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Steps on the ethical footwear journey.  Allbirds merino shoes on the left, Po-Zu Fairtrade sneakers on the right.

How often do you think about shoes?  Shoes are often overlooked when it comes to ethical clothing choices.  Unfortunately they are not readily recycled at the end of their life and so they usually end up in the landfill.  Many shoes that are available (and affordable) are made from non-biodegradable materials that will linger for many years (perhaps even thousands or tens of thousands of years), leaching toxic chemicals into the environment as they decompose.  What’s more we’ve all heard the horror stories of the treatment of workers in shoe factories around the impoverished “developing world”.  How can we ask those workers to care about the environment when they can’t even afford to care for themselves and their families?

It turns out that ethical footwear is pretty expensive and hard to find when you are in a hurry to replace a much loved shoe that’s fallen to bits.  We humans have been making shoes a long time.  People were making sage brush sandals ~10,000 years ago in Oregon!  Leather has been used to make shoes for 5500 years.  Things have certainly changed a fair bit in the shoe department.  This is particularly true since the rise of plastics and synthetic materials.

Several years ago we began to wonder how ethical our shoes were.  At the time our eldest was heavily influenced by her peers and wanted a pair of Nikes.  We had seen articles in the news about the treatment of Nike workers.  I was reluctant to purchase Nikes because I didn’t want to support a company that didn’t value human rights.  Our daughter was horrified when we found a few age appropriate videos on YouTube for her.  She wanted nothing to do with Nike.  We opted for  Mizunos  which are a more ethical alternative, and she was happy with them instead of the ever popular Nikes. Given the time pressure, the price we could afford and what was locally available in a hurry we think it was a good compromise.  Even better, it sparked a lot of discussion around the dinner table about what brands were ethical and what ones weren’t.  That was the beginning of the shoe journey.

What is the environmental impact of the shoes you wear?  How often do you stop to consider it?  Many people I have talked to seem to think that the only environmental impact of their shoes comes at the end of their life, but in actual fact that is only part of the impact.   In general, sports shoes for example comprise dozens of mostly synthetic materials.  A single sports shoe can contain 65 discrete parts that require 360 processing steps for assembly.  Using life cycle assessment methodology the carbon footprint for a typical pair of running shoes made from synthetic materials is estimated to be approximately 14kg CO2-equivalent.  The bulk of carbon emissions for a shoe is found in processing materials, and the manufacturing process.  Unlike many other consumables they are not energy intensive to use or maintain (which is the opposite of electronics for example).

If your shoes are made in New Zealand then the electricity used to power the manufacturing process is largely renewable.  But if it comes from China then coal is the dominant source of electricity and is also likely used to produce steam for other processes in the factory as well.  China is making strides in adopting greener energy alternatives but the majority of its electricity is still from unsustainable and polluting forms of power generation. This is an important consideration when trying to purchase ethical footwear, and it is one that is not easy to assess when you are in the shoe shop!

There are practical steps you can take, like buying quality shoes that have a longer lifespan, and only buying what you actually need.  You can repair your shoes too, I wrote a blog about repairing  jandals with a soldering iron.  Ultimately however, they wear out and you are likely to be left with a bulky piece of synthetic foam, imitation leather and vinyl, or a plastic sole to bury somewhere for the next 10,000 years.

When considering leather, there is more  than meets the eye.  Obviously leather is not an option if you are particularly bothered by animal welfare.  If you are comfortable using leather products, then you might want to consider where your leather is manufactured, under what laws, and if it is tanned using chromium or vegetable tanning processes.

NZ has a large leather industry (something I never knew anything about).  Workers are covered by our labour laws and there are environmental controls in place.  Overseas it is often a very different story.  The leather industry in places such as China, Bangladesh and India for example, is hazardous to both the environment and the people who work in the factories.  Leather is often produced in areas without strong environmental protection laws.  The primary cause of environmental damages from the leather industry is from the dumping of waste products (both solid and liquid) that contain chromium and other hazardous compounds.

While I understand why some people choose to avoid leather (or any animal products) out of concern for animal welfare, I am very wary of a so called “animal friendly” shoes that are instead made from synthetic materials and plastic soles.  It is all very well to refuse to use animal products, opting instead for a product that is impossible to recycle, will be consigned to landfill to leach toxins into the environment, and cause harm to the very animals you are trying to help.  They can’t drink from contaminated waterways, and they can’t eat fragmented remains of plastic shoes as they float in the ocean.  If you are concerned about animal welfare then you need to look more widely than whether or not the product came from an animal.  Instead you also need to consider the impacts of the production of synthetic alternatives on the environment and wildlife as well.

The following list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it will provide a starting point for you to make a step in the direction of more sustainable and ethical footwear choices.

McKinleys

We have been buying McKinleys for our kids for years.  All three have had them and all of them have been unable to wear them out.  In fact, our eldest (long ago) hit on the bright idea to try scuffing holes in them so we would buy her a new pair.  She tried for a long time but gave up in the end because she was able to make them look worn, but not wear them out.

They come in two main styles for children (although they do a separate range of black school shoes and sandals). Style one is a pull on boot with an elastic gusset.  The second is an old style T-bar sandal.

Pros:

  • Available in a rainbow of colours, (red, blue, orange, bronze, green, pink…..etc).
  • Modest range of styles for adults.
  • Made in Dunedin NZ, under NZ labour laws protecting workers rights.
  • The leather for McKinley’s is sourced from Tasman Leather, a New Zealand owned tannery in Whanganui, using New Zealand hides, subject to NZ environmental and animal welfare protections.
  • Our kids shoes are usually $89-$99 but the last pair cost $65 because they were the last in a discontinued colour line.
  • Very durable.

Cons:

  • Soles are PVC or nitrile rubber, which is the only area of concern for me.
  • Our only issue so far has been that the buckles on a couple of shoes have not lasted. Both were able to be cheaply mended by the local shoe repairer.

Etiko

My husband decided to try these after becoming frustrated with cheap Warehouse shoes.  He is very hard on shoes, and so any shoe is in for a battering if he is wearing them.

Pros:

  • Amazingly comfortable casual shoes to wear.
  • Looked fantastic.
  • They are 100% biodegradable and sustainable
  • The sole was much better quality than equivalent Warehouse casuals.

Cons:

  • These shoes were terribly short lived. They had torn across back between sole and upper after only 3 months, of regular wear, which was very disappointing. The quality of the manufacturing seemed to let these shoes down.

Allbirds

My husband and I both have pairs of Allbirds.  We initially thought these looked like a great ethical choice but subsequent research has shown that there are issues with these shoes in terms of their soles and part of the lining of the upper. We were excited by the idea of a wool shoe.

Pros:

  • Super warm and comfy.
  • Ethical B-corp manufacturing.
  • Sustainable insole and part of upper.
  • Reasonable price.
  • They last better than you would expect a woollen shoe to last.
  • Fine for flat unchallenging surfaces.
  • They are definitely machine washable.

Cons:

  • Very slippery on some wet surfaces.
  • Undisclosed nylon in upper.
  • Soles are standard EVA and non-biodegradable.
  • My husband’s Allbirds haven’t held their shape. They now resemble booties! Mine are still fine despite a lot of wear.
  • The upper lacks enough support. Because the upper is stretchy my feet slide forward walking downhill and it’s actually downright weird on unevenly sloped surfaces and my feet slide sideways over the edge of the sole on steep terrain.
  • Not suitable as a running shoe despite advertising.

Po-Zu

My husband decided to try out this brand after seeing international reviews.  He got a semi casual pair for work.

Pros:

  • Vegan and chrome free leather options available.
  • 100% biodegradable, sustainable.
  • Fair trade.
  • Beautiful manufacturing quality.
  • After several months of regular wear they look barely used.
  • Warm and comfortable.
  • Good looking.

Cons:

  • Higher price, not available in NZ so difficult to get correct sizing.

 

Brooks

My husband decided to try these after his last running shoes wore out. This brand is the only proper sports shoe with ethical credentials that we could find.

Pros:

  • Huge commitment from company to living wages,
  • Ethical supply chain management
  • Real commitment to improving their environmental standards.
  • Biodegradable soles which make up the bulk of shoe.
  • Recycled content in upper.

Cons:

  • Shoes are still petro-chemical based and the upper is not biodegradable or recyclable.

I am choosing to make my choices count.  I support buying local NZ made where possible.  I always check the label to see where the shoes are made.  No matter how nice, if it is made in China for example I won’t buy it (unless it has exceptional accreditations to help me make an informed choice). I try to consider the end of life of the shoe too.  I don’t want something that is going to end up in landfill.  If it can be composted or recycled then that is a huge plus for me. I acknowledge how hard it can be to make these choices when you are urgently trying to replace your children’s shoes, but every choice you make has a flow on effect.  Even avoiding cheap synthetic shoes from China is a good place to start.

I believe we can transform the world with our choices.  Even making the effort to avoid a pair of shoes that is not ethically made in favour of a shoe with better ethical standards is a step in the right direction.

One thought on “Tread Lightly – Shoes with a small footprint

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