Behind The Label: The Sustainability Claims Behind Melissa Shoes

Has Melissa earned its eco-friendly reputation?

In the sustainable fashion world, Brazilian shoe brand Melissa has attracted a cult following among women searching for shoes that are stylish, comfortable, and eco-friendly. Not since the jelly shoe craze of the 1980s have shoe fiends embraced PVC footwear with such gusto.

According to its vendors and fans, Melissa shoes are non-toxic, hypo-allergenic, cruelty-free, and vegan. However, little official information exists to back up Melissa’s environmental claims. Does Melissa deserve its eco-friendly reputation?

An investigation into Melissa shoes is actually an investigation into Grendene, the brand’s Brazilian parent company and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of injection-molded plastic footwear. Grendene’s brands include Ipanema, Rider, Grendha, and Melissa, and its thirteen factories employ approximately 20,000 people. The Melissa brand is guided by research-and-development lead Edson Matsuo, and much of its success has come from high-profile collaborations with designers, architects, and celebrities like Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, Zaha Hadid, and Gisele Bunchen.

The Good

According to the company’s 2006 annual report, sustainability and innovation are at the heart of Grendene’s operations.

More than a concept, sustainable design is everyday experience instilled into the company’s DNA. Based on the Business-Society-Environment triad, the purpose is to create synergy that all parts of this triad can benefit from.

Grendene states that 99 percent of its industrial residues are recycled, and that other waste is reprocessed, recycled, or disposed of responsibly. According to the report, the company adopts a closed circuit approach to water use, and it has its own onsite sewage treatment systems.

One major way that Grendene embraces sustainability is through its mono-material injection-molding manufacturing process, which results in shoes that are easy to disassemble and recycle. Some Melissa stores host events where customers can bring back old shoes to trade in and recycle.

The Bad

Melissa shoes are made from Melflex, a particular type of PVC which was developed and patented by Grendene. Grendene states that the technology it employs for PVC development is “the most sustainable and ecologically correct in the world market.” But is PVC necessarily a sustainable material?

The opinion is split. Environmental groups like Greenpeace argue that PVC is the most environmentally damaging of all plastics. According to the group, toxic chlorine-based chemicals are released at every stage of PVC’s production, use, and disposal, resulting in health problems like cancer, immune system damage, and hormone disruption. A report from the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University expands on these claims:

PVC poses hazards to human health over the course of its life cycle. PVC production exposes workers and communities to vinyl chloride and other toxic substances. PVC products such as medical equipment and children’s toys can leach toxic additives during their useful life. Vinyl building materials release hydrochloric acid fumes if they catch fire, and burning PVC creates byproducts including dioxin, a potent carcinogen.

Melissa’s website, on the other hand, claims that PVC is “one of the most sustainable thermoplastics available” and that Melflex is “versatile, durable, totally reusable and extremely environmentally friendly.” Grendene’s annual report states that “when disposed of, (PVC shoes) can be entirely recycled, burned for recovery of energy, or even sent to landfills, since they do not contaminate the soils or water tables.”

However, neither Melissa nor Grendene provide any specific information proving that its PVC is less harmful than the types of PVC attacked by environmental groups.

The Questionable 

While Melissa shoes may be cruelty-free and recyclable, they are still made from a material that is synthetic, controversial, and reportedly harmful to the environment. Grendene may claim that its PVC is eco-friendly, but without a public body of evidence, it’s impossible to evaluate if the claim is true or not.

In my opinion, the greatest sustainability element of Melissa shoes is their ability to… well, sustain. EcoSalon’s Editor-in-Chief raves that she has had her Melissas for years, yet they still look like new and retain their distinct bubblegum scent (which we’re guessing doesn’t come from nature). Another friend and EcoSalon contributor has worn her Melissas through nearly a decade of international work and travel.

Melissas are built to last, which is sustainable because it prevents the need for additional shoe purchases. But as for the eco-friendliness of their product lifecycle? Until Melissa and Grendene release more information, we can’t know for sure.


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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.