So, I’m getting close to needing a new pair of shoes for work. The last pair I bought are starting to get a bit ragged and worse for wear. So I’ve started to do a little bit of research into ethical footwear, to see where things are at on that front.
SA8000 and K-Swiss
My first thought was to check out K-Swiss who were SA8000 accredited last time I checked. SA8000 was intended as an independently verified standard for labour rights. I can’t seem to find any reference to SA8000 related to K-Swiss now, so I can only assume they’ve slipped off the wagon.
The information I found last time I checked (about 3 years ago) was hard to find, and the Social Accountability International website remains pretty much useless to actually find out consumer-beneficial information about accredited companies and/or products.
In the time since I last spent time researching these things I’ve also heard and read some bad things about SA8000 – along the lines of ‘nice idea, but didn’t quite hit the mark’. So no luck there…
So I checked out some other popular footwear brands I like such as Merrell and Salomon. Neither of these companies has any information about their CSR policy that I could find, nor could I find any reliable research or information via Google (except for this little tidbit related to Salomon about shoe companies disclosing their audits.)
Worn Again and No Sweat sneakers
They have a limited range that look kinda cool, but it’s very hard to tell without seeing the product in real life (a difficult proposition in Australia). They’re also very expensive – around $200 (incl. shipping) for a style of shoe that usually goes for between $50 and $100 less than that.
I also recalled the No Sweat sneakers which are union made and a styled after the popular (though decidedly un-ethical) Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. I’m not exactly a fashion victim, but Chuck Taylors have never really suited me, so I’m not so keen on the No Sweat offering.
What about Nike?
I remembered that Nike had done some interesting stuff with their Considered products – significantly reducing waste and chemical use, as well as experimenting with recycled materials. I saw the Humara at a store in Sydney and I wanted to find out more.
I also recalled hearing somewhere that after the successful campaign against the treatment of workers who produced products for Nike (among others) that Nike had actually made good progress to improve their track record. So I did a bit of research and found Nike’s corporate sustainability report for the 05-06 financial year.
It’s an interesting read, with clear targets for carbon emissions (carbon neutral for Nike owned facilities and business travel by 2011), environmentally friendly production (17% reduction in footwear waste by 2011 and 30% reduction in packagin) and supply chain auditing – for working conditions (eliminate excessive overtime in all contract factories by 2011 and 30% of their supply chain being properly audited).
What’s interesting about Nike’s statement is they acknowledge that monitoring alone isn’t working and that to change practices the entire industry needs to engage. So they’ve publicly published the details of all their factories and called on other companies to do the same so they can work together to improve conditions.
They also claim that the Considered ethos is being brought into their general operations, rather than continuing as a distinct product line. I think this is positive and negative: positive because it means their entire product range will (eventually) become more environmentally friendly, and that it recognises the principle that environmentally friendly can improve their bottom line; negative because it will become harder for the conscious consumer to determine which products are good for the environment, and which ones aren’t.
I also think it’s a shame because it means it’s harder to “vote with your dollars” – at least with the Considered line, a purchase pretty clearly indicates that you care about the environmental benefits of the product. If I buy the next Air Zoom Affinity, am I buying it because I want the next Air Zoom Affinity, or because I care about the environment?
In steps the cynic
For a giant like Nike to be developing an agenda that, on the surface at least, is very promising and progressive is great to see. But that’s when my cynicism kicks in. How real is all of this? How much of this is just marketing spin, and how much is real progress? Why will it take a whole 5 years to clean up just 30% of the supply chain? And so on…
Sportswear is big business and brands like Nike, Reebok, adidas, Puma, ASICS and FILA make big profits and spend hundreds of millions of Euro on marketing and sponsorship of big-name athletes. Meanwhile, the Asian workers who make the sneakers and sports gear are doing it tough. They struggle to meet their families’ basic needs and many are unable to form or join unions without discrimination, dismissal or violence.
Makes you wonder what would happen if they funneled a few percent of their sponsorship budgets towards solving the issue – would we see faster progress?
What to do?
So I’m left with a dilemma. Do I go for a pair of shoes I don’t like but know their ethically OK? Do I risk $200 on a pair of shoes I can’t try on or check out? Or do I give Nike the benefit of the doubt and support their efforts to clean up their act?
I’m still undecided. If you have any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear them…
P.S. as some of you know I’ve been interested in ethical clothing and footwear for some time. In my reading travels I’ve recently found Nau – I read about them in Fast Company. Very cool – worth checking out. I’d really like to try on their cleanline jacket and courier windshirt. If only they had a store in oz…