I have reached the end of the line with my footwear. I can see daylight through the heel of my trainers, and when I went to London in the rain last week, I realised my favourite work shoes are no longer waterproof. My wife will be quietly pleased to see them go, but they’re the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned and I am rather disappointed – not least because I have to go shoe shopping again.
The shoe is the front line in the battle against consumerism. It’s where most people first begin to understand branding, where children are made aware in the playground of whether or not they’re cool. There’s a show in London at the moment called Shoes: The Musical. “You can never have too many shoes” say the fashionistas, and the average American woman apparently has 19 pairs. In case you ever find yourself thinking you probably have enough now, the shoe department at Selfridges has 5,000 different product lines to prove you wrong.
The trouble is, there’s no shortcut to making a shoe. There are too many processes that need to be finished by hand, and shoe companies maximize their profits by locating their factories in the countries where wages are lowest. If you paid £100 for your trainers, the brand gets most of that, and the person who actually stitched the thing together was paid in pennies. Sweatshops are par for the course in the shoe industry.
A shoe also uses a complex set of materials, particularly trainers. There are plastics and rubbers and polymers, a smorgasbord of synthetic fibres and resins that make shoes durable and flexible. That’s great for comfort and sporting performance, and bad for the environment. All kinds of poisonous processes are required to create and colour those materials, vast amounts of water is used, and then once the shoe is worn through, it’s fated to remain in landfill for an estimated 1,000 years.
I guess I’m ideologically opposed to the idea of buying new shoes. It’s not a guilt thing, it’s about standards. I genuinely don’t want a pair of shoes that was made in a sweatshop and will be kicking around for centuries after I’m gone. If there isn’t a pair out there good enough, I’d rather just wear the old ones until I find what I’m looking for.
So I’m on a quest for a pair of good shoes.
Where to start? I know Nike have their somewhat tokenistic reuse-a-shoe, but that doesn’t count. In contrast, Adbusters have their anti-Nike ‘blackspot‘ trainer, made from recycled materials and in unionized factories. Or there’s Tom’s, who donate a pair of shoes for every one bought, but there’s no information on their materials or disposal policies.
Terra Plana take things a little further, putting as much information about their shoes out there as possible through an ‘eco-matrix’ for each product. That’s great, but as the writers of Cradle to Cradle argue so persuasively, being less bad is not the same as being good. Timberland ‘earthkeepers’ are designed to be taken apart and recycled at the end of their life, which is close to the cradle to cradle ethic.
“The future of fashion lies in a reconciliation between nature and industry” say OAT shoes, who may be on to something with a shoe they claim you can bury in the woods when you’re done with them. The sole even has seeds embedded in it. Unfortunately it’s limited edition and isn’t exactly on the high street.
Simple also do biodegradeable trainers, and they have come up with an innovative solution to break down rubber and plastic components. A mixture of microbes is added to the soles, and these activate in the heat and damp of a landfill or compost heap, breaking down the materials into dust. The process takes 20 years, so I won’t be putting them in my own compost bin, but it’s a start.
Biodegradeable shoes are nothing new. Quite the opposite – all shoes used to be biodegradeable once, just as all farming used to be organic. So maybe the answer is just traditional craftsmanship, hand-made as nearby as possible, out of leather and cork and natural rubber. Perhaps the shoes made by Danish company Duckfeet would fit the bill, Josef Seibel or Think!.
What do you reckon? What makes a good shoe, and where do you find them?