Week 12: I will watch my step.
Updated: Jun 6, 2020
A very old, very dear friend of mine once gave a piece of advice, that has stayed with me now for several decades. We used to meet a lot, we don't now, nothing happened particularly, aside from the passage of time and the passage of life. He is still a dear friend, and as with many that pass through our lives, I have a deep appreciation and love for the times we spent together.
He told me that you should always choose mattresses and shoes carefully. Because in life, if you're not on one, you're in the other. Always buy good shoes, and always invest in a good mattress.
Over the years, perhaps my interpretation of 'good' has evolved. Once it would have been quality, now it should include sustainability, but on the other hand I am unashamedly a lover of brands.
I love the art and the design they bring into the world. It might be considered somehow shallow, but it is a burden that I have learned to live with. It is an internal conflict, because sometimes I know what I am buying is not everyone's definition of good, but I love the feeling that a really well designed, really stylish brand brings me. I love thoughtful and interesting advertising. I love the dynamic beauty of a clip of a skateboarder, taking on an urban landscape in a really nice pair of sneakers. It makes me want them.
I have visited the customised Converse store in Santa Monica, and bought two pairs, even though I didn't have the cash or the suitcase space to get them home. Another, lesser loved, pair of trainers just had to give way. Even then, I suspected that perhaps they were not the ethical choice, and made peace with it. Right now, I have over ten pairs of Converse, in almost every colour, and even a pair of Converse Renew, which are made from some renewable materials. Everything has a place, and it is good to see everyone trying to remain relevant as the definition of 'good' evolves.
This makes this week's permanent change, a really hard one, and I have to admit that we haven't yet been able to make a choice yet, because I don't feel I have found the right product yet, and don't know enough about this very complicated topic yet.
This week, I am going to start paying attention to what a good pair of footwear, a pair that you can wear every day - really means. A brand that you can feel good in, and feel good about.
So far, so vain. Some may be thinking that shoes are shoes, trainers are trainers, sneakers are sneakers, and they don't care about brands. That might be true, but we all wear something on our feet, and although if we don't consider the name, we often also do not consider the source. A pair of unbranded shoes, from a generic store, may feel like you are rejecting the shallow or over-priced nature of a brand, but they also have to live up to some benchmarks of good. In terms of sustainability - I didn't find any evidence that the materials or practices are better consistently for high fashion or unbranded, although I am not surprised it is hard to be good in the footwear industry.
A single pair of footwear is made of a dizzying number of different things. Leather or synthetic materials, rubber, glue, dyes, water repellents. Shoes are made all over the place, materials are sourced the same. Most companies have policies, big brands even have additional voluntary practices, but footwear is still mass produced, and mass production is difficult to control. Even the ownership of factories, or the products that are made in factories alongside yours, seem to be hard to control. To give us perceived quality at a low price, backs seem to be turned, or plausible deniability is leaned upon. Working practices vary, transportation varies.
Making a pair of planetwise shoes it seems is really, really hard.
The main considerations seem to fall into two main buckets. What are they made of, and where are they made.
The first one, is perhaps the main consideration we have when we buy a pair of footwear, or a garment of any type. Fast fashion, is giving way to ethical fashion. Even most fast fashion, now seems to have an ethical range. A headache pill or a distraction from the majority of the range. Recycled, undyed, non-virgin, vegan. These adjectives are applied to ingredients, and described in percentages that would confuse a scientist and in the kind of language that would not look out of place on a Michelin Star restaurant menu.
Cut through this, and the consideration seems to be that if the footwear is made of leather, or uses toxic chemicals in the production process, or both - then we should make a choice, and know we are making that choice.
However, I do not think it is fair to take an activist's view of boycotting leather without a thought, because I am not sure it is as simple as that.
In fact, two of the biggest activist organisations, when it comes to leather and synthetic materials, disagree. Rejecting natural materials for synthetic ones, as a generalisation and without further educating the public, can be helpful to animal welfare, but then terrible for the planet in other ways. Synthetic materials may be produced in a way, or may have source materials, that either directly or as a by-product can be just as bad. We may make a planetwise choice for animal welfare or the production process involved in tanning leather, and by doing that we might be making the wrong one for other reasons, such as the petrochemical origin of some synthetic materials or what is released afterwards into the water supply.
The second, is then where they are made. There are transportation costs to consider, but also there is the conditions that the footwear is made. The dreaded 'sweatshop' description come up a lot when researching this, which mass producers will deny, as often the precise definition of salary or conditions might meet local or global regulations. Blame the sin, not the sinner. It has also become an eye-rolling cliché to bemoan tagging places as sweatshops, especially when the universe by pure accident blessed you with being born, or to live in a privileged country.
There is an argument that you should choose a product that is made in countries where generally conditions are more friendly, but on the other hand I am sure there are bad conditions in factories in so-called fashion capitals such as Milan. Whatever the country, it appears clear should you visit the factory where a lot of shoes are made, should you stand on the shop floor, see the conditions, and speak to the workers, then whether you tag it with a cliché, or claim workers rights are protected, it would fail the moral ultimate test of any situation of this type: would you do it? Would you work there?
This might seem like a lot of thought, for a pair of shoes, and of course there is also not a definitive answer. We might also think that when we make a purchase, it is only one more pair of sneakers, or one pair of shoes. But each year somewhere in the region of 19 billion pairs of shoes are bought, which is a couple of pairs for everyone on the planet, although of course not evenly spread across the continents.
The stakes are therefore really high. If we all made little changes, or paused before we bought a new pair of footwear, and we swung this needle a few percent in the direction of kinder choices of footwear, this little change could eliminate billions of pairs of leather shoes and the associated animals, or billions of pairs of footwear made not in a good way through using toxic chemicals, from being manufactured and sold. That is what we are trying to do as a family, because we believe in these connections, and the power of these little changes, to make a big impact. Any small changes, from an individual inspiring an individual, that can potentially make a change in the billions, feels like a good choice, and a planetwise choice.
Considering all of this new information, it is no surprise that this week's change, is perhaps one that has created more questions than answers. I thought a lot about these two variables to how to find a solution, or a common ground.
The common ground for me - is to simply slow down. There is too much information, and too many conflicting arguments to make a clear choice right now, and perhaps that is the answer. Slow down, and use a rule of enlightenment. Footwear has somehow become an impulse purchase, which does not allow time for the thoughtful choices over brands beyond their appearance. Having multiple pairs of trainers, in multiple accessorised colours, something that has moved from high fashion to the high street. Design has focused on form and function, but at an accessible price. The question is always about how to scale a design to be accessible to the masses, or how to bring out fast copies of iconic designs.
If I went back to basics, and considered footwear as a consumable product, rather than simply a fashion item, then it changes my mind on the purchase. Taking that mindset, means I have to consider provenance, and consider the circular nature of the product, and what is pre-designed into the product to make sure that what will happen once the consumer life is finished is also considered. Many footwear does not consider this - and accepts no-one cares where or how it is made, as long as it is fabulous. It considers that if a bit of the sole comes unstuck, then the product will end up in the trash, and that's OK because the consumer will be upgrading to the next one anyhow.
The rule of enlightenment then means that if I can't easily read, be told, or tell from a description what, how or where a footwear brand is made, then I will not choose it. I figured that paying attention to the provenance of what you are buying, is as important as making similar choices with food. This will at least help me, where we can't find a recommendation or a review that can help. This might eliminate some footwear brands that are doing a good job but have simply not prioritised transparency of their production and supply chain, but this seems like the fairest way to make better choices.
The positive pressure that we can make as individuals, might also be towards all brands, to try and be a bit more transparent, or educate store staff on why customers should choose their brand on the ground of good. We are all connected, and together we can incentivise the biggest brands to assign larger parts of their production budgets to good practices, and bigger parts of their advertising budgets to educating us about them. Substance over style.
There is already a lot of good information out there, so this does not mean we need to ask every store owner about specific practices and production methods, or call every customer services line ahead of a purchase, but slowing down does mean that we pause and really consider the purchase. Guides also such as Ethical Consumer, or transparent organisations such as the Better Shoe Foundation, are great sources of enlightenment. Making sure a brand is B-Corp certified is also becoming a momentum and an incentive for brands and organisations. The brands recommended on these types of site, and the thought provoking information available is a good start for us to make an informed choice. Allbirds, and Po-Zu stand out, as brands that have a narrative that is detailed and authentic, but I am sure they are not the only ones.
The reason these appeal, is because they publish a story, and put efforts into educating us on their sourcing and practices, with a vulnerability to admit that things can always be better. An admission that learning is part of any organisation who is trying to do better, especially when this kind of level of sustainable thinking, in an industry that has never really been too sustainably thinking, is new and refreshing. I am sure that the stories that these producers tell us, leave out some really difficult parts about changes attitudes in a big industry, and about being a small voice in a very, very big world. But in this vulnerability and this form of creativity is a science and an art, it is the art of creating little changes, and trying to be better, every day. Perhaps this is my vanity and the appeal of a well versed marketing story, but at least it is vanity directed in a positive direction.
If you choose this little change, then it does come at a price. Good raw materials and practices, mean that the price of many sustainably minded footwear brands is higher than we might be used to. Many take part in minimal marketing spend outside of their own websites and the power of positive messages to spread organically, it is simply that materials and production is more expensive.
However, if we consider that quality goes alongside good, I should trust that they will last longer, and will have end-of-life designed into them. Perhaps also this is a kind of enlightenment. The principle of being careful about what you buy, taking care of it, and then considering it's re-use is a consistent theme in this planetwise project. When it comes to this little change, there are some immediate things we can do alongside choosing the next good product.
For example, now and in the future - good design and good quality, should mean at least that our good shoes can eventually enter the second hand market, or are made of materials that can be salvaged and reused. My parents have long practised imaginative new uses for old shoes - such as evolving them from being smart occasion footwear, to casual shoes, to gardening shoes, or by simple salvage such as always saving the laces. Shopping more in second hand stores or dress agencies, removes the need for new shoes. At the end of life, and by this I mean the real end of life, there is also value in researching whether there is a specialist footwear recycler, charity, or 'take back' schemes that can give our footwear another, different life.
In this way, like any product, if we looked after our footwear, and considered where it might go when we have finished with it, then we can also create a positive cycle of reduction and re-use.
To be true to my dear friend, and to keep his advice alive for several more decades, we will consider all these things, and make these little steps - and we will continue to search for the best choices for good new shoes, by the definition we have now chosen. We will also think about our footwear differently. This week feels like an unfinished task. I have lots of ideas, we have scraped the very surface of the industry through our research, and have made some promises rather than direct changes. But I am getting closer to watching my step. I will keep reading, and keep asking. What are these shoes made of? Where were these trainers made? Do we need another pair just yet, can they be fixed? Little by little understand more about how I can contribute to planetwise footwear.