Shoes, they're ubiquitous, a daily requirement for most for us. And women (as we're so constantly reminded) adore them!
But not all shoes are created equal - and I'm not talking about the obvious difference between a pair of Manolo Blahniks and a pair from K-mart or Payless.
It's the underlying ethics and sustainability of the shoes we wear that is the subject of this post. The footwear manufacturing process and supply chain is rife with human and environmental abuses that most consumers are completely oblivious to. So, to help you navigate the often murky world of shoes and shoe production, we've put together this summary to help you discover if there's something wrong with your shoes.
The footwear sector
The footwear sector is a key part of the broader fashion industry. However, in contrast to the textile sector, the grievances of the production processes of the leather and shoe industry are largely unknown.
According to Change Your Shoes, a European initiative promoting an ethical, sustainable and transparent shoe supply chain, there were 24 billion pairs of shoes produced globally last year.
Footwear is a labour-intensive product involving a considerable amount of manual, low-skilled work. For this reason, many major footwear brands outsource all or part of the manufacture to countries in which wages are low and harmful practices more common.
Today, more than three-quarters of shoes are made in Asia, with China producing almost two out of every three pairs of shoes sold worldwide. Mexico, Brazil and India are other major players.
Workers in these countries often lack the possibility to improve their conditions and are subject to low wages, illegal levels of overtime, and a lack of health and safety measures.
These countries also usually have less restrictive environmental rules.
What makes a shoe vegan?
Two primary things make footwear vegan: (1) no leather or other skins and (2) no animal-based glue.
So, whilst a lot of footwear is not leather, it is not truly vegan unless the manufacturer can guarantee that the glue used is not derived from animals or animal by-products. In fact, when questioned, many manufacturers have stated that they are unable to confirm whether the glues used in their shoes contain animal products because they simply do not know.
But what’s wrong with leather?
Leather has long been a by-word for luxury when it comes to shoes, bags and other accessories. But leather comes at an extremely high cost to the planet and its animal and human occupants.
Leather production obviously has negative (i.e. deadly) consequences for the more than 50 million animals killed each year in its production. However, there are other reasons besides animal welfare to eschew leather as a fashion material.
Fashion designer Stella McCartney is well known for not using leather in her collections and describes leather as ‘extraordinarily harmful to the planet’ as well as ‘extraordinarily cruel’. McCartney (correctly) states that leather is not really an inconsequential by-product of meat production, but an economically important co-product that directly contributes to factory farms and abattoirs. ‘It’s a myth’, she stated in a 2015 interview with Imran Amed, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion.
Further, leather production is increasingly linked to a variety of environmental and human health hazards. The amount of feed, water and fossil fuels used to raise livestock for leather production come at a huge cost to the health of our world. According to the UK’s Ethical Consumer, the carbon footprint of a pair of leather shoes is nearly twice that of a pair of synthetic ones, largely because of the carbon intensity of cattle farming. ‘Of the total carbon footprint of a pair of leather shoes, around half is down to the leather, a quarter to the energy used in manufacture, 15% is transport, 5% the shoe box and 5% other parts of the life cycle’, the organisation’s Ethical shopping guide to shoes states.
In addition to raising the livestock needed, the leather tanning process is among the most toxic in all the fashion supply chain. Workers are exposed to harmful chemicals on the job, while the waste generated pollutes natural water sources, leading to increased disease for surrounding areas.
One of the most problematic chemicals involved is chromium, which is highly toxic to people and the environment, but used in 85% of shoes. Ethical Consumer reports: ‘Chromium produces the toxic chemical by-product hexavalent chromium, which is a known human carcinogen. Remember Erin Brockovich? Other hazardous chemicals, including arsenic and cyanide, are also used in the leather tanning process, adding to the overall pollution load.
So, is faux leather better?
Non-leather shoes can be made from a variety of materials. Faux leather, vegan leather or pleather (plastic leather) is usually made of PU (Polyurethane) and polyester or nylon.
While these non-leather alternatives still have problems (for example, some toxins in their manufacture), the environmental impact of vegan leathers has been improving enormously. The plastic coated onto fabric is generally polyurethane (PU), rather than the more toxic PVC. Furthermore, the newest forms use a water-based method to apply the PU to the fabric, rather than the highly toxic solvents that were traditionally used.
And what makes a shoe ‘ethical’?
One of the biggest issues in many shoe manufacturing countries, especially in Asia, is low wages. A living wage is a human right that is often not materialised in the shoe production countries of Asia.
According to Labour Behind the Label, a UK campaign group that focuses exclusively on labour rights in the global garment industry, ‘Systemic human rights abuses pervade the global shoe industry, from poverty pay, long working hours and denial of trade union rights to significant risks to workers’ health and the environment through harmful chemicals and dyes’.
Even a generic ‘Made in Europe’ label is not enough to guarantee workers’ rights. Current European Union regulations allow for items to be only partly made in the country specified, and so your 'Made in Italy' shoes might, in fact, be only finished and packaged there, having started their journey in Asia. According to Daily Life's Sustainable Style columnist, journalist and author Clare Press, 'You have to do deep research to work out which items by which brands are made where, and with what'.
‘An almost total lack of transparency allows exploitation to continue apace with the growth of the industry’, the group has stated.
Ethical Consumer reports that ‘most of the big companies’ rely on outsourced cheap labour, adding that ‘Due to restrictions on collective bargaining and freedom of association, many workers lack the possibility to improve their conditions’.
Ethical Consumer Group, an Australian community-based, not-for-profit organisation set up to help facilitate more sustainable purchasing practices for the everyday consumer, publishes various Shop Ethical! guides, including one rating many common brands of women's shoes. You can read more about how their ratings and assessment process works here.
How do our shoes stack up?
The footwear brands stocked by Ecoture are amongst those leading the way in producing shoes that respect workers and the environment. All of our shoes are vegan, ethically and humanely produced, and low in toxins.
- Our brands use leather alternatives that have clear environmental merits.
- Our brands are committed to protecting the rights of workers in their supply chain.
UK-based Will's Vegan Shoes & Accessories Co. is a pioneer of the ‘eco’ shoe movement. Founded by Will Green, the label is based on the philosophy that high-street style and price shouldn’t come at the cost of animals or humans.
Wills’ contemporary designs echo the latest footwear trends and have been designed with quality in mind. Its PETA-approved range is created with microfibres that look, wear, breathe and resist water just like leather. According to Will, ‘Buying something well-made saves money, provides something to cherish and is better for our environment. Best of all, my shoes match the high-street prices, dropping the barriers to living an ethical life’.
The entire Wills range is free of animal products, and its shoes, bags and other accessories are manufactured ethically in small factories in Portugal that ensure workers are paid in accordance with European guidelines. ‘Wills really is an animal and human-friendly company.' Will commented.
Best of all, these shoes are comfortable. They feature soft, breathable lining and hand-stitched latex insoles and are water resistant and breathable.
On the left: Hush Puppies Manix women's boot ($179.95 from Hush Puppies). On the right: Will's Vegan Shoes women's Chelsea boot in chestnut ($189 from Ecoture).
NOAH produces its fashionable, high-quality vegan shoes, bags and accessories in limited numbers in Italy. The company manufactures using small factories that guarantee fair working conditions.
The brand is committed to responsible manufacturing that looks after the environment, animals and human health; the entire production cycle of its footwear reflects its attention to a sustainable environmental impact.On the left: Tony Bianco Botany slides in black leather ($129.95 from The Iconic). On the right: NOAH Palmira slides ($109 from Ecoture).
Through its use of non-toxic, hypoallergenic and durable vegan materials (some of which come from recycling), NOAH contributes to the reduction of animal suffering and of environmental pollution, without sacrificing comfort and style. The company’s vision of a sustainable economy is stated as:
- To respect the environment, the materials used are among the most sustainable and resistant available on the market.
- To respect the people who manufacture and wear them, NOAH shoes are non-toxic and hypoallergenic.
- To respect the life of animals, no leather or other animal products are used.
Like Wills, our personal experience with NOAH shoes is that they’re super comfy – supple, breathable and just good to wear.
RAFA is a women’s luxury footwear collection designed and hand-crafted by a small group of artisans in Los Angeles, California. The label is committed to the use of local craftsmanship and top quality materials.
While they look and feel like the highest-quality suede, all RAFA shoes and boots are 100% vegan, made using ecologically friendly materials and sustainable processes. Double-lined orthopaedic foam insoles ensure RAFA shoes and boots are comfortable enough to wear all day (or night).
On the left: Gianvito Rossi suede ankle boots ($1,225 from Net-a-Porter). On the right: RAFA convertible midi boot in Cini ($699 from Ecoture).
Perhaps the biggest issue you’ll face wearing a pair of RAFAs is people not believing they’re vegan, so ‘real’ is the finish.
The founder and director of Etiko, Nick Savaidis, explains that he started Etiko in 2005 ‘after finding that, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t buy stuff such as sportsballs, clothing and footwear, which we could be 100% confident hadn’t been made by a child or some poor worker being ripped off in a developing country’. ‘Sweatshops, corporate greed, globalisation, call it what you want, all we knew was that it sucked and it was time for an alternative’.
The Etiko brand is the pioneer of organic and fairtrade footwear in Australia.
While they look almost exactly like another big-name sneaker brand, Etikos are made with cotton that is certified both organic (GOTS) and fairtrade (FLO). The rubber soles are a blend of FSC-certified rubber as well as some recycled materials. The sneakers are completely vegan, with no animal glues or other animal-derived products used.
On the left: Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Classic Colour Low Top ($100 from various). On the right: white Etiko lowcut sneakers ($95 from Ecoture).
When you buy Etiko, you not only get a quality product that looks good, you do good as well. Etiko sneakers:
- Enable the payment of decent wages to factory workers in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
- Support the payment of fair trade premiums – on top of fair prices – that are invested by factories in social and economic development initiatives to benefit workers, their families and communities.
- Ensure safe and decent working conditions for factory workers.
- Is an investment in sourcing of raw materials that are environmentally sustainable and ethically produced.