Please email email@example.com for help with the production of vegan-friendly footwear.
This article was originally published on page 14 of the July/August 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.
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