The vegetarian lifestyle practiced by millions around the world extends beyond a meatless diet. Prompted by a desire to avoid using animal-based materials such as leather or snakeskin, many vegans choose footwear often called vegetarian shoes. These shoes are constructed from non-leather materials such as canvas, hemp, polyurethane, rubber, Spandex or cotton. They may also be made with composite materials that duplicate the feel and appearance of cow leather or suede. Individual shoe companies often have a proprietary blend of cotton and polyurethane which they market as a vegan-friendly leather substitute.
The issue of using leather products has been a source of debate among vegetarians and vegans for years. Some are comfortable with leather as a natural material for footwear, but others equate the use of animal skins with the same cruel practices of meat production. For this segment of the vegan and vegetarian population, an alternative market for vegetarian shoes has sprung up in recent years. Some footwear outlets cater primarily to vegans and vegetarians, with vegetarian shoes ranging from casual to athletic to dress. Many of these specialty footwear stores were started by practicing vegetarians.
Vegetarian shoes are not necessarily created by smaller shoe companies in niche markets. Many mainstream shoe companies produce shoes which would be acceptable to vegans and vegetarians. Some examples of mainstream shoes that fit the vegetarian lifestyle are the canvas-based Converse basketball shoe, Doc Marten's rubber boots and Birkenstock sandals. In fact, many of the smaller companies producing vegetarian shoes today have been inspired by the eco-friendly Birkenstock business model.
Some vegetarian shoes have features which go beyond their animal-friendly components. The materials used in making these shoes are often recycled from rubber tires or plastics. The production work is done in reputable factories by workers receiving a living wage, not in third-world sweatshops employing children. Many vegetarians and vegans also believe strongly in a company's social and environmental responsibilities, so information about the manufacturing process is often available online or in the company's literature.