Hi Umbra,

As a devoted vegetarian, I try to make it a point to avoid leather footwear. However, after too many hours of deep thought on the subject, I am now conflicted about the environmental ramifications of my choice to buy processed petroleum shoes, i.e., pleather. Leather is, after all, a natural material; pleather is plastic. So is it better for the environment to put aside my veggie ethics in favor of a natural material, even if it took loads of petroleum to grow the corn that fed the cow? Or are the plastic materials a better use of our natural resources?

KC Needs New Boots
Hauppauge, N.Y.

Dearest KC,

I have now joined you in too many hours of deep thought on this subject. Sadly, I could not find a simple answer out there in Life Cycle Analysis Land, and this leads me to believe that The Issue Is Complicated. Instead of an easy answer, we may just have to adopt some harm-reduction techniques.

Control your inner Imelda.

Photo: iStockphoto

Shoes are difficult. They have short life spans in general, especially in wealthier countries, because they are a fashion item — wealthy people in wealthy nations throw away millions of shoes every year. Environmentalism on the shoe frontier involves not only choosing which items to buy, but cleaning up places where materials are manufactured, such as tanneries; reducing the use of toxic materials, such as vinyl; and finding a way to keep shoes out of the waste stream. There are interesting efforts to keep shoes out of landfills, including recycling programs and efforts toward biodegradability. Shoe reuse is of course a good idea, but there is also a concern about piles of donated shoes eventually migrating to poorer nations, where they become someone else’s landfill problem.

Shoes are usually a mix of many materials: 40 materials in a typical shoe, don’t you know. Pollutants derived from the making of a shoe could include dioxin, volatile organic compounds, solvents, chromium, hide waste effluent, and isocyanates. If you purchase synthetic shoes, you avoid the chromium and hide waste effluent, and reduce the market for animal hides. But it is likely that you are then increasing the market for vinyl, and contributing to the production of dioxin. Are pollutants affiliated with the tanning industry worse per shoe than dioxins from vinyl? Maybe so. But I cannot confirm this slight guess with any data, so let’s move on to harm-reduction techniques.

Very simply, I would suggest looking about for shoes that are marketed as “green” or “environmentally friendly,” and then examining the claims for substantiation. Patagonia is of course developing a line of such shoes, with various natural rubbers and leathers from factories certified by an independent agency, and we just wrote about the vegan line endorsed by Natalie Portman. Those are just two examples. Europe now has an eco-label scheme with a shoe category, but when I checked there was no way to buy the shoes direct from the dealers. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals provides a “cruelty-free” clothing list; obviously the shoes therein are leather-free, and most of the materials are listed, so it may be possible to avoid vinyl. It looks as if hemp is making footie inroads. Used shoes may be an option, too, and needless to say will be much cheaper than eco-shoes — and I don’t think they carry the same political weight as secondhand fur.

The second aspect of our shoe carefulness is to rein in any inner Imelda Marcos and limit our new shoe purchases. We should also dispose of our unwanted shoes carefully, perhaps giving them to the Nike Reuse a Shoe program if feasible, or passing them on to a thrift store.