I adore my Doc Martens and Birkenstocks. But as a vegetarian (who-admittedly-eats-meat-on-Christmas-Day-but-tells-her-friends-that-she-is-in-fact-vegan), I find it quite hard to justify my inclination towards real leather shoes. As I'm writing this, I am somewhat shamefully sat at my student desk in my dreamy Birkenstock flip-flops, with my leather Doc Marten boots and sandals impatiently parked on this side of the front door. Despite being fully aware of the environmental impact of leather, despite its economic expense, and despite risking the prospect of ever dining out on my immaculate personal politics ever again, I do not regret investing in the leathery real deal.
My not so wholesome consumer habits
So, as a Geographer (and a somewhat decent human being), I became hyperaware of the horrendous impacts of the fashion industry on the environment in my late teens. I was once one of those girls who would spend all their Saturday job wages at once at Primark and/or New Look. Much like any Western pubescent female, I was obsessed with consuming clothing. I would essentially buy into an array of rainbow-jazzy-looking plastic each week. My consumer habits were so bad, that they would even the CEO of Primark nauseous.
A change in appetite
So three years ago I decided that enough was enough. I was totally sick of my appetite for fast-paced consumerism. I pledged to buy no new clothes. I would only buy second hand if I really needed to. Thirty-six months on and I have stuck to it (to some extent of course). I now opt for quality, timelessness, environmental and financial stability when it comes to fashion.
This coincided with my decision to turn vegetarian (Ts and Cs apply). Thus, meaning that I wouldn't exactly jump with joy at the prospect of ever wearing a dead animal on my feet. Plastic shoes seemed more appealing and leather a complete no-go.
However, my parents had always fought hard in leather's corner, feeding me a constant pro-leather and anti-plastic-shoe propaganda, since I can remember. Comments along the lines of "Oh for goodness' sake Georgie, your feet can't breathe in those" and "right, so how long is this plastic tat going to last you then?" were regularly thrown around my household. The consideration of my parent's wisdom and the very act of my ex flexing his hardy leather Doc Marten boots at every social gathering possible, combined to make the prospect of investing in a pair of leather shoes seem more and more oddly appealing.
When I was seventeen, I decided to put all of my birthday money together to invest in my very own £75 pair of second-hand DM's from Depop. I do now, in fact, wear my leather Docs with everything. When I consider buying a jumper from a charity shop, I will buy said jumper to wear with my Docs. When I contemplate purchasing a skirt from a vintage shop, I purchase said skirt to wear with my Docs, etcetera. I wear my Docs to the shops, to nightclubs, and (much to my Grandmother's despair) to weddings. I am now 19, and yes only two years have passed, but I am still as in love with them today as I was when I first laid eyes upon their perfectly-formed-punky-prettiness.
I feel infinitely the same about my pair of Birkenstocks too, we are practically tied at the hip. I hate to admit it, but my ex and my parents were right about something. Those leather shoes are pretty darn cool man.
My moral dilemma
So why do I love them so much? And why would I be promoting shoes that so blatantly do not align with my anti-animal product views? Why did I finally decide to listen to my parents and my ex, of all people? I may as well be stomping all over my years of environmental preaching and attempts at rebellion with a huge pair of black leather boots. Well, let me shed some more light...
1. Docs and Birks are utterly timeless
Doc Martens go with everything. I think it's justified to buy into fashion when you know you will a) never get sick of an item, and b) know that said item will never break or let you down. Investing in one pair of leather shoes that last a lifetime is much more sustainable than buying a new shoe-shaped piece of glorified plastic each season. Doc Martens transcend the trends.
Birkenstock's Arizona aesthetic was first appreciated in the 60s. Birk sandals actually mould to the contours of your feet over time, even wearing them helps to strengthen your foot muscles. The simplicity of the design sends out the message of non-conformity and an air utterly understated footwear related confidence. They make me look borderline Christ-like and I love it.
My own mother bought a £35 pair from TK Maxx that have lasted her 10 years, 10 holidays, and the vicious jaws of a 10-week old puppy. It's 2021, and my sister and I still fight to 'borrow' her beloved Birks to every casual social event going. Not only do Birks look endlessly aesthetic, but they also remain endlessly intact.
2. DMs and Birks symbolise progressive politics
I am still obsessed with the social history associated with Doc Martens. From the shoe's humble beginnings as a working-class boot, to becoming a staple to 70s subcultures and societal rebels. Docs have been synonymous with any young misfits since the very birth of the 'teenager'. When I wear my Doc Martens I feel a strange and rare surge of patriotism, as they showcase the best of British design and politics. So, in a way, I am only slightly compromising my moral compass for the 'AirWair' immenseness.
Furthermore, Birkenstocks symbolise a nod to the simpler life. Comfort, modesty and longevity are at the heart of the brand. It's reassuring to see that there are still some good companies out there who put their politics before profit.
But I am saddened to hear the news of Doc Marten's not so airy recent press. The company was 'forced to' shift most of its manufacturing to Asia in 2004- now only 2% of their shoes are actually made in England. Outsourcing has allegedly caused the quality of the shoes produced to worsen, meaning that Dr. Martens' USPs are slowly becoming less unique. Birkenstock still uses abrasive chemicals in its leather production.
On the plus side, Dr. Martens' packaging is made from 100% post-consumer waste materials. Birkenstock modernised in the 90s to reduce the brand's overall energy consumption by 90%- which is a vast improvement. Docs use leather audited by the Leather Working Group who strive towards more sustainable leather. However, the elephant in the room is that agriculture, for leather sales as well as for food, is estimated to be the direct driver for 80% of deforestation worldwide. New leather production is not sustainable on this scale. Both Dr. Martens and Birkenstocks are doing very little to address these huge environmental problems. I am not so fond of these politics. However....
3. Real leather is still better than 'pleather'
Now, I am aware that Doc Martens and Birkenstock have a range of leather alternatives on offer, as do many other shoe manufacturers. Both companies now offer a convincing range of vegan 'pleather' boots and shoes. Yes, no animals were harmed directly in the shoe's manufacturing process, but animals will be harmed further on down the line. The vegan leather is constructed solely from- yes, you guessed it- plastic. 'Pleather' is made from Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), a material that Green Peace lists as one of the most environmentally damaging plastics.
The vegan range has a shorter lifespan than their original leather ones. Despite efforts to perfectly emulate animal leather, 'pleather' isn't as efficient at keeping feet warm. These two factors combine to produce a product that is thrown away more readily- thus destroying the very essence of the two brands. But I am not suggesting that you should boycott these shoes altogether, instead...
4. Buy second-hand leather
Cut out all the middlemen, hit up your local vintage and charity shops and I am sure you will stumble across some pre-loved leather. This is the most environmentally friendly way to consume. Buying second-hand means that your leather shoes will hopefully already be somewhat broken in i.e. they won't utterly destroy your feet upon first wear. Second-hand is both comfy for your bank account, as well as your feet.
Don't do what I did and "treat yourself to a new pair of Docs"- I've made that mistake so you don't have to. My Doc Marten sandals, although looking rather dapper, are still as uncomfortable and as ill-fitting as the day I bought them. Listen to the old pairs beckoning and calling your name.
1-0 to pre-loved leather
So, I am sat, at my laptop, wearing my insanely comfortable Birkenstock sandals and with my Doc Martens still downstairs, with a slight sense of moral relief. Despite my vegetarian views, Dr. Martens' slightly dodgy press, and leather's somewhat hefty price tag, I would not trade my Docs and Birks for any piece of plastic. Of course, I am not trying to discourage my fellow veggies and vegans from sticking to their own values, admittedly when I think about the origins of my footwear I cringe a little. But I know that if I weren't wearing these shoes, I'd be wearing some cheap, terrible ones which might last me a year, and be in landfill the next.
Visit Depop, Vinted, your local charity and vintage shops, and buy a second-hand pair of Docs or Birkenstocks. Wear your Docs in the colder seasons, and your Birks in the warmer ones. Buy into the reliability of the trusted leather shoe which is timeless and has the longevity to stand the test of time.