From ethical walking sandals to vegan sandals, to sustainable and plastic-free flip-flops and more, I’ve got all your eco-friendly summer footwear needs covered.
I’ve got an entire guide to ethical shoes and even ethical trainers. And as the sun has been positively shining lately, today let’s focus our attention on ethical sandals and other summer footwear staples, such as flip flops.
Before we dive in, it is important to bear in mind that sustainability is a complex and nuanced subject. There’s no official definition and the term means many different things to many different people. I’m therefore mindful that everyone has different ethics when it comes to footwear and the materials used in their manufacture. As such, this guide has been designed to be a starting-off point for you to research the most sustainable option for you, rather than a definitive “this is ethical” list.
Guide to Ethical Sandals
Here are the best ethical sandals and flip flops that I’ve been able to track down for you. From sandals made from recycled materials to sandals aiming to be circular, right through to vegan sandals and plastic-free flip flops. Do bear in mind that sandals, like shoes, are notoriously difficult to make ethically. This is due to the numerous components that go into making them. As such options are limited, and you probably won’t find a sandal that ticks 100% of your own particular ethical boxes. Instead, you may have to exercise a degree of compromise.
The price range key for this guide is £ = Under £50 | ££ = £50 – 100 | £££ = £100+
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Price range: £ – ££
I bought a pair of Birkenstocks* WAY back in 2006, and, do you know what? I’m still wearing the exact same pair today. These ethical sandals are almost indestructible. I know, I have worn mine every single summer since. I’ve walked perhaps a thousand miles in them – maybe more – and these beauties are still going. They have just this year started to unravel at the footbed, but after 15 years that’s some pretty good innings. In terms of cost per wear, you simply cannot beat Birkenstocks.
I always think of Birkenstocks as being the opposite of fast fashion, as they always maintain a grasp on who they are by not conforming to specific trends. However, what makes Birkenstocks ethical and sustainable is the main component is super sustainable cork.
In some previous research on cork, I found out that to extract the cork not a single tree is cut down. Instead, the bark of the cork oak trees is peeled away. The cork is then carefully extracted manually by highly skilled harvesters. The cork then simply grows back. This system preserves the forest in its pristine entirety and enables perpetual harvesting with no damage to the forest or ecosystem. It’s pretty amazing stuff, really.
Birkenstock makes all of its products in Germany. And for top eco points, Birkenstock offers its own repair service. I’ve also heard good things about The Boot Repair Company, which also repairs Birkenstocks.
Birkenstock offers both vegan and non-vegan leather options, depending on your preferences. Their vegan ranges are entirely free of animal products and are verified by independent testing laboratories. However, something I did note is many sandals in their vegan range are made from Birko-Flor, which appears to be a PVC-based plastic. PVC is the single most environmentally damaging plastic. This is because PVC is made out of petroleum (a fossil fuel), which contributes to carbon emissions. The manufacturing process of PVC uses a lot of resources, and it releases a lot of toxic chemicals. Leather isn’t without its environmental and ethical problems either. Who said making sustainable choices was easy?
Price range: £ – ££
Camper* has slowly been working on increasing its use of recycled materials and eco-friendly fabrics. Recently they’ve introduced circular styles which use closed-loop materials or can be transformed into new products at the end of their life. Their goal is to send no waste to landfill by 2030.
At the moment Camper’s circular range is small, but the good news is that these Wabi vegan sandals are part of their ethical Better Collection range. That means that you can return the sandals back to Camper when they reach the end of their life. They will then be ground down to restart life as a new sole or shoe. This sounds good. However, at present these particular sandals are made of only 20% recycled materials, and the remaining 80% is made of virgin plastic, which is oh, about 80% too much, given that fossil fuels are required to make plastics. I hope Camper can nudge the recycled figure upwards as they expand their Circular range. I’ll keep you updated.
Matt & Nat
Price range: £ – ££
Matt and Nat’s vegan sandals* are a stylish choice if you want to avoid animal-based fabrics. Matt and Nat are a strictly vegan company and do not use any animal products whatsoever.
However, like many vegan shoe materials, there are trade-offs. Good on You highlights shortcomings when it comes to Matt and Nat. For a start, the company does use PVC plastic in some of their products, which, as we discussed in the section on Birkenstocks, is not good for the environment.
The good news is that these Cyndie sandals are made from 100% recycled Polyvinyl Butyral (PVB). PVB is an innovative material made from 100% recycled resin from windshield glass, making it a better choice than PVC.
Whilst these specific sandals are made from ethical materials, there are also question marks over Matt and Nat’s ethics. Matt and Nat’s products are made in China, and Good on You highlights a lack of transparency over certain aspects of production. There are no details on the specific measures they undertake to ensure that their labour standards are being upheld. There is also no evidence that Matt and Nat has, or requires suppliers to use, a Code of Conduct. Reading this I would say that Matt and Nat are a vegan shoe company, rather than an ethical shoe company.
Price range: £ – ££
Many years ago I had a pair of Teva walking sandals* which I absolutely adored. They were one of the most comfortable pairs of sandals I had ever worn. After they wore out, I replaced them with my near-indestructible Birkenstocks, and I hadn’t revisited the brand until recently when I started hearing more and more about Teva’s eco-friendly and ethical credentials.
It turns out that Teva has really upped their eco game in recent years, and has made solid progress in terms of reducing their water consumption, reducing waste and packaging, and increasing their use of recycled materials in making their sandals. In fact, in 2020, Teva transitioned all of its sandal straps to traceable verifiable recycled plastic. Since then, they say they’ve diverted 24 million plastic bottles from landfills.
Teva has a wide range of walking sandals, sandals, and flip-flops. Do bear in mind that if you are looking for vegan sandals, then not all Teva shoes are vegan-friendly. However, they do have many vegan styles, so you won’t be short on choice.
Price range: £££
If minimal soled ethical sandals are more your thing, then Vivobarefoot* has you covered. This certified B-Corp’s ethical sandals are made from premium leather offcuts from their shoe production, making them a zero-waste sandal. Whilst Vivobarefoot does have a vegan range, unfortunately, they don’t offer a vegan sandal option. Yes, like virgin plastic, leather isn’t the most sustainable material. However, Vivobarefoot’s leather is ethically sourced as a byproduct from small-scale Ethiopian farmers. And as you can see, they are committed to using every last scrap.
Aiming for circularity, Vivobarefoot offers a repair service. And for shoes that have reached the end of their life, you can send them back to Vivobarefoot. Here, their skilled team reconditions the old shoes, by carefully repairing seams, patching torn or weak areas, replacing broken eyelets and lace hooks, and more. By keeping shoes out of landfill, it benefits the planet and allows people to shop at lower price points whilst helping to support circular business practices.
Waves Flip Flops
Price range: £
Are you looking for plastic-free and vegan flip-flops? Step forward Waves ethical flip flops*. Yup, the holy grail of footwear materials – a plastic-free vegan product – is possible! You see, many flip flops are made from petroleum-based rubber and plastics. However, Waves flip-flops are made from 100% natural rubber that’s FSC certified.
Any off-cuts from the manufacturing process get granulated. These rubber granules are then used to create flip flops. This system cuts down on the total amount of rubber that producers need to grow, thereby reducing water, land, and energy usage. You can also send back your worn-out Waves, and again, these will be recycled. You’ll also get 10% off your next order, by way of thanks for keeping your old flip flops out of landfill.
Which Ethical Sandals Should I Buy?
I find footwear to be the most tricky aspect of an ethical wardrobe. Therefore, when it comes to ethical sandals it’s no easy matter. Any new shoe or sandal will take a toll on the earth.
What to choose depends on whether you value plastic-free products, or whether you value vegan and cruelty-free products more. If it’s too tricky to choose, then ask if flip-flops could fulfill your footwear needs. Of course, this then brings other quandaries. What is better for the environment? Flip-flops that may require regular replacing or a sandal that may have a much longer lifespan?
There’s a lot to think about. However, don’t forget the ultimate eco-friendly and ethical option. Simply ask yourself do you actually need to buy a new pair of sandals? Could your existing pair of sandals be repaired? Could you find what you need secondhand? I always find this the best starting point before buying something new.