Sustainability has gone from a fringe interest to a crucial factor in today’s fashion industry – brands are racing to prove their eco credentials, and consumers are increasingly seeking out sustainable items. But somehow, as journalist, author and activist Tansy Hoskins notes, the quest for sustainability tends to end at footwear. “I like stories that haven’t been told,” says Hoskins, whose first book Stitched Up – the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the ethics of the making of our clothes.
“Although there is a growing social consciousness around clothing and apparel, it tends to stop at our ankles. We’re not really thinking about our shoes.”
This is why Hoskins decided to dedicate her new book, Foot Work: What Your Shoes Are Doing to The World, to shoes and their, uhm, footprint on our planet.
The book, which aims to bring eye-opening truths about the reality behind what’s on our feet, reminds that in 2018 alone, 66.3 million pairs of shoes were produced… every day. We are producing and buying an astonishing quantity of shoes, and their impact on the Earth has never been more worrying. “I wasn’t expecting this area to be worse than the rest of the fashion industry,” says Hoskins. “But I found that it was actually a lot worse.”
Some of the alarming things Hoskins found during her research included child labour, including Syrian refugee children stitching shoes for next to no pay in Turkish basements to survive.
But what Hoskins believes needs more attention is the end-of-life stage when it comes to shoes. “Shoes can be made from up to 40 different component parts, and all of these different parts can be completely separate materials such as plastic, rubber, leather, metal, foams and more. They are really tightly bonded – glued, or welted together, which makes it very difficult and time-consuming to disassemble them and separate the different materials.”
Hoskins also notes that while clothing can be repurposed and electronics such as computers or mobile phones can have parts that can be reused when the item reaches the end of its life, “There is no use for an old shoe. It’s a really low-value item. For this reason, millions of them end up incinerated or go into landfill. And yet we keep making more.”
But as shoes are a recognised and commonly coveted object of desire, is it possible that perhaps fashion lovers tend to dispose of them with less ease than they would, say, last season’s sparkly crop top?
“People do tend to fall in love with shoes. They mould to your body and keep your shape, holding the shape of your foot even when you are not wearing them, which makes them a very personal item,” agrees Hoskins. “But one of the sad things is that most shoes these days are not built to last. So even if you wanted to keep them for a long time, that wouldn’t be an option. After four, six months, they start falling to pieces.”
Hoskins is very passionate about the topic of leather. “Many people don’t realise how much the shoe industry runs on the deaths of animals, including the habitat destruction that results from leather production. Fifty percent of all leather products that are made today are shoes. The main cause of deforestation in the Amazon is cattle farming. So there is direct correlation between all those endless pairs of trainers and brogues and high heels, and the destruction of our planet and climate change.”
She continues, “Most people don’t think about what leather really means, the total lack of consent in those supply chains. The animals did not consent to be treated that way and killed in this incredibly violent fashion.”
And Hoskins is right: the impact of the leather trade is devastating to both animals and the environment. Killing one billion animals every year, leather was found by the Pulse of Fashion Industry Report as the most polluting material in the industry. The tanning process is so toxic that 90% of all leather workers in Bangladesh die before the age of 50 due to exposure to toxic chemicals, but that doesn’t mean that “vegetable tanned” or “chrome-free” leather are the answer: the Kering Environmental Profit & Loss Report found that 93% of the damage of the leather trade happen before the skins arrive at the tannery, due to the high environmental cost of raising animals for their skins. Producing leather at the rate we currently are is a serious threat to wildlife, animals, the environment and humans.
Hoskins concludes, “One thing that people could do is recognise the reality of leather and stop buying it.”
Will we ever get there to a place where the status behind leather is no longer a factor? “I think it’s really important that within this discussion, we talk about the animals as well. People in the fashion industry still tiptoe a lot around the issue of animal cruelty – it’s okay to talk about the rainforest, it’s okay to talk about human rights, but people still tend to shy away from showing any kind of empathy to other living creatures. This has to change.”
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And change is something that many of today’s fashion consumers want. Unlike the fashionistas of decades ago, who merely chased status and glamour, today’s style lovers covet ethics. So what advice does Hoskins have for readers of her book who are influenced by her words and want to make a positive impact? “I think that people who want to make a change need to remember that social change never happens unless we collectively organise,” says Hoskins.
“One of the most important things that people can do is to get connected to groups that work to change the fashion industry, such as Labour Behind the Label, War on Want or the Clean Clothes Campaign, as well as United Students Against Sweatshops, Extinction Rebellion and many others.”
Hoskins also believes that education is key. “Use this time to learn as much as you can about environmental issues, workers’ rights, and animal rights, in order to think critically for yourself. That’s always a good starting point.”
Foot Work is set to be another ground-breaking book that will open many people’s eyes on the provenance of some of our most-fetishised objects. It’s time we looked beyond our ankles and thought about the impact of our shoe obsession.
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Cover image by Mohammad Metri/Unsplash.