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Introduction

Over the last twenty years, sweatshops have become synonymous with the big-name shoe brands; 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.

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Material matters

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) may be the most damaging plastic to human health and the environment. According to Greenpeace, it is being phased out by Adidas, Asics, Nike and Puma. New Balance has eliminated some PVC but set no start-date for phaseout; Fila, Reebok and Saucony made no commitments. In particular, concerns have been raised over the release of toxic chemicals such as dioxins from PVC products.

Nike has signed up to a Climate Savers pact and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across its operations, replacing sulphur hexafluoride (a greenhouse gas nearly 35,000 times more potent than an equivalent weight of carbon dioxide) in its ‘air’ trainers.

Sports shoes comprise dozens of mostly synthetic materials. Leather uppers are tanned via a 20-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.

Working conditions

It was once calculated 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 spends the equivalent of 14,000 workers’ daily wages to pay Tiger Woods for one day. Campaigners hope to ensure that the workers receive fair labour practices and good working conditions. They 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. Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Puma have all been forced to re-evaluate working conditions in their factories over the last decade. 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. It is 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. What is known is that three companies, Shellys, LK Bennett and Dolcis, are on the Burma Campaign UK’s ‘named and shamed list’.

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 Shoes & Trainers Rankings Detailed Table

We have created ethical 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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