Shoes get a lot of abuse. They have to walk through puddles in the rain, they get scuffed, they generally have an entire body's weight pressing into their soles. In the days before I had an obscene amount of shoes, I would wear through a good few pairs in a year (now, very few pairs get enough airing to get seriously worn). Shoes are pretty important as regards comfort, hygiene, not getting pneumonia and not getting lovely bits of glass lodged into our soles, but I've been questioning the ethical pros and cons of different kinds of shoes recently.
First up is leather. Leather is very resilient, waterproof and generally don't take no shit from nobody. It's a natural material too, so less harmful to ye olde environment and good for tootsie-hygiene. However, I'm a veggie. The veggie-dom is more out of habit now than anything, I renounced meat at about age 12 because I wuvved fwuffy widdle animals and thought it was the right thing for an animal-lover to do. Vegetarianism is an ethical minefield and I'll probably make a post on it some time, but simply put, after so many years of not eating meat it just seems a really odd thing to eat by now. I would never stop someone else from tucking into a nice steak, just like they wouldn't stop me from listening to Einsturzende Neubauten even if they thought that it was a really odd thing to listen to. So what's the toss-up? Should we refrain from buying leather as a symbolic pro-animal rights stance (because, as far as I'm informed, the hides used for leather are a by-product of the meat industry and not vice versa) or is it better to buy the more resilient material when we need to replace some worn-out shoes and cut down on consumerism?
Number two is natural fabrics - cotton etc. Natural materials are quite obviously better for nature in both manufacture and disposal. Problem is, with cloth shoes, there's a lot of disposal. They don't survive the rain, they don't survive the mud, they don't survive long walks and they don't survive many washings. There are a lot of (human) ethical issues too - the cotton trade isn't always the most fairly traded of trades (oh dear, the word 'trade' has now lost all meaning to me) and farmed en masse it isn't going to be so nice for the soil. The soles are often man-made (see below) which opens up another can of worms. However, lots clothes are made of natural fabrics and it's easy enough to buy environmentally non-hostile clothing. The main issue with fabric shoes is the excessive amount of them that would have to be consumed in order to keep up with the resilience of leather.
Finally, we have man-made materials. Vinyl, synthetic leather, plastic-based stuff. Fairly resilient but not so environmentally-friendly when it comes to manufacturing or disposal. On a hygiene level it's a bit dodgy too, but BO doesn't really come into ethics, unless you smell bad enough to wipe out a small country.
Most of my shoe collection is cloth and man-made, with a small amount of leather (old school shoes, my docs and a pair of heels or two). On the whole I would conclude cloth shoes as the most ethically sound but when it comes to hardcore walking they're not really going to last. Cloth works well for fashion purposes, but for wear-and-tear investing in well-made leather (I swear by my docs) or very strong synthetics is probably better in the long run than buying pair after pair after pair of cloth shoes every time you go on a city holiday, or get caught in a storm, or go on a hike. What's everyone else's opinion? Does anyone know of a strong, environmentally non-hostile ('cause in reality, nothing is really environmentally friendly) synthetic material?