Your Feet and the World


Your feet and the world. A footnote on global shoe production

What do you know about the shoes you wear? The brand, the price and maybe something about the materials they are made of. But where do they come from? Check out the tag and you will probably find out the country of production.  China? India? Vietnam? Most likely, because 87% of footwear production takes place in Asia. These days people want to know more and more about the food they eat and the cosmetics they use. So, why would you not want to know anything about the shoes you wear. After all, choosing the right shoes, is a decision that concerns not only you and your pair of feet, but also the lives and livelihoods of many other people.

Let me explain. There are thousands of people working in the global footwear industry producing more than 22 billion pairs of shoes annually. Some of them process the raw materials, most notably leather which is the most labour-intensive and dangerous material to handle. Harmful chemicals, that are used in leather tanning processes, such as carcinogenic chromium VI, cause 90 % of the Bangladeshi tannery workers to die before the age of 50.  Just for the record, chromium VI traces in your leather shoes can be potentially dangerous to your health as well, although here we are talking ‘only’ about health risks like allergies and dermatitis. 85% of leather shoes are produced using these dangerous methods. Sure, there are safer options available, e.g. vegetable tanning, but why would the industries opt for them, if they are less economical and more time consuming?

The rest of the global footwear producers work either in factories, mainly operating machines, or at home, engaging in labour-intensive and time-consuming final stages of shoemaking. Homeworkers are often deprived of employment contract, working rights, social security and forced to survive on wages well below the minimum living wage. Their salaries can vary from less than 50€ per month in Bangladesh to 175€ in China to 196€ in Malaysia, hardly ever exceeding a half of the bare minimum needed to actually make a living. And if you  think of this exclusively as an Asian problem – confined to the ‘Third World countries’ – think again. Think Bulgaria, the EU member, where a homeworker earns 0,5 euros per pair of shoes.

How could you know the bare truths behind the shoe industry? Well, just by reading the tags on your shoes or googling the manufacturer websites you can’t find out anything – and this is precisely the problem. You can check out the basics of the industry by getting to know Change Your Shoes campaign, but the underlying problem remains. There is absolutely no transparency in the global footwear industry and no legal obligation to disclose any information about production processes. This is why Eetti tries to make you stop and think about the choices you make in your everyday life. When people are provided with accurate information, they tend to consider consequences of their choices and make better decisions as consumers. According to a new study, almost 80% of Finns would pay 5% percent more for ethically produced shoes. People who attended Eetti’s “Shoes for producer prices”  event were even more unanimous. Every single passer-by, who was offered to buy shoes for a price of an Indian homeworker’s salary per a pair produced (0,14€!), was willing to bear the costs of providing footwear production workers with living wages.  In practice, the price difference would not be higher than a few Euros. Continuing to raise awareness about ethical issues entangled in fashion industry, Eetti Helsinki organised a screening of ‘The True Cost’ documentary at Café Mascot. The movie was followed by a short, but stimulating discussion.

Emmi Kähkönen Photography

You always get to play with some balloons as an Eetti volunteer. Photo: Emmi Kähkönen

Do you want to deepen your knowledge about the ethical dilemmas and problems of global trade? Or maybe even become a part of the solution? Either way, you should join the upcoming meeting of Eetti Helsinki (in English): on 5 October (Monday) at 6 pm we are meeting at Think Company (Vuorikatu 5, 00180 Helsinki) to play the International Trade Game – a simulation which will allow us to better understand the complexities and processes of global trading relations. And before that, visit Eetti Helsinki on Facebook.


Author: Kinga Polynczuk