Footwear and apparel company UGG has a somewhat infamous reputation in the spheres of animal rights activism and ethical supply chains. Those cozy slippers and fur-lined boots that once drove the brand to new heights of popularity in middle and high schools across America (admit it, we all thought they were the pinnacle of fashion!) have also drawn the ire of activists and conservation groups for its use of shearling.
The Ugly Truth About UGGs
Shearling is sheepskin, and unfortunately, it’s not synonymous with wool. Rather, those coveted fur-lined boots are sheepskin with attached fleece, meaning that the animal had to be slaughtered to create the product. UGG’s Animal Welfare FAQ attests that the company sources its sheepskin from sheep that are raised for food, and claims that the brand “only selects suppliers who meet our strict standards of ethical sourcing, including animal welfare.” A document describing these standards can be found here.
For anyone who swore off UGGs after hearing the ugly truth—both about the sheepskin material and about the byproducts of the wool industry, like massive greenhouse gas emissions—good news! UGG has launched a small plant-based line of footwear they’ve dubbed the “Plant Power” collection, and they’ve been marketing the heck out of it. But could its professed commitment to sustainable sourcing be no more than skin-deep? Let’s find out.
The Ins and Outs of UGG’s Plant Power Collection
According to UGG, the Plant Power line is made with “carbon-neutral, plant-based materials.” The collection includes three shoes modeled on some of its popular existing silhouettes: the Fluff Sugar Sandal, Fluff Sugar Platform, and the Neumel Natural.
The Fluff sandal and platform are, indeed, fluffy, but rather than animal wool, the fluff in question is TENCEL Lyocell—aka regenerated cellulosic fibers from converted wood pulp. And the trees from which that material is extracted are certified responsibly-harvested trees by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.
Digging deeper, research shows the FSC designates two types of certification: forest management certification and chain of custody certification. The forest management certification attests that a forest is managed in ways conducive to preserving biodiversity and adherence to conservation principles, while the chain of custody certification verifies that along a supply chain, FSC-certified material has been identified and separated from non-certified material. Based on UGG’s website, it’s unclear which type of certification its source forests have.
As the name attests, the soles of the Fluff styles are made from sugarcane, a growable resource. According to the brand, which has trademarked the SugarSole foam, “the sweet crop absorbs 1.6 pounds of CO2 for every pound of ethylene replaced,” referring to the fact that the plant is substituting what would otherwise be petroleum-based ethylene.
UGG reports that sugarcane is “swift-growing and rainwater-nourished,” but there’s not a broad consensus as to classifying the plant’s rate of growth. Although some sites attest to how hot conditions favor the plant’s more rapid growth, other organizations like Botany One and Claro Energy report that sugarcane is slow-growing, making it a comparatively “less” swiftly renewable resource than, say, bamboo. And whether or not its growing speed can be firmly classified, it’s undisputed that sugarcane requires a lot of water. It ranks as one of the top five most water-intensive crops, along with ones you probably already know, like rice and cotton.
The Neumel Natural style has soles of latex harvested from the Hevea rubber tree, and the fibers of the shoe body are “an environmentally-preferred blend of 45 percent hemp and 55 percent cotton,” rather than synthetic material. Again citing CO2 absorption, UGG reports that for every pound of its hemp fiber produced, the plant absorbs 3.58 pounds of atmospheric CO2.
The product descriptions also tout that the designs are created with low-carbon-impact materials to start, and the brand then intentionally offsets the “small remaining amount of carbon emissions to ensure a balanced collection.” UGG doesn’t go into detail as to how exactly the emissions are offset to achieve carbon-neutrality, although its FEEL GOOD initiative website shares details about other topics, like sustainable partnerships and waste-reduction efforts. A more transparent description of the methods that achieve carbon-neutrality in this line would likely be a boon to eco-conscious consumers’ support.
Conclusion: Is UGG’s New Line Sustainable?
At least in this limited collection, UGG appears to be taking “plant-based” seriously. Its shoe materials are indeed natural rather than synthetic, although this carries with it factors like the demanding water requirements for the sugarcane soles, as well as the tree harvesting practices for the production of the fluff. But compliance with standards set by organizations like the FSC help regulate and reduce the risk of overexploiting natural resources.
Overall, this collection seems to be a step in the right direction: It’s the company’s first major commitment to sustainable sourcing, and the shoes in the Plant Power line allow you to step out in verifiably plant-based style. With that being said, the rest of the styles made by the brand are still animal-based. Here’s to hoping a company-wide shift to sustainable and ethical materials is in the near future.