Friday, January 27, 2023

Would You Like Some Slave Labour With Your Stilettos? Why The Shoe Industry Is Failing Its Workers… And The Planet

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“Those shoes are to die for!” holds more truth than we might think, with the shoe industry one of the biggest culprits for badly paid and unsustainable work conditions. Guest Writer Morgan Theakston tells Capsule about the insights from Tearfund’s deep-dive into the shoe industry – and which NZ brands need to up their transparency.

It’s a sweltering day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Mohsin* and Helal* are telling us about their jobs at the leather tanneries. They’ve both spent nearly 40 years chemically treating cowhides to turn them into leather that, down-the-line, will be fashioned into a pair of next-season’s boots. This is dangerous and low-paid work. They have both seen numerous people die.

Mohsin tells us he works 16-hour shifts and says, “The gasses in the air are strong enough to melt iron and any jewellery we wear. We only have chemicals in our bodies by now”. Helal reveals the tannery owes workers hundreds of thousands of dollars (NZD) of unpaid wages, “Living and food are always a problem. There once was a buyer that cared about us, but since him, companies have only come for business”. He’s also seen child labour. “The children do the same dangerous work we do because the company depends on it,” he says.

After reflecting on the industry, Mohsin concludes “The rich are getting richer but the poor are dying”.

“The rich are getting richer but the poor are dying”.

We live in a society where ‘shoe-addiction’ is a common phrase, but the rate at which the fashion industry pumps out shoes has dire impacts on our culture, the planet, and the people who make them. We buy too many shoes and companies make even more than we can buy, causing heaps of waste and encouraging the idea that shoes should be cheap so they can be replaced the minute trends change (here’s to you, fast-fashion!). Everything about it is unsustainable.

My name is Morgan and, as part of my job at Tearfund, I’ve spent the last six months researching the global footwear industry alongside a team of people across Australia and New Zealand. Today that exposé is launched and I’m here to introduce Capsule readers to some of the shocking findings.

While New Zealand’s clothing industry has faced intense scrutiny by conscious shoppers and non-profits like Tearfund leading to positive change, shoe companies have slipped under the radar. We know that shoes are the third-largest import into New Zealand at risk of being made with slave labour and exploitation (*yikes*). That’s why we focused on footwear this year.

We scored 90 brands on what they’re doing to protect the people who make our shoes and reduce their impact on the planet. Instead of releasing the Ethical Fashion Guide as we’ve done in in the past, we’ve released an exposé article that dives into the issues the footwear industry and reveals how all the companies scored out of 100.

The results in a nutshell:

  • Number One Shoes and Hannahs scored a 0%
  • Overland Footwear, which covers Mi Piaci, Merchant 1948 and Deuce, received 12.82%
  • Allbirds scored a 26.72%
  • The highest score was Adidas with 58.3%
  • No companies could show they paid a living wage
  • The average footwear score was low at a 23%
  • Less than half of companies knew where all their shoes were made

Our Companies Need To Be More Transparent

New Zealand’s largest footwear companies need to be more transparent about their efforts to protect workers and the environment. Hannahs/Number 1 Shoes didn’t participate and had no information on their website around what they’re doing to address the major risks of exploitation in their supply chains, and Overland Footwear did participate but wasn’t even close to doing enough. A lack of visibility fosters an environment where exploitation of people and the planet is able to go unnoticed. Transparency around where our shoes and clothing are being made and the conditions of factories, is critical for holding companies accountable.

While Kiwi co-founded Allbirds is known as a key player in sustainable footwear, its low score is due to the company’s lack of transparency around its factories across Asia, wages, and working conditions. Are they doing well behind closed doors? Maybe? But with the majority of workers not earning enough to meet their basic needs, transparency around factories and wages is the standard. Real sustainability has to include sustainable wages for the people who make our shoes.

How To A) Still Love Shoes but B) Expect More From The Companies Who Make Them

I still love shoes though. Honestly, more times than not I plan my entire outfit around my shoes. How I go about finding them just looks a lot different now because my priorities have changed.

Firstly, I think about my purchases for a long time beforehand. Along with the rest of millennials, I quickly became obsessed with the black leather platform loafers once I started seeing them literally everywhere. It would’ve been so easy to head online and add-to-cart the minute I saw Hailey Bieber rocking them.But what if it’s just a fleeting trend? Would I still like them in six months? A year? Five years? I decided I’d find them second hand and would wait for the perfect pair in my size. It took me six months, but I finally found them on Facebook Marketplace (they were too small for the person who bought them but couldn’t be returned – perfect).

I love them, but the main reason I feel good wearing them is not because they look good (don’t get me wrong, they’re fire), but it’s because I know I carefully considered my purchase beforehand and prioritised treading lighter for the planet by opting for pre-loved.

For people like me, footwear is a fun way to express identity. For others, it’s simply a practical tool for protection against the various surprises the ground might throw at us. 

Five tips for Sustainable Shoe Buying & Wearing 

  1. Reduce: Buying less means that when you need new shoes, you might be able to afford to prioritise the quality of both the shoes and the lives of the people who made them. To ensure quality, focus on the materials used and how durable the shoe is.
  2. Re-Wear: The most sustainable shoes are the ones you already own!  Make sure to take care of them properly so they last longer. Check out Tearfund’s guide to learn how to care for different types of shoes.
  3. Repair: You can extend the life of a pair of shoes through repairing them yourself or visiting a cobbler. When buying new, look for companies that have designed their shoes to be easily disassembled and repaired.
  4. Re-Home: Less than 5% of shoes are recycled, which means the majority end up in landfills. If your shoes are in good condition and you can’t wear them anymore, try reselling them on TradeMe or Facebook Marketplace. Donating can be a good option as well, but make sure your donation is in good condition.
  5. Raise Your Voice: Email, comment and tag the change you want to see. Put constructive pressure on companies to better protect workers and the environment using our email and dm templates or comment on your favourite shoe brands social channels. Have conversations with your family and friends about why ethical fashion is important and speak out to government through supporting laws that mandate change for workers and the environment, such as the New Zealand Modern Slavery Act.

A fashion industry that prioritises profit over people and our planet must change now. Every time we buy a pair of shoes, we become part of a story that begins with the humans who made them – people like Mohsin and Helal. Let’s live out that story well.

Tearfund’s full article “Footwear: An Industry Lace with Exploitation” is out now.

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