I have always had a very soft spot for shoes. I know I am hardly on my own on this – the world is full of wannabe Emelda Marcos’s. I wonder if it’s because with all our body hang ups, its easier to look fab in a great pair of shoes? And there is no denying that they do add or detract from any outfit and activity, be the footwear technical, unapologetic or uncomfortable or all three. A person’s shoes tells you so much about them.
Well my penchance for shoes has been toned down over the last few years as I have tried to tone down my general consumerism. (To be honest this is due in part to lower spending ability). What I can say is that my new shoe purchases are now made very much less on a whim and more because of a need. I am trying to match that need with ethically sourced, environmentally considered products.
I was in South Africa recently for a family wedding and visited a shop in Franschoek called Tsonga because many of the people around me were sporting their shoes. I walked out of the shop in a pair of their men’s shoes – exactly the same as my dad’s!! They are very similar to a pair of Dubarry’s that I have lusted after for many years. With the current exchange rate (about R20 to the £1) these weren’t cheap but still affordable. (Have a look at their website for where to buy yours). The company was created as a trade not aid concept, with the concept of Ubuntu threaded through it. Ubuntu is understood in South Africa as “humanity unto others” or “I am what I am because of who we all are”. It’s an interesting concept when thinking about climate change but more of that some other time. Tsonga have interpreted it as how they train, treat and mentor their staff to uplift the local rural community through business and not hand-outs. But what I see is not just “business as usual”. Instead I see what the Story of Stuff refers to as moving the goal posts from more to better as part of the solution to our current ecological predicament.
The aim of making better rather than more has inspired another African shoe maker. I stumbled across Ethiopian Oliberté shoes when reading about the rise of African fashion. As I had to fly via Addis Ababa on my way to South Africa I thought I should go and have a look see. What made me so fascinated is it is the world’s only Fair Trade certified shoe manufacturer. AND they take sustainability very seriously. The leather they use is premium cow and goat leather from Ethiopia, free-range and hormone-free. It is sourced from local tanneries and the main tannery has the world’s only chrome-recycling system. This is in a country, on a continent, that the rest of the world expects to just copy all the Western world’s mistakes. I get that the most sustianable shoes are not made of leather but until we all become vegan hides will continue to be a byproduct of the meat industry and wouldn’t it be better that their tanning is done better everywhere? It resolutely shows that “development” doesn’t mean copying all the West’s mistakes. Even their customers come into their “Care Circle”.
When I spoke to the factory’s general manager Feraw Kebede, I asked him if this added element of his shoe making gave him a competitive advantage and he emphatically answered no – but he is doing it anyway. I was overjoyed to meet someone else who believes that our environment (both the natural and the social) are worth protecting even when it doesn’t equal profit.
Unfortunately there is no shop in Ethopia – their head office is actually in Canada and even more unfortunately (for me) they don’t appear to supply anyone in Europe. But their shoes are really lovely – mens and womens. They have a great instagram account if that’s your thing. One day I will own a pair, perhaps when my Tsonga ones have worn out.
So I am going to end this post with a confession. I have also bought a pair of shoes on impulse. Luckily they are not heels – which means I will actually wear them. Usually they would have been out of the impulse buy means test but the closing down of yet another shop in Perth means all their stock is half price so out I walked with a beautiful pair of tan leather boots from the Swedish brand Ten Points. Their aim is “to be a part of the growing design philosophy and trend of sustainability, the goal of which is to create a system which can be supported indefinitely in terms of environmentalism and social responsibility. We produce all our shoes in Europe and aims in every possible way to be as local and eco friendly as possible.”
Their leathers are tanned using vegetables rather than chromium. It’s easy to write that sentence but in fact I had no idea what it meant. Do you? Well here it is again: Their leathers are tanned using vegetables rather than chromium. Since we are all surrounded by leather and 80-95% of it is tanned using chromium- not just our shoes but the insides of our cars, perhaps your couch, our bags etc etc perhaps we should know a bit more. Luckily there are lots of people out there who know far more than I do on this subject so read on:
This article explains the difference in term of what a final product would be like.
This article describes the environmental implications of bad practice with links to work being done by the UN and others to improve practices in less regulated regions. It also describes just how nasty chromium is to human health i.e. the factory workers which just shows how being environmentally aware will also impact the workers, directly.
Chrome-free leather – this blog explains more about what chrome-free leather might mean if it’s not vegetable tanned and also refers to the other chemicals needed in all tanning including vegetable tanning.
Lucy Siegle has also recently written about the issue.
To be honest, I’m a bit dumbfounded by all of this new information, the detail of which I discovered after buying the shoes. Conscious consumerism is a complex beast and sometimes I just want to ignore it all and continue in a little bubble as so many people seem to do around me. Read Eva Wiseman’s recent article for one view. Yet then people like those I’ve discovered above teach me about Ubuntu and the reality that there is no bubble, just consistent, continuous interconnection. The ecology of life.