Shoes contain an array of synthetic, petroleum-derived materials, ranging from polyurethane to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the manufacture of which releases carcinogenic dioxin into the atmosphere. Also problematic are the harmful glues and, in the case of leather, tanning agents to which factory workers are exposed. When you’re buying new shoes, try to find those made with more eco-friendly materials.
Hemp: Hemp requires few insecticides or herbicides, doesn’t require a lot of water and is a fast-growing, renewable resource.
Recycled Materials: Recycled rubber is a popular, durable material, used in the soles of shoes and in more casual footwear, like sandals and flip-flops, and more and more shoe manufacturers are using recycled plastic.
Water-based glues: Traditional shoe-making requires glues that contain volatile solvents such as toluene (read more in The Backstory). Look for water-based glues when possible.
Vegan: For those concerned about using animal products and who wish to avoid leather, look for vegan shoes, which are made without leather or other animal products.
Products labeled “Made in the USA” (or anywhere else in the First World). While sweatshops do exist in the United States, clothes that are “Made in the USA” (but bear no union label) are generally more likely to have been created under better environmental and working conditions than are usually found in developing countries. Avoiding products manufactured in the Third World may seem like a policy of punishing poor and powerless foreign workers, but at the very least this strategy rewards companies that provide better wages and conditions to workers. It also minimizes environmental impacts, as First World countries have better environmental laws and more effective enforcement. U.S. Stuff (www.usstuff.com) has listings for various categories of clothing and coats made in the USA.
Union-Made Shoes. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!, www.uniteunion.org) and the Union Label and Services Trade Department of the AFL-CIO (www.unionlabel.org) both provide directories of goods made in North America with union labor. Both organizations provide a variety of labels indicating that a product was made with union labor. The garment-trade unions in the U.S., UNITE! in particular, are working to pressure consumers and government agencies to boycott sweatshop-made products and to mandate disclosure of manufacturing circumstances and independent monitoring of subcontract garment and shoe factories, so dollars spent on union-made goods also contribute to these efforts.
Unfortunately, no reliable label yet exists to certify that clothes made elsewhere were made by workers earning a living wage and working in nontoxic conditions. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) is currently monitoring apparel and shoe factories, and will soon be certifying and labeling goods that meet its standards, but there is debate about the acceptability of their standards for factories and the reliability of their methods for ensuring that factories meet these standards. Other labeling efforts include Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP), which grants factories a “Good Factory Seal of Approval,” but Global Exchange and other labor-rights groups have called WRAP’s standards and certification procedures into question.
Shoes labeled “Made in the Mariana Islands, USA.” Approximately ninety percent of garment workers there are young women lured in from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Thailand and elsewhere by false promises of well-paid work in the USA, paying high fees to recruiters then working for years to pay them back on meager earnings–a form of indentured servitude. Because the Northern Mariana Islands are a U.S. commonwealth, garment makers there do not have to pay U.S. tariffs or abide by U.S. quota laws. There is also no U.S. minimum wage law, and workers in the Marianas are required to make only $3.05/hour. Although negative publicity has led some manufacturers to more accurately label their clothing as “Made in the Northern Mariana Islands, USA,” clothing made there can still legally bear a “Made in the USA” label.
Leather from Endangered Species or Inhumane Farms. Internationally made
leather goods may contain leather from threatened and endangered species. Avoid the following products:
-All sea turtle products
-Products made from black caiman, American crocodile, Orinoco crocodile, and Philippine crocodile
-Almost any lizard skin originating in Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, India, and Nepal
-Many snakeskin products originating from Central and South American countries
-Leather products made from the pangolin (anteater) originating from Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia may not be brought into the United States
-Any fur from spotted cats (leopard, cheetah, etc.)
Buy used! Thrift stores and vintage clothing shops often carry a wide selection of shoes for a small fraction of the price of a new pair. By buying used, you’ll save shoes from taking up landfill space, while avoiding the labor and environmental questions that accompany purchasing a new pair. And when you’ve tired of them or worn them out, donate gently worn shoes to charity thrift stores. Salvation Army and Goodwill, for example, typically appreciate donations of used shoes. For grubby athletic shoes that are beyond repair, give to Nike for recycling (their website offers an online directory of collection locations.
Visit your friendly neighborhood shoe repair shop to fix and beautify the shoes you already have. For just a few dollars, your shoddy shoes can be revived to live again, at least for another season.