Watch your step.
A very old, very dear friend of mine once gave a piece of advice.
He told me that you should always choose mattresses and shoes carefully, and buy well. Because in life, if you’re not on one, you’re in the other.
Over the years, perhaps my interpretation of ‘good’ has evolved. Once it would have been quality, now it should include sustainability, but on the other hand I am unashamedly a lover of brands.
I love the art and the design they bring into the world. It is shallow, but it is a burden that I have learned to live with. I love the feeling that a really well designed, really stylish brand brings me. I love thoughtful and interesting advertising. I love the dynamic beauty of a clip of a skateboarder, taking on an urban landscape in a really nice pair of sneakers. It makes me want them.
It’s really hard then for me to say, but this needs to change. I need to start paying attention to what a good pair of footwear, a pair that you can wear every day — really means. I have over ten pairs of Converse, and I chose every single one of them simply because I liked the colour.
But from now on, I need a brand that you can feel good in, and feel good about.
So far, so vain. Some may be thinking that shoes are shoes, trainers are trainers, sneakers are sneakers, and they don’t care about brands.
But a pair of unbranded shoes, from a generic store, may feel like you are rejecting the shallow or over-priced nature of a brand, but they also have to live up to some benchmarks of good. In terms of sustainability — I didn’t find any evidence that the materials or practices are better consistently for high fashion or unbranded.
I am not surprised, because it seems very hard to be good in the footwear industry.
A single pair of footwear is made of a dizzying number of different things. Leather or synthetic materials, rubber, glue, dyes, water repellents. Shoes are made all over the place, materials are sourced the same, factories are not always owned by the brands themselves. Most companies have policies, big brands have additional voluntary practices, but footwear is still mass produced, and mass production is difficult to control.
I have however found two places to start.
What are they made of, and where are they made.
The first one, is perhaps the main consideration we have when we buy a pair of footwear, or a garment of any type. Fast fashion, is giving way to ethical fashion. Even most fast fashion, now seems to have an ethical range. A headache pill or a distraction from the majority of the range.
Recycled, undyed, non-virgin, vegan. These adjectives are applied to ingredients, and described in percentages that would confuse a scientist and in the kind of language that would not look out of place on a Michelin Star restaurant menu.
Cut through this, and the consideration seems to be that if the footwear is made of leather, or uses toxic chemicals in the production process, or both — then we should consider our choice.
However, I do not think it is fair to boycott leather without a thought, because I am not sure it is as simple as that.
In fact, two of the biggest activist organisations, when it comes to leather and synthetic materials, disagree. Rejecting natural materials for synthetic ones, as a generalisation and without further educating the public, can be helpful to animal welfare, but then terrible for the planet in other ways.
Synthetic materials may be produced in a way that either directly or as a by-product can be just as bad. We may make a choice for animal welfare, and by doing that we might be making the wrong one for other reasons, such as the petrochemical origin of some synthetic materials or what is released afterwards into the water supply.
The second choice, is where they are made. There are transportation costs to consider, but also there is the conditions that the footwear is made. The dreaded ‘sweatshop’ description come up a lot when researching this. Mass producers will deny this, as often the precise definition of salary or conditions might meet local or global regulations. But that is a bit of a case of blaming the sin, not the sinner.
It has also become an eye-rolling cliché to bemoan tagging places as sweatshops, especially when the universe by pure accident blessed you with being born, or to live in a privileged country.
We are instead told we should choose a product that is made in countries that match our worldview, but on the other hand I am sure there are bad conditions in factories in so-called fashion capitals such as Milan.
Whatever the country, I feel that should you visit the factory, should you stand on the shop floor, see the conditions, and speak to the workers, it seems many would fail the moral ultimate test of any situation of this type:
Would you work there?
This might seem like a lot of thought, for a pair of shoes. We might also think that when we make a purchase, it is only one more pair. But each year somewhere in the region of 19 billion pairs of shoes are bought, which as a clumsy sum is a couple of pairs for everyone on the planet.
The stakes are therefore really high. If we all made little changes, and we swung this needle a few percent in the direction of kinder choices of footwear, this little change could eliminate billions of pairs from being made. Billions of pairs of leather shoes and the associated animals. Countless gallons of toxic chemicals.
The common ground for me — is to simply slow down. Footwear has somehow become an impulse purchase, which does not allow time for the thoughtful choices over brands. Having multiple pairs of trainers, in multiple accessorised colours, something that has moved from high fashion to the high street. High design, but at an accessible price.
But if we went back to basics, and considered footwear as a consumable product, rather than simply a fashion item, then it make the choice different.
It means considering provenance, and consider the circular nature of the product, and what is pre-designed into the product to make sure something good can happen once the consumer life is finished. Many footwear brands do not consider this — but instead accept no-one cares where or how it is made, as long as it is fabulous. It considers that if a bit of the sole comes unstuck, then the product will end up in the trash, and that’s OK because the consumer will be upgrading to the next one anyhow.
I believe that if we can’t easily read, be told, or tell from a description what, how or where a footwear brand is made, we should not choose it. Paying attention to the provenance of what you are buying, is as important as making similar choices with food.
The positive pressure that we can make might also cause brands to try and be a bit more transparent, or educate store staff on why customers should choose their brand on the ground of good, and to add substance to style.
The best ethical brands often publish a story, and put efforts into educating us on their sourcing and practices, with a vulnerability to admit that things can always be better. I am sure that the stories leave out some really difficult parts about changes attitudes in a big industry, and about being a small voice in a very, very big world. But it is wonderful to see vulnerability in the art of creating little changes, and trying to be better, every day.
Perhaps this is my vanity and the appeal of a well versed marketing story, but at least it is vanity directed in a positive direction.
If you choose this little change, then it does come at a price. Good raw materials and practices, mean that the price of many sustainably minded footwear brands is higher than we might be used to. Many take part in minimal marketing spend outside of their own websites and the power of positive messages to spread organically, it is simply that materials and production is more expensive.
However, if we consider that quality goes alongside good, I should trust that they will last longer, and will have end-of-life designed into them. Perhaps also this is a kind of enlightenment. The principle of being careful about what you buy, taking care of it, and then considering it’s re-use is a consistent theme in this planetwise publication.
To be true to my dear friend, and to keep his advice alive for several more decades, we will watch our step — and we will continue to search for the best choices for good new shoes, by the definition we have now chosen.
For an extended version of this post, please check out the Planetwise Pod!