Is ethical and sustainable footwear an unattainable goal?
Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability Fashion Writer
While there has been a global outcry in response to the fashion industry’s colossal impact on the environment, the shoe industry has been flying quietly below the radar. Prominent clothing brands have made commitments to more sustainable and ethical practices, but is the footwear industry following the same trends?
According to a study by the environmental sustainability consulting group Quantis, the footwear industry is responsible for 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, that’s equivalent to 700 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions – compare this figure to the 2.5% of emissions produced by the travel industry.
The environmental impact of a pair of shoes, whether sneakers or high heels, lasts throughout its life cycle. To make matters worse, shoes, being made of different materials requiring various manufacturing processes, pose a complex waste problem as recycling them is problematic.
Leather tannery. Photo by Johannes Pokorn on Unsplash
Footwear’s unique sustainability problem
Whereas natural textiles like cotton, linen and bamboo have a diminished environmental impact on the environment, the same cannot be said about leather. Leather is a natural product, but products made from leather are far from eco-friendly.
Most leather products are made from cowhides, which require vast quantities of water and large stretches of land for the raising of cattle. The earth has suffered catastrophic loss of vast tracts of the Amazon to clear land for cattle farming at the expense of habitat loss for millions of species. In addition, the methane emissions caused by cattle make animal agriculture a leading contributor to climate change.
Turning cowhide into leather for shoes also comes at a huge environmental cost. You can just google “Bangladesh river pollution’’ to see the most shocking images of stagnant black sewage clogging the once pristine Buriganga river. Together with textile treatment and dyeing, leather tanning contributes to 20% of global industrial water pollution, which contaminates the water and soil in the immediate environs of factories. Similar scenes are commonplace along the rivers of China and Indonesia.
The unique case of sneakers
Photo by Artem Bondarchuk on Unsplash
Sneakers have earned the dubious honour of being a top contender for the title of pollution ninja. They are complex items made of as many as 40 different materials fashioned into various components which are stitched and glued together, making them virtually impossible to recycle. These materials are mainly plastic or plastic-like materials, all of them petroleum-based. Specifically, they comprise polyester, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), all of which contribute to the creation of vast volumes of carbon dioxide.
In addition, sneakers are hugely popular, so production rates are crazy. Here is just one alarming statistic: Nike sells 1,500 pairs of sneakers every second. In Australia, sporting shoes are a top seller, with almost 800,000 Australians buying a pair in any given four-week period. You do the math. And that’s just Australia.
In themselves, these figures are disturbing but add to this the fact that sneakers are not made to last, and you understand why people have to keep on buying them. What happens to the discarded pairs? They are contaminating the environment somewhere.
Footwear’s ethical burden
The global footwear industry is notorious for unscrupulous working conditions in factories and leather tanneries. The factories are mainly in developing countries like China, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh, where human rights are often not enforced. The global textile and footwear industries rely on forced labour, amounting to an estimated 60 million to 75 million people, many of them children.
These workers are exposed to toxic fumes and pollutants in the water used in the dyeing process, with grave consequences for their health, their lives are often cut unnecessarily short.
Various research reports have highlighted China’s repatriation of minority Uyghurs to work in garment and shoe factories for major brands – according to one report, 83 major brands have been implicated in the use of forced labour of ethnic minorities from Xinjiang province.
The pollution caused by toxic tanneries in Bangladesh is proving to be challenging to resolve. In 2017, eventually responding to international pressure, the government turned off the electricity in Hazaribagh and forced tanneries to move to the new tannery industrial complex in Savar. The sewage treatment and effluent systems provided at the new site were inadequate and the factories have resumed dumping chemicals and toxic waste, this time into the Daleshwari River and adjacent fields, once again polluting the environment and exposing workers to life-threatening toxins.
The industry’s own assessment of its sustainability is not very promising. According to the 2021 Shoe Sustainability Benchmark & Progress Report, 62% of respondents to a survey reported that their company lacks the knowledge to implement sustainability practices and 80% reported costs as a barrier to sustainability.
Buying ethical and sustainable footwear
Thoughtful and responsible consumers realise that buying from sustainable brands that treat workers fairly, use a carefully planned supply chain and sustainable materials and manufacturing processes, is beneficial for people and the environment. But, it’s important to know what makes a brand sustainable and not merely a marketing machine to trap environmentally conscious consumers into buying questionable products. What exactly makes shoes more sustainable?
Below are a few pointers for you to consider. Sustainable brands:
- Use high-quality natural materials like fair-trade cotton, natural rubber, and leather from the hides of cows that didn’t graze on land cleared for cattle farming.
- Source leather from tanneries certified by the Leather Working Group, the industry’s gold standard in sustainability.
- Use recycled materials, like recycled plastic bottles, to create some parts of their shoes.
- Eliminate harmful chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives.
- Use natural product treatments for inner soles to minimise foot odour.
- Pride themselves in producing very little waste – keep in mind fashion brands create vast volumes of shoes that end up in landfills. Small brands create less wastage.
- Produce durable footwear that consumers can wear for an extended time.
- Innovate to create versatile footwear that can be used for more than one purpose – for instance, a sandal that you can hike in.
- Use recycled packaging materials or eliminate them altogether.
- Provide a safe and clean working environment and pay fair wages.
- Don’t make use of forced labour.
Photo by Apostolos Vamvouras on Unsplash
The Australian sustainable shoe manufacturing landscape
Australians are avid outdoor lovers, so it comes as no surprise that the country has its fair share of sustainable shoe brands eagerly supported by locals.
Based in Sydney, this small, family-owned Australian business has earned numerous awards for its sustainability and ethical practices. Apparel, shoes and sports balls are made from cotton and natural rubber and are manufactured in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, with workers earning premium wages.
Etiko uses predominantly eco-friendly materials, including Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) cotton, recycles some of its offcuts to minimise textile waste and limits chemical usage and water wastage during production. In addition, Etiko can trace its entire supply chain.
Nelson Made is based in Melbourne, where the company’s flat sandals are designed and handmade from recycled and chrome-free leather, organic linen and deadstock fabrics.
Our more sophisticated heeled sandals are handmade in a small factory in China, which is independently audited twice a year by an international social certification organization. All products are made in small batches to limit wastage.
The owners say they take a slow crafting approach aiming to create footwear with the least impact that owners will cherish for a long time. Their Melbourne studio is powered by solar energy and they use 100% biodegradable packaging.
This local Australian brand doesn’t talk transparency; it visually illustrates transparency by publishing each product’s cost, listing materials, labour, duties, transport, and hardware. Everlane is an established sustainable brand that produces a vast range of clothing and shoes for men and women. Their shoes are made from recycled and natural materials.
The products are made in ethical factories around the world. Each factory is audited regularly to confirm compliance with ethical practices like fair wages, reasonable hours, and protection of the environment.
Emu makes shoes, slippers, and boots from natural wool, sheepskin and leather materials. Based in South Geelong, Victoria, Emu has been making its iconic footwear for more than 25 years. The brand is a favourite amongst Australians, celebrities and people across the world. The company uses natural fibres and sustainable processes to manufacture their products. Emu footwear is made to last, and after years of service, it will degrade completely when put back into the environment.
The entire fashion industry has woken up to its appalling environmental burden, including the global footwear industry. The industry is moving towards sustainable footwear, and 40% of manufacturers currently have sustainability programs. This is a promising development, but it doesn’t address the industry’s overproduction of shoes: 25 billion pairs per year, of which a shocking 95% will end up in landfills. Sustainability will only become feasible when fewer shoes are produced.