The History & Sustainable Future of Footwear

The History & Sustainable Future of Footwear

Sandals. Sneakers. Flats. Heels. Wedges. Stilettos. Loafers. T-straps. Flip-Flops, yada yada. Human beings have been pretty innovative with their footwear.

It’s been 40,000 years since humans have been wearing footwear. 

Of course, unlike us, the paleolithic man probably didn’t care about the new Steve Madden stilettos that made his legs look good. He threw on some animal skins and was good to go. Probably didn’t spend a tonne of time figuring out his outfit every morning - “Does my deer skin dress clash with my bear skin shoes, honey?”. Nah, it was all about functionality.

As social structures began to form, we moved on to more and more modern footwear that slowly became about aesthetics as well.

From the lacy sandals worn by Roman-era soldiers to the long pointed poulaines that were all the rage in Europe during the Middle Ages, it is interesting to note how footwear was also used to divide people into social hierarchies.

The more the lace in your sandals, the higher ranking a soldier you were. The more long and pointy your shoes, the higher was your social class. Heck, during the Renaissance Period, European kings would wave around their dicks heels to see whose was bigger.

Heels were worn primarily by men for centuries. Infact, heels have been a predominant part of mens fashion longer than they have been of womens. The Persians started it (to keep their feet in place while horse riding) & the Europeans emulated them to seem powerful. & eventually they became a status symbol.

You may notice I’ve been focusing on men’s shoes primarily so far. But, that’s because women almost everywhere were subjugated to ‘modesty’ for most of these years; their feet were hidden and their shoes unimportant and plain. Men, on the other hand, flexed their legs and their footwear.

Except China, where they applied a system of ‘bound feet’ (where my ICSE peeps at!) to ascertain attractiveness and superiority. Of course, that means that they crushed and tied the toes of little girls in the name of style, so I suppose the subjugation still applies.

Europe then had their Baroque period. This is something I have learned about while doing my research for this article too & am I glad I did! 

The Baroque started in the early 17th century and lasted until the mid-1700s. Now I can’t say I am qualified to be giving any legitimate commentary on European art and architecture, but nothing screamed EXTRA like the Baroque. Exuberant, ornamental, dramatic and focusing on shock value, their footwear reflected that too. 

They used extravagant amounts of wood, silk, velvet, satin, gemstones, rhinestones, embroidery, anything they could find that would basically look very Rihanna-at-Met-Gala. Women’s shoes now got fancy too - because they wanted to be more ‘manly’.

While all this was happening in Europe, India was having its own footwear evolution. It’s hard to chronologically map out the different eras of footwear in India like we did with Europe, but almost every ancient text in the area has been mentioning footwear since 2500 BC. Buddha even laid down guidelines for what type of footwear was acceptable to Buddhist monks!

Leather was less popular in India though, and shoes & strapped sandals were usually made of wood, metal and plant fibres. 

The Mughal royalty in Northern India however loved their embroidered leather juttis with gemstones and long pointy ends, too. Paduks (the slippers with the strap over the big toe) were worn by gurus and the common folk. With all the booming trade, European & Asian influences on each other are quite evident even if you just look at photos of the shoes.

The Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Footwear

It was only in this era (circa 19th century) that womens and mens shoes started becoming distinct.  

& sadly, men wearing high heels stopped being commonplace. Damn you Industrial Revolution!

With modern sewing machines, the mass production of footwear began. And by the mid 1800s, the shoes of the left & right foot finally became different. 

Footwear became more and more about aesthetics and style as people began to own many pairs. But, by World War 1, plain and simple Oxford shoes for women became popular as it was a period of practicality and mourning.

And then came the rise of American pop culture - where quality mattered less, and cheap variety mattered more. That is where we’re still at for the most part. 

There have been changes in trends, new styles come in and go, but what remains constant is this - like fashion, we produce and buy more footwear than we need. 

Carrie’s shoe obsession on Sex and The City may have been cute on TV, but we’ve gotta find less destructive creative outlets. 


Well, the shoe industry emits 700 million metric tonnes of CO2 each year, accounting for one-fifth of total garment sector emissions.

At least 300 million pairs of footwear are discarded each year - an unbelievable number. 

With footwear consumption expected to increase by 63% by 2030, do we need to curb personal expression to meet planetary needs?

Wellll, not entirely, no. 

We do have to reduce this rise. 63% is way too much. We do not need that much footwear guys.

Aesthetics are important to us but we needn’t go THIS far. 

Especially considering the materials most modern footwear is made of and how many of us are currently inhabiting the planet. 

What Are Shoes Made Of Now?

The leather industry today is nothing like the leather shoes in the Stone Age (don't @ me, leather apologists). The animals hurt, the greenhouse emissions, the toxins it spreads, the communities destroyed for it, it is all very disturbing. & India being a massive manufacturing hub with crappy labour laws bears the majority brunt of it. 

Plastic, usually as PVC or polyester, has proliferated more than our planet can handle. Aside from the low biodegradability, production of plastic itself consumes a TONNE of fossil fuels. This cannot be the replacement for leather.

Neither can Rexine. Which is also chemical-intensive to produce and non-biodegradable.

Something that really irks me is brands writing ‘Vegan Leather’ as the material used in their product description. Greenwashing at it’s finest. Yes technically it is vegan, but writing it to hide that your footwear is made of PVC and Rexine so that it sounds, I repeat SOUNDS, eco-friendly is GREENWASHING.

Rubber was once sourced in an environmentally friendly manner. But now it's mostly synthetically made to meet the high demand for it. This synthetic rubber is not as biodegradable and definitely not as eco-friendly. Not in these quantities.

There has been a rise in other fabrics being utilized for footwear as well. But if these fabrics are environmentally damaging, that isn’t eco-friendly either unfortunately.

Is There a Solution?

As with most things, there is a solution. But the solution isn’t being as widely propagated because the systems set in-place favour the current shitty ways of living & producing.

This isn’t always one person’s fault. Naturally, when a material has been in large demand, it is cheaper to buy, supply-chain channels set in place, and thus, the final product is at costs appealing to more consumers. 

Moreover, the longer a raw material has been in the market, the more uses are found for it, driving the costs lower and lower.

Newer environmentally sound technologies are finding it harder to infiltrate these systems in place. But, all hope isn’t lost yet.

To replace leather, plant-based leather Cactus Leather, Pineapple Leather, Cork and our very own Coconut Leather from Kerala are slowly gaining traction.

Natural rubber is still available and its importance in preserving the environment is being recognized again. 

Polyurethane has become a more widely used material as well. The production of PU is chemical intensive & petroleum based, but PU is extremely durable and can be recycled even mechanically. It isn’t our number one choice, but has a lower environmental impact than Leather, Rexine, PVC and the like.

Now, let's not get confused between PU and PVC. PVC is toxic in its production, in its treatment, in its life-cycle, and in its recycling. There’s no good way to dispose of it and no good reason to use it in footwear especially.

Cork is also a beautiful material. I’m going to leave the experts to explain to you how cork works here

Like with everything, there are bad resources and good resources. But, if these good resources are overutilized - there are always negative consequences. 

Overutilization is a major pillar of environmental degradation. 

Sustainable materials consumed in moderation on a need-basis is the way forward. (Better for our mental health too, Buddha would agree)

So. Now that we’ve discussed that, I’m not going to leave you without information on how to apply it!

My Favourite Eco-Friendly Footwear Brands

They have recently launched a new footwear line & am I glad! Sling-backs, mules, criss-cross flats - they’ve got it all & they’re all gorgeous.

What’s more? They’re made from cork, up-cycled tyres & handwoven cotton! 

They have natural rubber flip-flops in the cutest colours, both for men and women! I got myself the purple ones and my dad the navy blues.

They’ve got some really great, environmentally conscious sneakers. The soles are made of recycled shoes & cork, and the rest of them from beautifully-dyed canvas.

I love their flats - very urban chic, very cute. Recycled tyres make the soles of this footwear - an excellent use of old tyres I’d say. They also have cork-soled flats!

For the men, they have really slick and comfy-looking slippers, loafers and sandals too!

Ladies, they also have a great selection of flats made from Pinatex. Pinatex is essentially Pineapple leather, made from discarded pineapple leaves - providing an additional source of income to pineapple farmers as well. 

Unfortunately, the pineapple leaves are also combined with roughly 20% corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) and PU resins to make it more durable, making it not entirely biodegradable. 

While it can be degraded in controlled industrial conditions, the 20% takes ages to degrade in reality.

I’d say they’re still relatively better than leather, PVC and Rexine. Especially if recycled rather than dumped into landfills.

Monk Story makes snazzy PU-based formal and semi-formal shoes for men. 

I currently cannot find an alternative to PU for formal shoes, so if you have any brands or products that you know of - hit us up!

With soles made of recycled rubber tyres, this brand - started by a renewable energy engineer - makes some really great flats, slippers and sandals for men and women. 

They’re also transparent about the materials they use and even have some footwear made of cork! Definitely gotta check them out.

The brands I’ve listed here are fairly priced, some of them a bit pricier than fast fashion, but of good quality and fair ethics in terms of people, planet and profit.

Aside from these, a number of brands also sell Cork, Jute and recycled footwear amongst other non-eco friendly materials, so be sure to read product descriptions before buying. 

Pro-tip: If a brand writes vegan leather or faux leather in their product description - DM them and ask them what the vegan/faux leather is made up of. 

In today’s digital world, no company is going to take too much time to get back to you - every brand I’ve messaged has replied to me within 15 minutes!

If they say it's PVC/Rexine - give it a miss for sure.

If PU, buy it if it's sustainably sourced and if there are absolutely no other options!

Footwear is hard to make eco-friendly and sell affordably at the same time, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t always buy the absolute most eco-friendly footwear all the time. 

Just stay conscious, check product descriptions and buy the footwear with the least impact you can! You might have to spend a little extra for quality, but considering how we need to curb our consumption, it won’t dent your wallet if you’re planning to shop in moderation. 


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