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Return of the jelly shoe sparks concerns for environment

Jelly sandals tie into the ugly shoe phenomenon and fashion’s love of all things childlike.

Jelly sandals tie into the ugly shoe phenomenon and fashion’s love of all things childlike. Photograph: PhotoAlto/Alamy

The footwear equivalent of Crayola crayons and lunchboxes, the jelly shoe is back for the summer. But with most of the shoe made from PVC, it might seem an odd trend for our plastic-anxious times.

Online searches for jelly sandals have significantly increased since April on global fashion search platform Lyst. The 82% month-on-month increase comes after the sandals dominated the season’s catwalks. At Alexa Chung they came elevated with jewels, while at Simone Rocha jelly sliders were decorated with feathers. There are plenty of high street versions available from Asos to Next and New Look, where prices start at around £6.

According to Lynn Wilson, a consultant and consumer researcher, “from a consumer perspective they’re a really fantastic summer proposition”. They come in bright colours and are a real “fashion statement”.

They also tie into the now seasons-deep ugly shoe phenomenon – in which Crocs and Birkenstocks are hailed as high fashion – as well as fashion’scurrent love of all things childlike.

Yet, on the whole, they are made from the petrochemical-based material PVC, which, according to Greenpeace, is “one of the most toxic substances saturating our planet and its inhabitants”. It is not the first time we have fallen for plastic footwear – from flip-flops to sliders, our water-friendly choices are often less than kind to the planet.

A model wears jelly sandals during London fashion week September 2018.
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 A model wears jelly sandals during London fashion week September 2018. Photograph: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Natalie Fee, the founder of City to Sea, an environmental organisation campaigning to stop plastic pollution, said jelly sandals “epitomise the folly of fashionistas”.

“Why would you want to be seen in something made purely of fossil fuels, most likely from fracked gas, in the middle of a climate emergency?” said Fee.

Julian Kirby, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Whether it’s jelly shoes or raincoats, the key thing from an environmental point of view is that it’s built to last. This is especially important with shoes, as poorly made ones barely last one holiday.”

Some well-known manufacturers – from UK-based Juju, which supplies the likes of Asos and Urban Outfitters, to Brazil-based Melissa footwear – are promising recyclable jellies. This is potentially a big win in an age when more than 8m tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year.

According to Wilson, “the key problem for consumers is when a brand says recyclable, what does that actually mean?” Many may assume this means jellies can go out with their domestic recycling, but PVC is almost never recyclable through local councils and can contaminate other plastic recycling.

Some brands do offer solutions. Melissa is working on installing recycling collectors in all its stores by the end of 2020; in the meantime its Covent Garden store will take back the shoes. A spokesperson for Juju said that while “there is no formal scheme in place for the consumer to recycle through us … if they are sent to our address and have been cleaned they can be added to our pile to be ground up and made into new shoes”.

Wilson said this engagement with the consumer was vital: “We need the industry [to say] ‘this is our ambition … this is where we’re at right now, this is what we need you to help us with’. [Then] we can start to work towards this joint closed loop.”

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