In fashion’s long, storied history, sustainability is a relatively new chapter—maybe even just a few pages. Once reserved for hemp necklaces, canvas shoes, and all-beige everything, ethical fashion has nonetheless come a long way. Heads of luxury groups are voicing their concerns about global warming, fast-fashion chains like H&M are doing their part to educate consumers, and designers like Stella McCartney have built their entire businesses on sustainability and vegan collections. In 2017, it’s easier than ever to kit out your wardrobe with organic linen dresses, low-water-waste jeans, and handcrafted sweaters that support artisan groups in Mexico—but what about shoes? Even vegetarians might cop to wearing leather shoes, because what other options do you have?
Faux-leather and fabric shoes exist, but it can be difficult to find a pair that’s high quality and stylish, too. Below, we talked to three companies that are doing ethical shoes their way, whether it’s with responsibly sourced leather or vegan textiles. The common denominator? They’re all practical and chic—not crunchy. Read on to discover your new go-to pair.
Rafa: Colorful, 100% vegan shoes made in Los Angeles.
At first glance, you’d never guess Rafa shoes were actually vegan. Those pink suede boots! The acid-green heels! Creative director Taghrid Chaaban Zorob started Rafa in Los Angeles in 2015 with the simple goal of creating “classic silhouettes that were comfortable, beautiful, ethically produced, and made in the USA.” The shoes are made of vegan textiles like faux-suede, velvet, and plush tapestry fabrics. “I worked in the fashion industry for 10 years and found a real gap in the market for beautiful yet sustainably produced footwear,” she tells Vogue. “Shoe production touches so many different parts of our environment that are more damaging than we think. The actual factories use up tons of energy and output waste into the environment; the leather materials are derived from farms that not only abuse animals, but also require a cocktail of harmful chemicals to tan leather; and then we have to ship these goods, often by sea, which deposits more chemicals in our ocean, to get them to consumers in the U.S. for really low prices,” she explains. “The industry, as it is currently, encourages damaging our environment and taking advantage of people in parts of the world where the worker has few rights. We are strongly against these practices, and do everything we can to operate in an ethical matter.”
Rafa shoes are cool, arty, and subtly statement-making, and it’s just a nice bonus that they’re good for the earth, too. But putting out that message can be tricky, especially for a small business. “We are a slow fashion company, and we make special items that are good for people and good for the earth. That often takes a lot longer to deliver than the regular shoe companies out there,” Chaaban Zorob says. “Amazon has transformed [the customer’s] expectations for instant gratification, and it’s hard to deal with that in a way that also minimizes damage to our environment.” You’ll find Rafa shoes at Assembly, Reformation, and several other retailers as well as online at RafaUSA.com.
Nisolo: Ethically-sourced leather shoes that support craftsmen in Peru.
After visiting Trujillo, the shoemaking capital of Peru, and meeting talented shoemakers who couldn’t get their goods to the international marketplace, Patrick Woodyard and Zoe Cleary launched Nisolo to support the local craftsmen and promote a more sustainable fashion industry. Based in Nashville, with a main factory in Peru, Nisolo only uses leather that is a by-product of the meat industry and follows eco-friendly waste disposal practices. It’s also sustainable on a human level: Nisolo now has nearly 200 employees who are paid beyond fair wages, receive health care, and work in a healthy environment. “The majority of our products come from the factory that we own and have built from the ground up to serve as an example for the industry—an industry that is now the second most pollutive industry in the world and is plagued with injustice throughout the global supply chain,” Cleary and Woodyard tell Vogue. “This has resulted in an average income increase of over 140 percent for producers in our factory and 173 percent for women.”
As for the shoes, you’ll find simply chic mules, ’60s-inspired huaraches, classic oxfords, and ballet flats. “It can be a challenge to be known for both exceptional design and sustainable practices,” Cleary and Woodyard say. “We place just as much importance on the impact of our production as we do on the design of our products. This puts us at a natural disadvantage, because we’re not looking to cut corners, but instead, strive to do things the right way. That being said, we’re encouraged by the caliber of brands and designers coming onto the scene right now who place as much value on ethical production as they do design. Consumers have purchasing power, and we think, if we work together, the brands not focusing on sustainability will be left in the dust by future generations. That makes the current challenges we face worth it.”
And if you’re curious about their Nashville roots, you might want to keep the city in mind: “Nashville is home to the largest concentration of designers and fashion brands outside of New York and Los Angeles, so collaboration and inspiration are just a step outside of our door,” they add. “We’ve found that being part of an underdog community is actually an advantage, as Nashville brands are forced to stay on the cutting edge of the desires of future consumers.” You’ll find Nisolo shoes on its website, Nisolo.com.
Toms x & Other Stories: The ultimate charitable, stylish, and affordable collaboration.
We know, we know—Toms aren’t new, and maybe you’ve never been interested in its super-simple, original alpargatas silhouette. But the company’s latest collaboration with the cool, price-conscious retailer & Other Stories is worth a second look. The embroidered desert boots, tasseled espadrilles, and leather sandals are exactly the kind of thing you’d want to wear for a music festival or a day in Malibu. It doesn’t hurt that the preternaturally chic Erin Wasson was tapped to model them in the campaign—her beachy dresses are Toms x & Other Stories, too. Similar textiles, colors, and embroideries are mirrored in the clothes, and proceeds from the collection will benefit Magic Bus and its efforts to support English language classes for young women in India. And, as always, for each pair of shoes purchased, Toms will donate a new pair of shoes to a child in need. You’ll find them on Stories.com.