People can disagree as to whether it’s moral to slaughter cows for the purposes of consuming their flesh.
What is not up for debate is that the planet does not have the water to sustain cattle consumption at its current demand for very much longer.
It may take years for many to wean themselves off meat, but there may be other ways to de-bovine our consuming selves in the meantime.
In other words, if people aren’t ready for the Impossible Whopper or Beyond Burger, maybe they’re ready for the beyond shoe.
That’s in the market space attracting brands like Grounded People, the Vancouver-based company that launched Christmas Eve last year, went public in October, is trading on the Canadian ticker as SHOE and in early 2023 will be introducing its first boot made entirely of vegan leather.
“It reproduces the character of natural cowhide, but it’s made from a microfiber,” said Grounded People founder and CEO Max Justus. “It’s 100 percent waterproof, extremely breathable, eco-friendly and water resistant.”
In its first year, Grounded People has sold shoes from its website and popup events and vegan-themed festivals, made of 100 percent recycled cotton that’s canvas-like in feel.
“For our winter boot we wanted it durable enough to stand up to Canadian winters and we needed to pick a different material other than recycled cotton,” Justus said. “We’re really excited we were able to source this new material.”
The microfiber, OnMicro, is produced by the Spanish company Grupo Morón, which patented a nanoflash technology that it says has made the process of replicating leather seamless—literally.
“There are no seams, therefore there are no breaks in something that no longer exists,” the company says on its website. “The new production process that this technology offers eliminates the seams of shoes and extends their life cycle. By removing the weakest areas of the product, the product is more durable.”
While the OnMicro vegan leather shoe will be a first for Grounded People, it’s far from the first for the industry. Even celebs like Leonardo DiCaprio are backing vegan shoe brands. The hole in the bag for many vegan leathers—at least for those truly trying to earn their sustainability badge—is that they are routinely coated in polyurethane to create the look and feel of leather. Polyurethane is anything but biodegradable, but finding a practical alternative to it is challenging, though a newer Allbirds shoe, for one, uses plant-based plastic free materials in its leather knockoff. On its website, Grounded People says there are ways to mitigate the amount of chemicals released with a “strictly controlled chemical process.”
“We will be using polyurethane, but we offer a program on our site for circular fashion,” Justus said. “People can send their shoes to us once they’re finished with them and we will break them down and take it to the appropriate places it needs to go. We will provide them with a discount on their new shoes as well. We find that in creating a new product you need to provide people the opportunity to recycle accordingly.”
Justus said the world of vegan leather is such a bold, new expanse, discoveries are being made that can limit, or eventually eliminate altogether the need for vinyl chemicals of any kind.
“There are alternatives out there, such as mushroom or pineapple husk or apple—that’s the great thing about the industry we’re in,” Justus said. “We’re at the pinnacle of innovation for people in fashion. There are so many varieties of materials we can use that are not negatively affecting the environment, so why not do these things? What’s the point in treating animals this way? They’re slaughtered to use their skin—it’s disgusting. If there are alternative things we can do, if there are textiles that can be innovative, this is our chance to make a difference. Let’s make a change and disrupt the norm.”
Grounded People is working with Retraced to give consumers complete transparency into the the journey of each shoe from factory floor to distribution center.
“It’s essentially a blockchain for fashion. It shows every single origin of the materials,” Justus said. “It’s full transparency and we think more companies should show full transparency to clients… that way, less people are being taken advantage of in the supply chain.”
Part of sustainability bona fides includes fair labor practices, and Justus said his company is putting its money where its mouth is in that regard, too at its plant in Franca, Brazil, 400 miles inland from Sao Paulo, that claims to be the only all-vegan factory in the world.
“When people think about a cruelty-free product, like a vegan winter boot, they think about what it’s made from but they’re not thinking about who is making it as well,” Justus said. “We pay over 50 percent [more than] the national average at our facility in Brazil, and through our partnership we are able to improve the quality of life for the artisans creating our products.”
Ultimately, the fight for animal welfare, the sustainability of the planet and worker rights is a fight against the rise of fast fashion. To Justus’ mind, that bond is greater than any competition in the vegan shoe market space.
“When we started it wasn’t as populated with vegan suppliers, but I do believe there’s no such thing as unhealthy competition. We all have the same goal in mind—sustainability and moving forward with fashion, but not fast fashion,” he said. “As more brands like us pop up, hopefully some of the larger brands will take notice. We’re all pushing in the same direction.”
Despite the gains in sustainable fashion, fast fashion is growing faster and faster. Justus concedes the battle is a long one, but one that can’t be surrendered.
“It’s going to be a long road to unwind, but the more people become aware of the situation and educate themselves they’ll realize they can vote with their money. Who do I want to support?” Justus said. “But you don’t know what you don’t know and most people don’t know, so we need to put forward education and give them the opportunity to make the right decision, in my opinion.”
But most consumers will only make purchases out of protest or moral conviction for so long. Eventually, the better mousetrap is the better mousetrap and Justus is convinced vegan leather is already superior to cowhide.
“From my experience, [vegan leather] is more durable because with water, [cow] leather can be broken and if you don’t take good care of it it will start to wear,” Justus said. “Most people think vegan shoes are made from a heavy plastic, but we pick all the materials we source… We make sure it’s comfortable, stylish, sustainable, durable—all the things we had in mind when we were creating this product.”
With distribution centers already outside of Toronto and in Washington state, Grounded People plans on opening its first European center in Slovakia.
Justus says the future of vegan footwear is so bright, he could easily envision an NBA star endorsing and playing in a pair of shoes made of anything but the skin of an animal within the next few years.
“The more these things become mainstream, the more opportunity people will have to invest or capitalize—this is all part of just the opening conversations,” Justus said. “In the last two years we’ve seen it come so far and I’m excited where we’re at right now, in position to be one of those premier brands.”