Sustainable heels: an eco-friendly buying guide

Sustainable heels that are eco-friendly, fashion-forward and comfortable can be difficult to find. Especially with so many footwear brands out there claiming to be more sustainable than ever before, it’s easy to get tripped up (no pun intended!) on what actually makes a shoe sustainable.

In this guide, we’ll review what to look out for in your search for the perfect sustainable heels. By incorporating these guidelines into your shopping, you can prioritize your values, from environmentalism to design, in every choice you make.

What are sustainable heels?

With environmentalism on the rise, more and more brands are incorporating sustainable practices into their design process. Unfortunately, some brands are simply incorporating the word “sustainable” into their marketing practices. Before we dive into how to spot truly sustainable heels, let’s review what makes a shoe sustainable in the first place.

Sustainability, at its core, is about conserving natural resources and protecting natural ecosystems. The conventional shoe industry is notoriously unsustainable, as it guzzles up water and other resources while spewing pollution and creating massive amounts of waste. For example, the average pair of shoes uses over 2000 gallons of water to make - and even after all that, one out of every five shoes is sent straight to the landfill.

Sustainable shoes, on the other hand, are made with efficiency and circularity in mind. A truly sustainable shoe is made using low-carbon production processes with as little water and material waste as possible. A sustainable shoe is made in such a way that it can be recycled or reused. Finally, a sustainable shoe is one that you can wear over and over again, reducing the need to produce new products from scratch. 

With these general tenets of sustainability in mind, let’s explore how to tell if a pair of heels is actually walking the eco-friendly talk.

How to tell if a shoe is sustainable?

While there are many factors that can make a shoe more environmentally-friendly than others, there are a few main areas a sustainable brand should focus on to ensure a low environmental impact. Here are a few things you can look out for to help you in your search for sustainable heels.

1. Recyclable or renewable materials

The materials a pair of heels is made from is one of the biggest contributors to its environmental footprint. From the production of the material to its end-of-life treatment, environmental costs can add up quickly. 

First, more sustainable heels will be made from materials that can be recycled or reused to create new products. This greatly reduces the amount of waste taking up space in landfills and allows for new shoes made from pre-used materials (thus eliminating some of the costs of raw material production).

It’s important to ensure the shoe can actually be recycled! Only 5% of shoes are recycled today. While we could all be a bit better about recycling old shoes, this low percentage is largely a result of how the shoes are put together in the first place, as many shoes contain non-recyclable components that are difficult to separate. Sustainable heels must be designed with their end-of-life in mind in order to ensure that disassembly and recycling are a viable option. 

For example, HILOS shoes are made using a single 3D-printed platform, rather than gluing together many different components, which helps to simplify disassembly and encourage recycling. This also allows for less material waste and a lower-emission production process - parts of the sustainability equation that are just as important as circularity.

2. The production process: low-carbon, low-pollution, low-waste

How the shoes are made is just as important as what the shoes are made of. To be sustainable, shoes must be produced using a low-carbon process that does not pollute, use excess resources, or create excess waste.

The average pair of sneakers emits around 30 pounds of carbon, which is equivalent to keeping a 100-watt light bulb turned on for a full week. The majority of these emissions come from manufacturing. For example, it takes large amounts of energy to perform injection molding, a process used to create small parts like soles. This process is particularly wasteful and often results in a loss of nearly 50% of the material.

While choice of material is partially responsible for unsustainable production methods, innovative production processes like 3D printing can also make a significant impact in lowering energy and waste. For example, it takes about 55 gallons of water to produce a single pound of synthetic rubber for conventional shoe soles; HILOS’ soles decrease this by 85-99%.

Finally, how much a shoe brand is producing matters also. Many shoe companies produce huge stocks of inventory that don’t end up selling - and often end up in the landfill. Companies that produce only enough product to meet demand significantly reduce waste. Here at HILOS we create made-to-order shoes in order to reduce overproduction and keep our shoes out of landfills.

Mules are typically designed to cover three-quarters of the foot, leaving the back entirely open. While clogs are often produced in a slip-on style, this is only one of many designs we see.

3. Durability & versatility

Put simply, the most sustainable heels (or sneakers, or clogs, or sandals) are the ones you already own! Durable shoes help spread the environmental impact of manufacturing over longer periods of time, as you’ll need to buy new shoes far less often. Versatility is another important aspect of a sustainable shoe, as it allows you to wear the same shoe for a variety of functions, rather than purchasing a new shoe for every occasion. For example, HILOS’ durable 3D-printed sustainable heels come with a sling-back and tie up heel strap option, getting you more bang for your buck.

Choose shoes that will stand the test of time - both physically and fashion-wise. Picking a pair of shoes that you love (and that can withstand miles of walking!) is absolutely part of the sustainability equation.

4. Third-party reviews

Finally, you don’t need to take just the company’s word for it! Pick companies that are open and honest about their practices and that make use of sustainable certifications and reviews.

Some companies may choose to garner sustainable certifications and labels. Certification labels are an effective tool to demonstrate sustainability quickly to consumers. Certifications for the footwear and fashion industry vary by material, such as certification with the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS), which mainly focuses on cotton, or Leather Working Group (LWG) certification, which promotes environmental practices for (you guessed it) leather manufacturing. HILOS is proud to say that our shoes are made from high-quality, LWG-certified leather.

We decided to take our commitment to sustainability even further by commissioning a team of graduate students at Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment to examine our environmental impact. They found that, compared to traditional manufacturing, the HILOS process reduces carbon emissions by nearly 50% and water usage by 99%. To learn more, read the full report.

When you choose companies that are committed to environmental monitoring, you’re also helping support companies that are committed to continuous improvement.

Key takeaways: a sustainable heels checklist

We know, that was a lot of information - and we certainly don’t want to make your search for sustainable heels more complicated. So next time you’re on the hunt for sustainable heels, here are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to help identify a truly eco-friendly product: 

1. What are the shoes made of?

2. How are the shoes made?

3. How many shoes are made?

4. How long will the shoes last?

5. Who says?

With this sustainability checklist, you’ll be able to get a better sense of a shoe, helping you find a perfect fit. 

Here at HILOS, we’ve carefully considered these questions ourselves in order to create shoes that are artfully-designed with both individuality and the Earth in mind. Check out our selection of sustainable heels, or learn more about our production process.

Have a question about our shoes or the design process? Send us a note and someone on our team will get back to you right away.