Heather Webb goes in search of an ethical shoe.
Campaigns for workers’ rights have, in the past, tended to focus on sports shoes, often leaving out the bigger brands in fashion and mainstream leather shoes. This is why Ethical Consumer was keen to do a survey of the companies involved and get them up to speed with what people are now demanding.
This Buyers’ Guide therefore includes many mainstream and fashion brands along with a growing number of alternatives that try to be animal and environmentally friendly.
Non-leather shoes are considered and three manufacturers looking at global justice issues through their products are reviewed. Many of these alternatives are not found on the high-street but on company or ethical clothing websites such as Fashion Conscience or Vegetarian Shoes.
Market research tells us that footwear in the UK is changing from being practical, crafted, long lasting and sensible to being led by changing fashions, cheaper imports and materials. The market is becoming dominated by fashion brand shoes, designed to fit with the latest season, and cheap enough to be discarded after a few wears.(1) This trend is of concern to those interested in sustainable consumption.
Traditionally shoes are made from leather, an industry which has been dominated by animal rights and environmental problems. According to Greenpeace “the cattle sector in the Brazilian Amazon is the largest driver of deforestation in the world, responsible for an average of one acre lost every 8 seconds”.(2) With the leather hide industry expanding and becoming more profitable it is becoming more necessarily for industries involved to take heed and help prevent the destruction of Amazon.
Clarks, Adidas, Nike, Dr Martens, Timberland and the Pentland Group are all members of the Leather Working Group. This is an initiative set up in 2005 to bring together retailers, end-product manufacturers, leather manufacturers, chemical suppliers and technical experts to agree on a set of environmental best practices for the leather industry. In 2010, the group agreed to incorporate hide traceability into auditing systems for tanneries. The system requires hides originating in the Amazon biome of Brazil to be traceable back to ranches which show no post October 2009 deforestation. While the initiative has been successful in getting large companies to commit to buying leather from approved suppliers, Brazil’s government still continues to fund expansion of the cattle ranches.
The Forest Footpath Disclosure project notes in its annual report that while the commitment to avoid leather sourced from the Amazon was encouraging, it was not clear how the commitment would be implemented by companies.(3)
Companies that sell leather shoes receive marks on the table for Pollution and Toxics due to the fact that the tanning industry uses a cocktail of harmful chemicals including trivalent chromium sulphate, sodium sulphide, sodium sulfhydrate, arsenic and cyanide. Tannery effluent also contains large amounts of other pollutants, such as protein, hair, salt, lime sludge and acids.
Many of the cheaper brands do not use leather but instead use a mixture of materials which may include polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC was found to be commonly used in the soles and uppers of modern shoes and companies tend to use it as it allowed for more cost-effective production and innovative styles through its capacity to be moulded into shape.(4)
However, the manufacturing process for PVC can lead to dioxin emissions and has been the target of campaigns by Greenpeace amongst others. The chemical has been linked in numerous studies to oestrogen-mimicking chemicals and respiratory problems. Many companies did not state whether their shoes were made from PVC, choosing to just describe the material used as ‘synthetic’.
UGG is a brand made famous for its use of Australian merino wool. Merino wool is a cause for concern due to the cruel practice of mulesing. Mulesing is where farmers carve large strips of skin and flesh off the backs of un-anaesthetised lambs’ legs and tails, to prevent ‘flystrike’. PETA has run a long campaign against mulesing and is urging consumers and companies to boycott merino wool.
A better shoe?
Vegetarians and vegans have long sought to avoid leather in footwear, which has led to a range of alternative products being made. However with the issues of leather production becoming more talked about, other companies have entered the market providing a wider range of alternatives. Beyond Skin is a designer vegan shoe company, while Blackspot and Ethletic shoes are both made from organic cotton. Freerangers and Vegetarian Shoes use alternative materials to leather.
Beyond Skin stated that it used polyurethane or PU instead of PVC, considering it a lesser of two evils. Polyurethane is made from petrochemicals, which have their own resource issues. However a large amount of Beyond Skin’s collection was made from a sustainable faux suede called Dinamica which was made from 100% recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate).
Other companies within the report which were PVC free included Crocs which were made out of a ‘closed-cell resin’, called Croslite™ and Havaianas which are made from rubber.
The problem with alternative materials is that many of the materials restrict the type of shoe which can be made. Leather shoes traditionally are practical for all types of weather, whereas shoes made from hemp or cotton are not waterproof.
Robin Webb from Vegetarian Shoes dreams “I would love to one day produce the ‘Ultimate shoe’! One that is animal free, sustainable, much more environmentally friendly, worker friendly, and is practical, lasts well, is comfortable and looks cool.”
References: 1 Mintel, June 2011 2 Greenpeace, Slaughter in the Amazon, 2009 3 Forest Footprint Disclosure Annual Review 2011, p.18 4 www.pvc.org
Clarks, the nation’s favourite shoe shop, scored a worst rating for supply chain management as it failed to provide evidence of a code of conduct and did not have a policy on its website which addressed workers’ rights within its supply chain.
Hunter Rubber Company is a Scottish based company which produces the classic wellington boot. The company was until recently independent, but 2006 was placed into administration. It was brought by a private consortium which was supported by the Pentland Group. The new owners renamed the company Hunter Boot Ltd. The Pentland Group owns an array of different brands, such as Red or Dead, Kickers and KangaROOs.
For those looking for green wellies, The Fair Corp (Ethletic) also sells green Fair Trade wellies made from FSC rubber.
Po-Zu is a company trying to make more environmentally friendly shoes. It sells a range of shoes, boots, sandals and includes ranges suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Havaianas, the popular Brazilian flip flop is owned by Sao Paulo Alpargatas which is, in turn, part-owned by Camargo Correa. According to the Camargo Correa Annual Report 2010, the company had business divisions in the following areas: cement, energy concessions, highway concessions, engineering and construction (hydroelectric dams), steelmaking, shipbuilding and airport operations.
Birkenstock continues to defy the trend to shift all manufacturing to the Far East with its shoes continuing to be manufactured in Germany. Workers’ rights abuses tend to be less severe in Western economies where regulation is tighter. This does not mean they are perfect. For example, a report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in 2007 on migrant workers within Europe, it noted that in Germany it was common for Turkish migrants to do shift work, weekend work, piece work, work at the assembly line and overtime. The findings of the study also stated that migrant workers tended to work long hours, unsocial shifts and were less likely to have holidays or sick leave. However ECRA gave Birkenstock the middle rating on these issues for an effective if not explicit policy on addressing workers’ rights in its supply chain.
In February 2012, R Griggs Group, the owner of Dr Martens for over 50 years, put the company up for sale. In 2000, due to rising production costs in the UK, Dr Martens moved its production to China and Thailand. In 2007, however, the company brought some of its production back to its original factory in Northamptonshire to produce Dr Marten vintage styles. The company was one of the few shoe brands included in this report that had a supplier code of conduct that included all six of the ILO conventions.
Brantano and Jones Bootmakers had both been brought by the Dutch Macintosh Retail Group after both companies went into administration. The Macintosh Group specialises in non-food retailing and owns several different companies across, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
UGG Australia is owned by the American Deckers Outdoor Company. Its use of merino wool was discussed on page 25 in this buyers’ guide. Deckers Outdoor Company was a member of the ‘Wool Working Group’ which was trying to understand the impacts of and improve transparency and traceability of wool production in the worldwide supply chain. Interestingly Deckers Outdoor Company has established a Restricted Substances Policy which included PVC as a banned substance due to the concerns raised by consumers and NGOs.
Shoes for global justice
Heather Webb looks at three shoe companies hoping to make a difference in the world.
In 2004, soleRebel started a Fair Trade organisation making shoes in Ethiopia, with a core aim of providing sustainable work to the community of Zenabwork, a district of Addis Ababa. At the heart of its ethos stands “workers, cultural preservation and sustainable production”.
soleRebel states on its website that it had selected shoes because it was an excellent platform to begin to share many of the indigenous sustainable craft heritages and artisan talents that Ethiopia had. It also meant that the company could source and make almost all its materials locally, thereby creating an export product from 100% local inputs.
soleRebel argues that its model is rejecting the idea of aid dependency. The company hopes to show that Ethiopia can produce high value branded finished goods for export not just the low commodity exports that so many developing countries have come to rely on.
The founder Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is a firm believer in the revolution that could come from expanding the business to include more local suppliers, creating sustainable jobs throughout Ethiopia.
To find out more about soleRebel or to buy its shoes visit www.solerebelsfootwear.co/
TOMS Shoes – the one for one company
For every pair of TOMS shoes you buy, the company gives a pair of shoes to a child in need. The company was started in 2006 with a mission to give a free pair of shoes to children living in extreme poverty to help prevent soil-transmitted diseases and give access to education. Since then, TOMS Shoes have become a global phenomenon, with the simple Argentinian shoes, alpargatas, now being sold all over the world.
In 2010, the company gave away its one millionth shoe and now delivers shoes to communities across 23 different countries. The founder of TOMS Shoes, Blake Mycoskie, calls his business model ‘Philanthropic Capitalism’.(1) Others may recognise it as similar to “cause related marketing” (CRM), a strategic marketing tool used by companies for products which feature target-oriented donations to a designated cause.
There are many ethical discussions around the merits of applying CRM to products. One asks whether this really is altruistic philanthropy. Who benefits the most: consumers, the company or the charity? Others have criticised this business model for creating dependency on aid rather than helping to create sustainable communities. Local shoe makers may be put into competition with ‘free’ aid and therefore are squeezed out of the market.
Ethical Consumer feels that CRM is OK when the ideals also drive the company’s whole supply chain and production model. Otherwise it can look like greenwash. TOMS Shoes do reasonably in this regard, with a middle rating for supply chain management, stating on its website that it required factories to operate under strict labour conditions, pay fair wages and follow local labour standards. All factories sign its code of conduct. In addition, production staff routinely visited the factories to make sure they are maintaining working standards. The company uses a third party to audit the factories at least once a year to ensure they adhere to proper labour regulations.
TOMS Shoes are available from Office and Schuh shops and its website. The company does a range of vegan footwear as well as shoes for children. TOMS had also recently expanded its one-for-one model to include eyewear.
Clarks, Soul of Africa
Clarks have a brand of shoes called Soul of Africa, which are made by women in South Africa.
Soul of Africa is the creation of Lance Clark and Mike and Sarah Gedye of Froggie Shoes (a leading South African footwear manufacturer). Together they believed that they could make a difference to the lives of South Africans by creating sustainable employment and in turn changing the lives of orphans and vulnerable children.
The project was initially designed to help women into employment by training them to produce handmade shoes to be sold in the UK. The project proved successful and now profits from the sales of shoes are being used to help fund KwaZulu’s children’s future.
You can purchase a pair of Soul Of Africa shoes from Clarks’ website or shops.
You can also find out more about the charity at their website: www.soulofafricacharity.org
Reference: 1 www.success.com/articles/852-the-business-of-giving-toms-shoes
Invisible workers in the leather footwear industry
Homeworkers Worldwide demand better recognition for homeworkers in the leather footwear industry.
A report by Homeworkers Worldwide (HWW) called ‘Who Foots the Bill?’ in March 2008 called for UK shoe retailers to take responsibility for working conditions within their supply chains. In particular they demanded that shoe companies recognise the work done by homeworkers – often described as ‘invisible workers’ in supply chains.
The report focused on work done mostly by women producing medium-priced leather shoes for the European market. According to the report, the invisibility of workers made it very hard for them to organise themselves and demand better working conditions, pay and security. In many countries, there is no legal recognition of homeworkers and in those countries where there is, regulations were rarely found to be upheld.
What was highlighted in the report was that homeworking was not just prevalent in developing countries but also countries within the EU, such as Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, and Greece. Many homeworkers shared the same characteristics: they were women; tied to the home by domestic responsibilities; usually caring for children; sometimes involved in either subsistence or wages agricultural work; and that they had little choice of alternative employment. The work was often poorly paid, irregular, offered no social protection, and had few health and safety controls.
According to HWW the issue of employment of homeworkers had been raised with some key UK footwear retailers. While there was a general acknowledgement and awareness of homeworkers in their supply chains the retailers believed that they had reasonable employment conditions. HWW did not feel that companies were monitoring their supply chains in such a way that homeworkers were visible workers in their chains. Jane Tate from HWW stated that currently ‘there was no example of best practice models, where homeworkers are in fact treated equally in the footwear sector’.
In Ethical Consumer’s survey of companies for this buyers’ guide, none were found to have a policy relating to homeworkers or recognition that this may occur within their supply chains.
HWW calls for companies to:
- Accept homeworking as part of the production process
- Recognise homeworkers as a group, entitled to the same rights as other workers
- Track supply chains in leather footwear so homeworkers do not remain hidden
- Recognise trade unions and homeworker organisations
- Develop company supply chain policy on the employment of homeworkers
- Join the Ethical Trading Initiative or other initiatives which aim to improve conditions in global supply chains
HWW calls on consumers to:
- Ask questions about where your shoes are made; who makes them and whether homeworkers are part of the process
- Support the demands of homeworkers for recognition of their work
- Write to retailers asking what their policy is on homeworkers
- Support HWW’s campaign for homeworkers’ rights
HWW calls on governments, the EU and ILO as follows:
- For governments to ratify the ILO Convention on Home Work
- For the EU to adopt the Convention as a legally binding measure throughout its member states
- Develop joint and several liability laws so that companies have a legal responsibility to workers in all their supply chains
- Explore ways in which binding international legislation can be drawn up and implemented to ensure that UK and other European retailers take responsibility for abiding by any legislation and do not push the cost down.
Case Study: Tamil Nadu, India
Tamil Nadu is one of the main areas which exports leather products including shoes and components for shoes. It has a large factory base and has been expanding its production and exports over recent years. With the expansion of exports, many new companies have been investing in the sector. The large factories had been attracting many migrant and young women workers but hidden alongside the factory workers was an extensive network of homeworkers whose jobs were to sew the uppers onto shoes.
HWW focused on making contact with homeworkers in several districts in Tamil Nadu. HWW found that the homeworkers were paid piece rates and had no benefits. In contrast to other homeworkers, HWW found that many homeworkers in Tamil Nadu had previously worked in factories before they were married and had children. Many had some basic knowledge of the rights of workers, but did not see themselves as ‘workers’ entitled to the same rights now they were married women. HWW also found that some leather processing was being put out to homeworkers in Tamil Nadu.
For more details on the Homeworkers Worldwide and their campaigns see