Updated: Jul 18, 2022
Manufacturers of sustainable clothes and footwear typically follow one of three paths to minimizing the environmental cost of their products.
The first is to manufacture goods created from natural materials that can in turn return to nature via a process of relatively rapid biodegradation. This is commonly termed ‘cradle to grave’ thinking and has permeated industrial design from office furniture to the automotive industry.
The second pathway involves utilizing pre-existing waste pathways to re-introduce waste products into new and innovative products. The ubiquitous ‘recycled bottle fleece’, for instance, has come to define this approach.
The third approach is designing products that can be used and maintained for as long as possible, minimizing the long-term environmental cost. This is the route that fine men’s footwear has, perhaps inadvertently, come to be associated with a more sustainable way of life.
Although unintentional, many of the processes in the making of fine footwear — such as oak bark tanning and the utilization of byproducts (raw-hides) from the meat industry — have some environmental benefits compared to more industrial manufacturing processes. Others, such as the glues and tanning chemicals used, are more inherently damaging.
The purpose of this article is to deconstruct the environmental cost of various components of men’s fine footwear. This way, we could more accurately assess the cost-benefits of investing in quality shoes from an environmental standpoint.
Given the vastness of the shoe industry, the multiplicity of manufacturing processes used, and the inability to address all environmental, social, and welfare concerns involved, this article merely seeks to be an introduction into the sustainability of men’s welted footwear and is in no way comprehensive.
This article will focus on three main components of shoes; the construction, the uppers leather, and other materials used, and what to expect at all three levels of investment.
Notably, this write-up and the following individual shoe style guides seek to present sustainable options that are both geographical and economically accessible to all. As such, it will present three levels of price: Attainable (below $400 USD), Advanced (400-800 USD), and Aspirational (over 800 USD).
These price brackets should indicate that good shoes are inherently costly, due to the quality materials and skilled workmanship required to craft them.
This is arguably the area that provides the greatest longevity to the shoe in practice. Whilst many forms of construction are used in footwear, this section will focus on four main methods that enable a relatively easy resoling of shoes.
Resoling is the easiest way to guarantee years of service from one’s footwear, and the ability to do so is central for true shoe sustainability. The methods investigated in the following all involve some combination of stitching and gluing the soles in place, ensuring a strong bond that will not fail in general use.
The first method is most commonly seen in very casual shoes such as sneakers and boat shoes. It is called a ‘cup-sole’ construction and involves a one-piece molded sole with high sidewalls that is glued (cemented) to the insole, and then stitched along the sides of the upper to ensure strength and durability.
As the uppers are simply pulled around the insole and glued in place, this provides a very low-profile shape to the shoe. The construction can have a thin layer of foam (such as Poron) or cork as a midsole, or none at all.
The best models utilize a thick leather insole similar to welted shoes, although many use a leather board or other composite material. The insoles used in a particular shoe have a large bearing on their long-term comfort and ability to take the shape of the wearer’s foot, and could be considered the ‘backbone of a shoe. Even in shoes with a cup-sole construction, look for the highest quality insole (sometimes also referred to as a lasting board) to ensure longevity.
While resoling cup-soled shoes is a relatively simple operation, many cobblers have little to no experience with the procedure. Look for a skilled repair person with the right materials on hand to carry out this task.
The second method that could be recommended for long-lasting shoes is the Blake-rapid construction. This differs from the more common Blake construction in several ways that allow both increased water protection and a more straightforward resoling process.
On the one hand, a standard Blake stitched shoe involves a specialized machine that stitches the outsole (typically leather) directly to the Insole. This allows for a very minimal profile, and immediate flexibility, but the stitch-holes in the sole allow water ingress. The machine needed to restitch the soles is also not commonly available to most cobblers.
Meanwhile, the Blake rapid process solves these issues by utilizing that outsole as a midsole and using the edges of that midsole as a welt of sorts. This allows the attachment of an outer sole similar to a Goodyear welted shoe, which allows easier replacement with an outsole stitching machine. The outsole also blocks any water migrating through the sole. Of course, the extra layer of leather slightly enlarges the sleek profile, but it is a small price to pay.
Another factor to consider is that in high-quality Blake-rapid stitched shoes, there will be three layers of leather underfoot; insole, midsole, and outsole. While these layers will naturally conform slightly to ones’ foot, they will not mold in the same manner as the thicker cork midsole found in the next two construction options.
This method of construction still holds merit in lighter Continental style loafers and summer shoes, but with the advent of very affordable Goodyear welted shoes, they lose traction somewhat in most other styles.
Goodyear welting has become something of a byword for quality in the men’s footwear space. While the construction method has some significant benefits in terms of comfort and longevity, it is not a silver bullet and does have some drawbacks, particularly at the more affordable level.
Contrary to popular belief, this method of welting was actually invented by August Destroy in 1862, rather than Charles Goodyear Jr. of Goodyear Tires fame. Like most stories of innovation go, Destroy’s invention was handily scooped up by the vulcanization mogul in a clever bit of market cornering. (One might imagine a possible reality where shoe lovers of the world swoon over the Destroy welt…)
The entirely mechanized process involves the gluing of a canvas rib — gemming — around the bottom of the insole, upon which the uppers and a thin strip of leather called a welt are stitched. The void on the bottom of the insole is filled with cork, and the outsole is stitched around the perimeter of the welt. Variations of welts are known as split, reverse or storm welts.
The welt itself can follow the entirety of the shoe’s perimeter (360-degree welt), or around the toe of the shoe from the base of the heel (270-degree welt). The outsole can easily be replaced, and the thick cork midsole provides a huge amount of comfort by allowing the leather insole to conform over time to the wearer’s foot. The fact that this process is entirely mechanized allows production at scale; and is, perhaps, the reason why it has become such a popular construction in recent years.
The welting can be replaced by competent cobblers, although the canvas rib could be seen as a potential source of weakness in the design. Only after decades of hard wear would this likely be a problem, but with particularly durable uppers like Cordovan, it could pose an issue. Shoes made with this method hold a certain visual (and actual) weight. At the affordable level, shoes made in this way can be challenging to break in due to the inflexibility of the more affordable, but less supple leathers used.
The final method of construction is likely only to be encountered at the highest levels of ready-to-wear footwear, although several enterprising brands are starting to introduce it into lower-priced made-to-order lines. We are, of course, speaking about hand-welting.
Prior to the mechanization of the Goodyear welting process, this was the main method for producing quality shoes; and remains the gold standard for construction methods. It is a highly skilled and laborious process that involves carving a thick leather insole to form a base to which the uppers and welt are hand-sewn onto, in essence taking the best features from both Blake Rapid and Goodyear welting.
The outsole is sewn in a similar fashion to Goodyear welting, although this is often done by hand, another very skilled and time-consuming operation. The result is a shoe that can be lasted (stretched onto its form) very precisely, finished beautifully, resoled easily, and has no discernable points of failure. Hand-welted shoes typically have tell-tale stitch indentations on the insole.
Moving on from hand-welting, various other methods of construction exist; including Veldschoen, Bolognese, Goyser, Norwegian, and many more. While these styles all have their own benefits, the differences are largely aesthetic as opposed to longevity-focused and are better covered in other online resources, such as the excellent guide at the Misiu Academy
Entry Level Goodyear-welted shoes (Photo from Meermin)
What to expect at the Affordable (less than $400 USD) level
Somewhat astoundingly, in today’s buyer-preferencing market, all of the aforementioned construction methods can be found in this price range, although with various concessions to quality.
For cup-sole constructed shoes, you should expect the highest quality possible; with Margom (or equivalent high-quality rubber) outsoles and fully leather insoles, cork filler and properly lasted uppers.
Blake Rapid shoes will be available from many brands — most likely with the exception of the designer category, however — and should have fully veg-tanned insoles with leather or rubber outsoles for longevity.
Goodyear welted shoes in this category are likely where one starts to see some corners having to be cut to meet the price. One should still expect a thick leather insole, robust canvas gemming, cork midsole, and full leather welt. It is possible for some manufacturers to produce shoes with high-end branded rubber or oak-bark tanned outsoles in this price range, but it is perhaps the exception to the rule.
Hand-welted shoes in this price range are a far trickier proposition. Brands manufacturing in East and Southeast Asia — with Meermin being a notable example — have been able to produce ranges with a hand-sewn welt, although they tend to have machine-stitched and finished soles. Also, be mindful that such a significant input cost might be compensated for elsewhere on the shoe, such as upper leather. In this price range, seeking the highest quality uppers is the priority over handwork.
What to expect at the Advanced ($400 -$800 USD) level
One should be seeking very fine Goodyear welted or more basic hand-welted footwear. While it is possible to find cup-soled and Blake rapid construction shoes, these are mainly found on shoes whose primary attraction is the brand name on the box.
Here the most respected Goodyear welted shoes can be found, with many variations of full leather welt, thick buffed veg-tanned insoles, and Oak-Bark tanned or Dainite branded outsoles. Some manufacturers, such as Alden, even include a more sturdy ‘triple rib shank’ and canvas reinforcement for the gemming. Again though, these may reflect deficiencies of make in other areas. Look for fully leather heel counters, stacks, and natural shank materials at this level.
Hand-welted shoes also start to get interesting at this level. Several manufacturers, largely from Italy, Hungary, and Spain, have very interesting shoes in this price range. High-quality uppers, hand-welted over attractive lasts, and usually machine stitched to quality outsoles — this is the domain of the true aficionado. Although as with many things, it is very easy for prices to escalate quickly into the next price range. Look for all of the same features as with Goodyear welted at this price.
What to expect at the Aspirational (Over $800 USD) level
Here, artistry eclipses function, as all of the benefits of Goodyear and hand welting have been reached.
Some manufacturers, such as Gaziano and Girling, step up the quality of materials to their zenith by using J&FJ Baker insoles, outsoles, and counters. Others use the inherent benefits of the hand-welting process to beautify the shoes to the highest degree.
While it can be argued that the shoes available in this price range do not necessarily have an inherently longer life than others purely from a construction perspective, as will be examined shortly, construction only forms a part of a finished shoe.
Undoubtedly, upper leathers constitute a significant cost of the final shoe, as customers ordering custom uppers in a made-to-order program can no doubt attest.
Manufacturers pride themselves on the materials used in uppers, and will often advertise the tannery used, particularly in the affordable range. If a manufacturer utilizes hides from established European tanneries, you can be reasonably assured that the leather is produced in an environmentally conscious way due to the tight legislation that governs this industry. It always pays for the end consumer to investigate the leather used to ensure respectable tannery practices, but generally, buying higher-end footwear ensures a quality tannery.
Most leathers used for high-quality shoes are sourced from Western-European tanneries, traditionally French, Italian, and German. There remain several English and American tanneries, and some rising stars in Japan.
Changes to European legislation over the years have caused the closure or movement of even the most famous tanneries producing high-quality upper leathers. The German Freudenberg tannery is one such prominent example, with the tannery moving to Poland and changing its name to Weinheimer. This was largely due to the tightening of environmental standards surrounding the aniline dying process of box calf, for which the tannery was famous.
Upper leathers made using these aniline-dyed, chrome-tanned processes do have a wonderful smoothness and luster but are perhaps one of the most chemically-intensive leathers to produce. (Something to keep in mind for fans of Black cap-toe Oxfords…)
This said, most well-known tanneries used in high-end footwear have closed-loop environmental waste systems that process contaminants out of the wastewater before returning it to the source.
Tanning — especially the vegetable variant — is an inherently water-intensive process, and most traditional tanneries were located alongside rivers for this reason. Some, such as the esteemed J&FJ Baker tannery in Devon, still use the river to power the tanning process via a 400-year-old water wheel mechanism.
Suede typically follows the same processes as chrome-tanned upper leathers, but is then split and sanded, then re-tanned. Notably, even the highest quality suedes use this process; and this is, therefore, one reason why there may be a cost-benefit argument for minimizing expenditure on suede footwear.
In several very high-end suedes known as reversed calf suede, the full-grain is maintained intact on the inner side of the skin. A famous version of this is the aptly-named Janus suede by famous British Tannery C.F. Stead. This full-grain profile is similar to the heavier ‘roughout’ leathers used in some work boots.
Elsewhere, the carbon miles for any leather upper should also be a consideration. It is not uncommon for a hide to travel from a tannery in the USA, to be manufactured in Spain, and then sent to a store in Hong Kong, only to be then purchased by an internet shopper in Australia.
A globalized world brings enormous possibilities for the savvy web surfer but has hidden consequences for the composition of the atmosphere. It can be extremely challenging to find a shoe constructed from totally local materials until one reaches the upper echelons of the bespoke process.
Finally, although we hope that our footwear can last our lifetime, sometimes shoe uppers are just too worn out to be used further. In this case, it is important to dispose of shoes in a mindful way.
For instance, the trivalent chromium used in tanning uppers leather can become the hazardous Hexavalent Chromium when burned, and as such, all shoes should be disposed of into a waste stream that eliminates the possibility of burning.
The best disposal option would be to visit the local cobbler, as they typically have methods of collecting waste leather for reprocessing into ‘leather-board’ (think leather cardboard) or similar composite materials.
(For a fantastic discussion of the relative environmental benefits of the leather tanning process, see Jesper Ingevaldsson’s interview with Jacques Kress of Tannerie Haas on the Shoegazing podcast.)
Du Puy's famous country grain (Photo from Skolyx)
What to expect at the Affordable (less than $400 USD) level
Young, up-and-coming footwear producers are the first to shout about the leather used in the uppers of their shoes and boots. Famous Tanneries such as Horween, Annonay, Weinheimer, and C.F. Stead are used for their associations with higher-end brands.
What really makes the difference, however, is both the quality of the leather used and how the hide is clicked (cut) to avoid defects. Even the best, most renowned tanneries produce a range of qualities from unblemished first grade, to less perfect second grade and more. The more established brands have access to the best hides first - although often after luxury handbag makers - with more of the second-grade skins going to more accessible makers.
Then, as a consequence of the need to utilize more of the hide, the skins are clicked less selectively (maybe 4-5 shoes per hide), and may include more natural blemishes. That is not to say that these shoes will last any less time, rather that they may not be aesthetically perfect.
This is when suedes and grain de-bossed leathers are at their most useful in producing high-quality footwear at a reasonable price point. Look for Tanneries Du Puy's country grain and CF Stead’s Repello suede for a fantastic value in this segment. Some of the aniline-dyed box black calfskin, such as Weinheimer can be quite consistent at this level too.
What to expect at the Advanced ($400 -$800 USD) level
This is the level at which consistently flaw-free uppers from established tanneries might be expected. Burnishable calf leathers such as Haas’s Nevada, stunning crust leathers such as Annonay’s Vegano, and Ilcea’s famous museum calf leathers are at their best here.
Coupled with the availability provided to more established manufacturers at this level, the hides are more heavily scrutinized, with maybe only two or three shoes being taken from a hide. While the aesthetic beauty of the hides will increase in quality, the thicker grain and suede leathers might still be more resilient over the long term.
Fully vegetable-tanned upper leathers are more commonly found at this level, and this might appeal to those with concerns over the chrome tanning process. Even white, highly finished leathers for sneakers, which were traditionally only chrome-tanned, can now be found with metal-free tannage from brands like Vekla. It is still relatively uncommon to find full-grain suede leathers (reverse calf) in this price range, nevertheless.
What to expect at the Aspirational (Over $800 USD) level