Shoe lovers understand the compulsion to seek out and acquire new footwear. After all, shoes have personality, with each pair fitting the occasion and situation as well as the mood. But there’s a bad side to what could otherwise be described as a pleasantly harmless folly, and it is that we pay a lot for shoes that don’t cost a lot to make in monetary terms but have a very high social and environmental cost. I was going to write about something else this week, but this article at Alternet got me thinking about what we do for fashion.
A few snippets:
In 2005, the National Labor Committee and China Labor Watch reported that Chinese factory workers making New Balance shoes earned 40 cents an hour, which dropped to 32 cents after mandatory room-and-board deductions.Surprising and disturbing is the existence of an “invisible” network of families making shoes at home:
"I was unprepared for the heat," says Beth Rosenberg, a Tufts University assistant professor of public health and community medicine who toured Chinese shoe factories as part of a project funded by the International Labor Organization. "Air conditioning -- are you kidding? They don't even have fans."
Not permitted to sit, assembly-line laborers stood all day breathing solvent fumes amidst unguarded cutting machines in the factories Rosenberg toured, which produced shoes for Nike, Timberland, Clark, and other brands. The air outside the factories was palpably polluted.
In the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, millions of shoes destined to be sold overseas are produced in private homes, as piecework, by entire families. By using men, women and children to stitch, glue and polish shoes at home, companies needn't invest in factories, machinery or managers.Says Pia Markkanen, a professor in the University of Massachusetts' Department of Work Environment:
Home-based shoe production is widespread and "extraordinarily dangerous…Chemical hazards make shoemaking particularly hazardous. Organic solvents -- used in glues, primers, and cleaning and polishing products -- are essentially petrochemicals. The storage of toxic and flammable chemicals constitutes not only a health hazard but a fire and explosion hazard.
What is frightening is that these excerpts just hint at how bad things are in the shoe-manufacturing industry, which makes the article well worth reading in its entirety. The questions raised are straightforward: can we really continue our obsession, filtered through consumer culture, with shoes and fashion?
Consider the question in light of what we pay for shoes and how much foreign labour gets paid for working in dreadful conditions:
To calculate standard shoe markups, "take the retail cost and work backwards through the supply chain. If the shoe retails for $100, it cost the retailer 50 percent or less than that to buy it from the distributor. That same shoe cost the distributor 50 percent or less of that price" to acquire from the manufacturer. Generally, it cost the manufacturer 50 percent less than that to produce -- in other words, $12.50.So what’s the solution? Buy fewer shoes? Buy shoes made using environmental friendly processes and fair labour practices? Sure, but the question is, how do we continue to use fashion as an expression of identity and enjoyment while not supporting cruel and inhumane manufacturing practices? I have some ideas, of course, beyond looking towards brands like Simple Shoes. I’ll get to them in future posts. For today, I just wanted to throw the question out there and hear from you in the comments below.