Last updated: August 2016
The ethical footprint of your shoes
On the table above we have rated some of the biggest names in the shoe industry to see where they stand on some of the key ethical issues in the sector. We also introduce some alternatives who are leading the way in producing shoes that respect workers and the environment.
We identified the most important issues in this market to be:
Below we discuss each issues in more depth.
We rated all the companies in this guide on their toxic chemicals policies beacause of the number of hazardous chemicals, such as PFC’s, PVC, dyes and adhesives, used in the footwear industry.
We were looking for a policy that identifies and quantifies the chemicals used in manufacture and sets targets for the phasing out of the most dangerous. Those companies that had banned hazardous chemicals received our best rating, those making progress got a middle rating and those doing nothing were given a worst rating.
Best rated companies:
Blackspot, Eco Vegan Shoes, Po-Zu, Green Shoes and Vivobarefoot.
Companies were also marked down under Pollution & Toxics if they:
- Used leather, unless it was chromium free (as in the case of Po-Zu, Green Shoes and Vivobarefoot),
- Used non-organic cotton, as cotton is conventionally grown with high amounts of pesticides (e.g. TOMS, which had many cotton shoes but no cotton policy),
- Used alternatives to leather that did not have clear environmental merits (e.g. Birkenstock vegan options were made from PVC).
Several of the brands we looked at do not disclose where their shoes are made. Most of the other big companies relied on outsourced cheap labour mainly in Asia. Even a generic ‘Made in Europe’ label is not enough to guarantee workers’ rights, say Labour Behind the Label.
Those at the top of the rankings table showed some commitment to protecting workers’ rights in their supply chain. They included explicitly unionised labour (Blackspot), or companies that made most of their shoes through close relationships with factories in Portugal (Bourgeois Boheme, Po-Zu, Vegetarian Shoes, Wills, Eco Vegan Shoes), Spain (Beyond Skin) or the UK (Ethical Wares).
The few who owned their own production facilities were:
- soleRebels in Ethiopia,
- Freerangers and Green Shoes in the UK,
- Birkenstock in Germany, and
- Hotter in Lancashire, UK.
It should also be noted that even smaller companies did not get a best rating for supply chain management unless they gave some detail about the specific factories they worked with.
Change your shoes!
In 2015, 18 human rights, workers’ rights and environmental organisations across Europe, India, and China launched ‘Change Your Shoes’, a global campaign aimed to address the systemic workers’ rights abuses plaguing the shoe industry.
Due to restrictions on collective bargaining and freedom of association, many workers lack the possibility to improve their conditions; such as low wages, illegal levels of overtime and poor health and safety measures. Poverty wages are endemic, with approximately only 2% of the price of a pair of shoes being paid to the workers who made them.
Find out more about the 'Change Your Shoes' campaign and how you can support it.
If you want something tougher than a textile shoe, choosing footwear can pose some real ethical dilemmas for consumers.
Leather isn’t an inconsequential by-product of the meat industry, but an economically important co-product so buying leather directly contributes to factory farms and abattoirs.
Therefore, on our ranking tables, companies using leather are marked down under Animal Rights.
The carbon footprint of a pair of leather shoes is nearly twice as much as a pair of synthetic ones, largely because of the carbon intensity of cattle farming. See our veggie vs meat feature for more on this.
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 shoebox and 5% other parts of the life cycle.
Toxics in tanning process
One of the riskiest processes of leather production is the tanning phase – a process that mainly uses toxic chemicals to turn animal skin into leather and stop it from decomposing.
One of the most problematic chemicals used is chromium which is highly toxic to people and the environment, but used in 85% of shoes. Chromium produces the toxic chemical by-product hexavalent chromium, which is a known human carcinogen. Many other hazardous chemicals are used including arsenic and cyanide, which add to the pollution of waterways.
On the table above those using leather that is not chromium free where marked down in the Pollution and Toxics category.
Is Faux leather more ethical?
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 they still have problems (e.g. toxics used 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 (which Birkenstock uses for its vegan options). 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.
What makes a shoe vegan?
There are leather-free shoes available from most shoe makers which come in all the same styles that leather shoes come in.
Just check that the shoes or their packaging do not contain a leathermark.
Two main things make footwear vegan – no leather and no animal-based glue. So, whilst lots of footwear is not leather, it is not truly vegan unless the manufacturer can guarantee that the glue is non-animal. And a lot of companies either use animal glue or can’t guarantee that they don’t.
So, to be totally sure that you are avoiding animal glue, look for the vegan brands listed in the individual guides. They appear on the rankings tables with [V] after their brand name.
Piñatex (pineapple leather) was developed by a Spanish designer, inspired by shirts she had seen made from pineapple leaves in the Philippines. It is meshed rather than woven, looks like leather and is strong and breathable. Piñatex is made of 80% pineapple leaf fibres and 20% PLA fibres (from biodegradable plant resources). It takes the leaves from about 16 pineapples to make 1 metre squared of Piñatex.
Ananas Anam, the company behind this new material, works with pineapple-farming communities and states that it wants to ensure “that commercial success is integrated with, and promotes social, cultural and ecological development.” The by-product of making Piñatex can also be converted into fertiliser or biogas. Po-Zu and Bourgeois Boheme have started to use Piñatex this year.
Company behind the brand
Clarks was the only large company which responded to our questionnaire. It did take more responsibility for its supply chain management than many of the other large companies on our table, but still was only seen to have a rudimentary supply chain policy as it did not state that weekly working hours before overtime should not exceed 48 hours, nor mention living wages.
Stop Child Labour’s 2013 report ‘Working on the Right Shoes’ rated Clarks as ‘good’ for its attempts to tackle child labour in its supply chains, stating, “The fact that Clarks made use of our report in a positive way, and their open approach to our campaign is being appreciated”.
75% of leather used by Clarks was from Leather Working Group medal-status tanneries, which are audited against environmental standards. The company also stated, “We do not currently have a cotton-sourcing policy but options for sourcing certified cotton (e.g. BCI, Fairtrade) are currently under review.”
The company was also marked down under anti-social finance for paying two of its executives over £1 million in 2015.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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