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Introduction – Ethical Shoes

Ethical shoes are not always synonymous with the footwear industry. In fact, as a general rule, the opposite is true: the footwear industry is marred by serious criticisms across across environmental, human rights and animal welfare categories.

Over the last twenty years, sweatshops have become a symbol associated with the big-name shoe brands: the likes of Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Puma. By the end of the nineties, these companies had been accused of a whole range of corporate crimes, from involvement in child labour to lacing workers’ drinks with amphetamines to keep them going through the night. However, following intensive campaigning things are changing, and ‘corporate social responsibility’ is now the phrase on everyone’s lips.

Over the last decade or two, things have begun to slowly improve – or at least more ethical options are beginning to emerge. In that the industry has very much been caught up in the ‘fast fashion’ model, for many years it was admittedly difficult to locate genuine mainstream ethical options. But in our latest research, we have found more ethical consumer options than ever before!

Keyword-ResearchLook out for our new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to our original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.

Material matters

The Better Shoe Foundation offers all sorts of interesting facts about the footwear industry. For example, did you know that 24.3 billion pairs of shoes were produced worldwide in 2014? A single shoe can also contain up to 65 parts that require approximately 360 steps in the manufacturing process. Additionally, it has been suggested that waste from post-consumer shoes will reach 1.2 million tonnes, and less than 5% will be recycled.

There’s a general lack of recycling, with less than 5% of the world’s end-of-life shoes being recycled. [2] This is partly because of the materials used. Nike recognises the importance of material selection; Hannah Jones, their Chief Sustainability Officer says, “We know materials account for about 60% of the environmental footprint of a pair of Nike shoes.” [3]

Some materials don’t have the necessary recycling facilities in place. Leather is a popular material choice for shoes – “more than 60% of the UK shoe sales are leather-based shoes” [1] – and yet the recycling of leather from post-consumer shoes has not been commercially exploited. [1]

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has for a long time been considered one of the most damaging plastics to human health and the environment. But there are signs that the ethical shoes and trainers market is increasing, and with that so too is awareness growing about and ethical and sustainability issues that concern the footwear industry. Over the last decade or so, numerous reports have continued to emerge suggesting PVC is being phased out by such major brands as Adidas, Asics, Nike, Puma and New Balance.

ethical shoes

The Better Shoe Foundation: http://www.bettershoes.org


In recent time we have seen brands like Nike (and others) announce efforts to develop or use more sustainable materials to reduce both carbon footprint and waste. Additionally, such brands as Adidas, Nike and Timberland have been active in pledging to achieve things like sustainable cotton. But there is also a valuable ethical point of emphasis here, and we can use Nike as an example. While the brand has been very progressive on a number of fronts, from aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across its operations to replacing sulphur hexafluoride (a greenhouse gas nearly 35,000 times more potent than an equivalent weight of carbon dioxide) in its ‘air’ trainers, the company also continues to face serious criticisms.

There are also other factors to consider. In general, sports shoes comprise dozens of mostly synthetic materials. Leather uppers are tanned via a multi-step process using strong chemicals. In countries with little environmental protection, tannery wastes can be discharged untreated into the water systems, making tap water undrinkable.


Over at Po-Zu, a top ethical footwear brand, a wonderful infographic was published on their blog. As you can see, it summarizes what is currently taking place in the footwear industry. In a time when sustainability and material has come into focus for many businesses and consumers, considering the numerous issues we currently face, it is staggering to think that approximately 38 million shoes will be sold in the UK in a single year. Of that 32 million, the estimated waste is 169, 000 tonnes. Recyclability, sustainability and material should matter in your purchasing decisions.

Working conditions

It was once calculated, some years ago, that a Thai worker would have to work for 26.5 million days or 72,000 years to receive what Tiger Woods gets during a five-year contract with Nike. Or, in other words, that Nike at one point spent the equivalent of 14,000 workers’ daily wages to pay Tiger Woods for one day. Times may have changed with Nike and Tiger Woods, but the struggle to ensure workers receive fair labour practices and good working conditions continues. In general, human and labour rights campaigners are trying to persuade companies to agree to:

  • No use of forced labour or child labour
  • Freedom of association and collective bargaining
  • Payment of a living wage
  • A 48-hour week maximum
  • Safe working conditions
  • No race or gender discrimination

On the whole, the campaigns have been successful. Many of the big brands have all been forced to re-evaluate working conditions in their factories over the last decade or two. The above stipulations are included in all the codes of conduct for the big brands, and Reebok, Adidas and Nike have agreed to participate in Fair Labor’s external monitoring programme.

The problems arise in enforcing the code. Rather than owning factories outright, companies subcontract from factories who have their own management. This problem is applicable to the whole of the fashion industry, leaving it up to the company to ensure that the factories comply with their code of conduct.

To their credit, several companies do this by carrying out unannounced monitoring and audits. Timberland, on hearing of problems in one of their factories, immediately sent in auditors to find out more. Puma have received praise for setting up a scheme called SAFE but many companies are more lax in implementing and monitoring their codes of conduct.

Indeed, while Nike receives all the flak, smaller companies are slipping through the net unnoticed. Very little is known about their standards; they source from around the world but have no ethical code of conduct and presumably no monitoring processes. When shopping for ethical shoes, it is therefore important to note that the smaller brand does not necessarily result in a greater ethical record.

The problems do not end with the company’s conscience: in China, authentic trade union activity is illegal, regardless of what the ethical code of conduct stipulates. Clearly, there is a lot left to be done.

Ethical Comparison – Shoes & Trainers Rankings Detailed Table

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Po-Zu, Cheatah, Birkenstock, Faith, Mizuno, Office, Puma, Russell & Bromley, Nine West, Nike, New Balance, Timberland, Dolcis, Converse, Clarks, Adidas, Fila, Hush Puppies, LK Bennett, Reebok, Shelleys, Umbro

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