Slow fashion wardrobe

Ethical shoes guide 1: Talking about sustainability

Are you looking for ethical and sustainable shoes? Me too.

But the search for “good” shoes is easier said than done. In the process I stumbled upon dark reports on the shoe industry’s supply chain issues. Then I was dazzled by the bright images and eco jargon of “good” footwear brands. Organic, vegan, recycled, high-tech, fairtrade or “one for one” – how to make sense of it all?

This guide is in two parts. Next week I will list some shoe brands pushing towards good and worth looking into. But today I address the elephant in the room: what is a sustainable and ethical shoe, really?

I will break it down with four questions to ask yourself the next time you buy shoes. Consider yourself warned: there is no black and white answer.


What makes a shoe ethical?

While we are well accustomed to the terms ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ and ‘ethical’, it is not easy to translate these big words into concrete action. For there are the environmental, social and economic impacts to consider, and not only through production but also through consumption, use and waste. There are limits on available information, but also limits to the amount of information we can absorb as individual consumers.


Four questions to ask yourself next time you buy shoes

1. Who made them?

Demanding respect of human rights and a living wage for the workers who made your shoes is a perfectly fair request to set any shoe producer.

Unfortunately, this demand is difficult to bring about in practice. Subcontracting production to suppliers abroad is just business as usual in the shoe and garment industry. This leads to fierce competition that pushes prices down. There are also many women who take part in the invisible workforce of home workers who earn poverty wages and retain no job security.

As the average brand is the end station of complex and far-spread supply chains, it is challenging for them to have complete overview, not mentioning control, over their entire supply chain.

Made in Europe is no guarantee of good

The garment and shoe sectors in Eastern European countries are notorious for bad working conditions and poverty wages, according to the report "Labour on a shoe string" by the European collaborative initiative Change Your Shoes. In fact, the report states that there are European countries where workers in the shoe industry have about the same purchasing power as equivalent workers in Indonesia and China.

“Made in Italy” is not the same as actually made in Italy

A strange EU trade scheme, the "Outward Processing Trade" (OPT), makes it possible for Western European countries, like Italy, to export pre-cut materials to low-cost European countries for assembly and manufacturing. The shoes are then re-imported for the final stages of packing and labelling.

See the illustrations below from the report "Labour on a shoe string", published 2016 by Change Your Shoes and the Clean Clothes Campaign.


Look for supplier lists and a code of conduct

At this point you may be drowning in despair. There is hope: transparency.

Why does transparency matter? Because brands that publicly publish a code of conduct, list their suppliers and report on sustainability issues make themselves open to public scrutiny. It means they can be held accountable for failures in their supply chains. Just as importantly, it implies they are making an effort to gain better knowledge and take greater responsibility for their products.

Noticing a problem is the first step towards solving it. Yet transparency is not a solution in itself. In all practicality, it is impossible to trace where a pair of shoes were made on the basis of a brand's list of hundreds or thousands of supplier factories. Smaller brands dealing with fewer suppliers are easier to hold accountable.

Big brands: greater influence, but more complex supply chains

Presumably big brands with high turnovers and large market shares, have greater potential to push towards positive change. For instance, the Adidas Group had a €16.92 billion (€16,920,000,000) turnover in 2015, according to another report “Trampling worker rights underfoot” by Change Your Shoes. On the other hand, the Adidas Group’s products were produced in over 1,100 supplier factories spread over 61 countries. That means getting a complete overview over their supply chain a very difficult task to accomplish.

Seeing that the big brands are the ones making the most money as things are, one could argue they are also the least likely to change the system and disrupt status quo.

Buy one, give one

What about TOMs, you ask? They have made successful business on their “one for one” model, donating a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair sold. Ten years in and they have given away 60 million pairs of shoes, but they have received some criticism concerning the effect of their donations.

This paper published in the World Bank Economic Review found no significant negative effect on local markets of TOMs donations, but neither did the donated shoes make a big impact on the lives of the children who received them.

Whether good or bad, the TOMs model addresses a symptom of poverty, rather than poverty itself.


2. What are the shoes made of?

Choosing recycled materials seems a good option when looking for sustainable shoes. The Adidas Recycled Ocean Waste shoes, for instance, are made partly from drifting fish nets. The production of these shoes involve both reusing a waste material and clearing the ocean of nets that cause problems for dolphins, sharks and other sea animals.

While shoes made of recycled plastic bottles and fish nets divert waste materials from landfills and oceans, they may contribute to another problem: micro synthetics seeping into our drinking water and food.

Almost all materials pose some environmental challenges, but you can look for certifications like the fairtrade label, GOTS cotton and other multi-stakeholder initiatives.

3. How long will the shoes last?

More than 24 billion (24,000,000,000) pairs of shoes were made in 2014, states the report “Trampling worker rights underfoot”. About 300 million pairs of shoes end up in landfills each year, according to this article, where the soles of most trainers are said to take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Recycling shoes is a challenge as they are typically made up of many different materials: cotton, synthetics, leather, rubber, metal and glue. Nike seems to be an exception to the rule on this point with their shoe recycling programme “re-use a shoe”. The resulting “nike grind” material is used for running tracks, and even garments, yarns and trims.

Most shoes, however, will eventually be thrown out as waste. To slow down the waste spiral, choose well-made shoes of quality materials, that can be be repaired when worn down.

Quality leather shoes, for instance, can last for years if well cared for. But then again, the leather industry is not the cleanest. Apart from the obvious fact that animals were killed in the process, the leather industry generates a large amounts of chemical waste, including chromium and sulphide. (Take a look at this report, for instance.)

4. What is the best you can do? Aim for the 80% rule

One thing is clear: there is no easy answer.

The number one thing you can do is to choose a pair of shoes that fit you well, both on your feet and with your lifestyle. Shoes you will want to use until they are worn out.

Next, what is the best you can do given the restrictions you face?

We all have some limits in terms of money to spend, time to research or access to better brands. Not everyone can afford shoes handmade in Western Europe or the US. Not everyone has the time or patience to read lengthy sustainability reports. And no one can change the whole system on their own.

Aim for the 80% rule. It is hard to get it all right, both as consumers and producers. Even the best brands will falter and stumble upon their way. So will you and I. Do what you can when you can, and I am cheering for you!

One year shopping fast: What I learned

As it happens, I am one year into a clothes shopping fast. I haven’t bought any clothes for myself for over a year, with one exception to the rule: a wool scarf from the Norwegian design house and wool manufacturer Lillun.

It is a shopping fast that has evolved somewhat unintentionally from the starting point of a minimal budget and an unease around the ethics and sustainability of fast-fashion – or lack of, rather. More than a fast, it has been a paralysation. In the wait of doing proper research and getting my head around what a sustainable wardrobe really means, time has just crept on.


What I learned from a year with no clothes shopping

Need is a slippery concept

Need and want are often entangled. I say to myself I really need another pair of jeans, more plain cotton tops and new sneakers. But then, somehow, I still manage without. I mended the jeans and continue to use them. I make full use of the tops I do have, then wash and repeat. My shoes are worn, but not fully worn out.

I have come to realise that most of the things I think I need are really things I want. Don’t get me wrong, wanting things is perfectly okay! But it is liberating to realise there is no desperate, life-threatening need in every one of those wants. It is not like I am literally faced with no garments to cover my body, it is just that I’d prefer something new here and something different there.

Perfection is not always necessary

Most of my clothes are not perfect. They don’t match my ideal of ethically made, well-fitted garments of quality materials. Nor do they come together as a functional whole with a cohesive colour palette and a few well-chosen style-characteristics, like “classic”, “refined” or “parisian-cool”.

I wish they did. I love reading blog posts about how to “build a capsule wardrobe”, “build your dream wardrobe” or “define your style”. I also want the ideal wardrobe: a curated set of clothes that fit me and my lifestyle perfectly. I am just not quite there yet.

As the year without shopping has evolved I have temporarily turned away from the idea of attaining a perfect wardrobe. The goal has shifted towards making the most of what is there. The pressure of the perfect is less overwhelming. At the end of the day, clothes are clothes and for that purpose my wardrobe is perfectly adequate.

Slow is okay

Going slow gives me time to consider, before buying anything new.

Knowing I can actually make do without most of the things I “need”, leaves me free to choose where to indulge and do so in my own good time. I don’t need to rush around in desperation settling for last-minute purchases to fill wardrobe gaps. Experience tells me I can probably do without those items a little longer.

While I wish my wardrobe consisted of beautiful pieces from ethical, slow fashion brands, most of my clothes are in fact acquired over the years from cheap chain-stores. Making the most of them instead of rushing to get them replaced, is really slow fashion at its core. Albeit less glamorous.

Clothes come my way

The odd thing is, clothes have come my way despite my shopping fast. Two wool jumpers, a cotton cardigan, two shirts, a pair of leather gloves and a leather handbag have all been given or passed on to me through the course of the year.

These are things I probably wouldn’t have chosen to buy myself, nor are they things I necessarily need. Still, I feel a deep sense of connection to them knowing who owned them before me. They are now among the things I reach for most when I open my wardrobe.

Not shopping is a relief

There is of course one important reason why I have made it through a year without clothes shopping. While I am drawn to the new and beautiful, I don’t actually enjoy shopping itself that much.

Abstaining from shopping is not a loss to me, but rather a relief. It means I don’t have to browse through racks upon racks of clothing in crowded stores. I don’t have to assess the fit and look of a garment under the fluorescent lighting in a changing room. I don’t need to stand in long queues by the till. I don’t have that empty feeling of failure after a shopping expedition that resulted in nothing.

Not shopping also means not being on the look-out. That, in itself, is a relief. All the releases, all the seasonal promotions and sales, it is like they don’t apply to me. I don’t have to think about them, and apart from the fleeting burst of desire, I let them go and generally forget all about them. One day, perhaps, I think. But not now.

Where to go from here

I have written about not shopping previously, in connection with the Stash Less Challenge. My thoughts are still the same: the aim is not to stop buying things as such, but to be mindful of how we shop and why.

I didn’t particularly set out on this shopping fast, nor do I envisage it as a permanent state. But the experience has nevertheless left me feeling empowered and inspired to move onwards:

  • A fast-fashion fast now seems doable, not impossible. Even on a limited budget.
  • Also, I realise I don’t need to put together a perfect wardrobe for the coming season. All I need is to build upon what I have and take my time doing so: mend, make, repurpose, and invest in a few new things – and do so purposefully.


Fancy trying a shopping fast for yourself?

The style bee offers a free 30-day shopping fast workbook.

There is also lots of inspiration to be found in Katrina Rodabaugh’s approach to slow fashion. She is three years into her fast-fashion fast, which started with the Make-Thrift-Mend project.

Setting an intention

My voice is just a tiny whisper in a world already buzzing with opinions and information of every kind. Stepping out into the turmoil of noise feels a little ridiculous. But I want to do it anyway. I have something I want to say and still more questions I wish I could answer.

Here’s the thing. I wear clothes.

Most of the time I have no idea how those clothes were made, where the cotton was grown, how many people handled them and how the price I paid was divided between those people. Where do my clothes end up when I no longer use them? I don’t really know. I want to make informed decisions about the things I buy, but where is the transparency?

I knit and sew because I love the process of making.

It has taught me something of the true value of materials and time invested in producing garments. But this understanding of value does not seem fairly summed up on the price tag of clothes hanging in the big chain stores. So cheap, in view of the resources that went into making them. So distanced from the journey from fibre to fabric to finished garment. How should we think about and measure value?

I want to move towards a more sustainable and ethical wardrobe. I think of it as a slow fashion philosophy. Yet, I hardly know what ethical or sustainable or slow means in this context. Where do I even start? Can I afford it? Does it really make a difference what I do?

I know I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure how to find them. But then I think back to a documentary I saw a couple of years ago, where the Swedish singer-songwriter Laleh said something like this:

“I, too, have the right to set voice to the world.”

I realised: so do I. And so do you. You and I also have the right to create, interpret, question and wonder. And of course, make mistakes and learn along the way.

I want to explore what slow fashion is, or can be. My intention is to do so thoughtfully. Please join me! I would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives on this!