No Business like Shoe Business: The Footwear Industry Is Symptomatic of Our Addiction to 'Fast Fashion', Churning out Cheap, Throwaway Shoes from Sweatshops, and Its Manufacturing Practices-Such as Leather Tanning-Are Harmful to the Environment. It's an Ethical Minefield

Article excerpt


During the 1980s, shoes lost their workaday reputation and became a sort of super-currency--women (and men) could be judged by their collection of footwear. Shoes by Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin--all designer names that carry 400 [pounds sterling]-plus price tags and the status to match--were flaunted in newspapers and on television as 'must-haves for the well heeled'. At the same time, those without the credit to afford such instant glamour were enticed to buy low-cost but highly styled alternatives at Marks & Spence, Primark and Top Shop. And all were being encouraged to buy in quantity.

Even in the recession, shoes are still being touted as affordable luxuries. In just a generation, we've gone from a nation who looked after their shoes by polishing them and taking them to the cobblers for new heels and soles, to a society that binge-buys footwear--and regards it as utterly disposable.

Catering for this demand has naturally had a deleterious effect on the trade from start to finish: cheap shoes are being made in poor working conditions, and then--after a brief period on our feet--are ending up in landfill. If you think your greatest ethical concern when shopping for shoes is whether they're made of leather--and therefore not suitable for strict vegetarians, vegans or anyone with a concern for animal welfare--think again.


Of course, the use of leather is a prime issue. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the global leather industry kills and tans the skins and hides of more than a billion animals each year. It says: 'Many of these animals suffer all the horrors of factory farming--including extreme crowding and confinement, deprivation, and unanaesthetised castration, branding, tail-docking, and dehorning and cruel treatment during transport and slaughter.' A 2001 investigation by the Washington Post contained a horrific claim: that animals were still alive when the skinning process began, victims of the high-tech factory line that would not be shut down just because one animal (or more) had not died efficiently at the appropriate moment.

On its website, PETA also points out why the use of leather is so bad for the planet: 'Raising animals for food and leather requires huge amounts of feed crop and pastureland, water and fossil fuels. Animals on factory farms produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, without the benefit of waste treatment plants.' And the US Environmental , Protection Agency has acknowledged that livestock pollution is the greatest threat to the country's waterways.

While leather may have one saving grace--it breaks down in landfill faster than the plastics used as alternatives--it's tanned using chemicals that can be dangerous to the environment. Most leather is chromiumtanned, but substances including formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, arsenic and various oils, dyes, and finishes--some of which are cyanide-based--are also used. It's one thing when under strict European and North American pollution controls, but it's quite another in areas of the developing world where 'green' legislation isn't so tightly in place.

But even in the USA and Europe, chemicals from the curing process can leak into the environment. A 1998 report from the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of leukaemia among residents in an area surrounding one tannery in Kentucky was five times the national average. And studies of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy by researchers from Montreal's McGill University in 1997 found cancer risks were 'between 20 per cent and 50 per cent above [those] expected'.

'Eco-tanned' or vegetable-tanned leather, which is cured without the use of chemicals or toxins, using plants and natural oils instead, is becoming available. But a real choice of materials has come with the introduction of plastics such as Lorica, which is made of microfibre and is flexible, hardwearing and light. …


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