Soles Without Souls

Some people really care about what materials their shoes are made of.Synthetic shoes aren’t a new thing to skateboarding. And in some form or another, they’ve always existed and are a huge deal to some companies and skateboarders.

Only a few “vegan-friendly” shoe companies have had a presence in the industry over the years, such as Sheep from Sole Technology in the early 90s, and Zero 2-although they didn’t really last. High-profile pros have been adamant about demanding and supporting synthetic products over the years, including Ed Templeton, Geoff Rowley, and Moses Itkonen. These guys have made small ripples in the industry pond by proclaiming their vegan ways in interviews and ads.To the majority of pros out there, the notion of organic, fiber-based, or synthetic footwear isn’t necessarily a top priority.

As awareness has steadily grown, companies are catering to their eco-friendly teamriders and consumers, some more than others. Here’s what’s cookin’:

Few skaters are adamant about animal-free kicks. Bob Burnquist prefers synthetic, but will skate in leather. The I Path team appreciates the non-leather models in the brand’s line but aren’t insistent. Savier teamriders support the brand’s mostly animal/environmentally friendly shoes, but again, no one’s 100 percent. The only pro skaters renouncing non-vegan footwear at Sole Technology are Rick McCrank and Ed Templeton; at DuFFS, Moses Itkonen; and at Vans, Geoff Rowley. A rather short list.

Many pro models on the market are synthetic in all colorways, but that doesn’t mean the pro himself refuses to wear leather or suede. adidas’ Sally Murdoch says that no one on the team insists upon synthetic shoes. The adidas team consists of Mark Gonzales, Lance Mountain, and Matt Beach, who all currently have synthetic pro models. “They do wear their signature shoes,” says Murdoch.

At Adio, Bam Margera and Brian Sumner have synthetic pro-model shoes. Jeremy Wray’s models have always been synthetic-but none of these pros are vocal about it. Sound confusing? Well there’s more to it.

“It’s a money issue, of course,” shares Dylan Raasch, a footwear designer at DC Shoe Co. Virtually all skate shoes are manufactured in Asia. Considering that, import taxes in the U.S. play a big role in the shoe’s material makeup. Raasch explains that the shoe has to be approximately 70-percent leather. “If it doesn’t meet that you have to pay a duty fee, that puts the shoe up another eight dollars at retail,” he says.

Justin Regan, the Emerica team manager, seems to agree with Raasch: “Synthetic shoes become more expensive down the line than their leather or suede counterparts due to international materials duties. From a manufacturer’s standpoint, it means we’re less likely to use synthetics than leathers in order to keep our shoes priced competitively. Sucks for the cows.”

To a pro demanding a synthetic shoe, there is a price to pay. “A pro rider would lose a lot of money,” Raasch says. So for some pros debating synthetic versus leather and suede for their pro shoe, the potential loss of income could be a major deciding factor.

However, some companies have managed to make it work. Mark McGarry handles public relations at Portland-based Savier shoes, which offers an entirely synthetic line of shoes that are priced competitively with other major shoe brands. “Synthetic material itself is cheaper, but the (international) tax on synthetic material is three times as expensive as on non-synthetic material,” he says. But McGarry notes that by paying less for synthetic materials, the end cost to them and to the end consumer isn’t really affected: “It comes out about the same regarding margins.”

For many companies it seems that synthetic materials just aren’t worth paying extra money in taxes, and moreover, that skaters in the U.S. who desire vegan footwear are in a sense victims of geography. DC’s Raasch explains that over 50 percent of the company’s shoes in Japan are synthetic bause there is no duty on synthetic shoes there: “So it’s cheaper to make them (synthetic shoes).” Kelly Bird is team manager at Lakai shoes, where only ten percent of its line is synthetic: “We pretty much make that ten percent specifically for Japan.”

In the realm of synthetics, there’s a significant range of material to choose from. I Path has dabbled in denim, and teamriders Kenny Reed and Matt Field have pro models made out of hemp. However, Savier seems to be pushing the envelope of synthetic-shoe development the farthest. “We focus heavily on creating the ultimate in synthetic skateboard shoes,” says McGarry. “Water-soluble glues and solvents are used in all of our synthetic shoes, and all the materials are PVC free. We’re currently working with a material vender with a new synthetic leather called Green-Pro. It’s even better than the PVC-free synthetic leather we’ve been using in the past.”

And while most people are likely unaware of it, the issue of PVC is a huge concern among environmentalists. PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride, a synthetic plastic that is used in many applications and forms-including wide use among skateboard-shoe companies. Most to all of the PVC in the U.S. comes from an area known as Cancer Alley, an 80-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana so-named for its dense cluster of petrochemical plants, oil refineries, and other toxic industries. PVC is a highly toxic chemical when manufactured, but not at all toxic in its cured state. However, its manufacturing process has frustrated the nation’s environmentalists for years now.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory, in 1998 chemical manufacturers in Louisiana reported that they released nearly 130,000 pounds of the carcinogenic vinyl chloride into the environment. This polluting continues today.

The worst effect? The highest cancer rate in the country, excessive mortality rates, and the highest rate of incidence of tumors and nervous disorders among children. The area is also blighted due to the rundown low-income housing built to house factory workers.You’d think I Path or Savier would be the skate-shoe companies with the largest percentage of synthetic shoes in their lines, but surprisingly, it’s Osiris. Almost the entire team requests it, and Head Designer Brian Reid says, “I make these type of shoes because they’re more durable, look better, and because of the obvious reason-animal cruelty.”

On the appearance front, RP Bess, team manager at DuFFS, echoes this sentiment. “The way it (synthetic material) cuts and folds-it works better, it looks nicer,” he says. “That was basically why our designer uses it. We’re going to be moving into more synthetics in the future.”Durability is a critical factor to consider. “Synthetic shoes are more durable, the split suede that we use in our shoes is the only material that’s just as durable as synthetic material,” says McGarry. But then again there’s the aesthetic variable that can’t be quantified. “Suedes are cool, though,” comments Bess. “Everyone seems to be doing more and more suedes this year.”

The grip and flex factor of leathers and suedes have long been the standard in skateboarding footwear, and for many skaters and companies it’s still the main concern. “Most of our skaters request suede,” says Lakai’s Bird.Kelley Peery, who handles public relations at Globe, echoes Bird: “Suede and nubuck have been the most requested materials.” It boils down to the skater, what works best for them, what will help them skate the best. Some skaters see the sacrifice of animal products as a fair trade for a more functional pair of shoes.

Skaters can support vegan footwear, get a long-lasting pair of shoes, and not have to pay an exorbitant amount of money. True environment-friendly footwear will be void of animal products and PVC plastic: natural materials like hemp and denim seem to be leading this trend already.

For more information about PVC and the shoe companies that use it, visit greenpeaceusa.org.lready.

For more information about PVC and the shoe companies that use it, visit greenpeaceusa.org.