Vegan shoes: a mission

As winter finally makes an appearance in the UK, it’s time to revisit my annual mission: find some stylish, good quality, ethical footwear. I usually end up getting bored and buying some incidentally non-leather high street shoes, and then wish I’d stuck it out to find a decent ethical option. This year, I’m trying to stay resolute, and I thought I’d share some of the brands I’ve come across in my search in case you’re in a similar position and getting tired of trawling the search results for the perfect shoe!

Matt & Nat – this summer, this vegan super-brand branched out from handbags and wallets into shoes, and I think they’ve come up with a pretty solid collection. Nothing too jazzy here, but if the quality is the same as their bags we’re in for a treat.

Ethletic – look rather similar to a certain cult classic, but with supply chain visibility and vegan materials.

Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather – am coveting at least 5 items from the range tbh.

Beyond Skin – 100% vegan shoes. Need someone to stage an intervention to stop me buying all the gold shoes.

Nae Vegan – a solid range from the classic to the esoteric (and more gold).

Zibru – a new brand on me, but they have a small vegan line, mostly black boots and shoes.

By BLANCH – made in spain and 100% vegan, a small but perfectly formed range of shoes and boots.

Third Estate – a vegan clothing and footwear shop in North London (now with an online shop too) stocking a number of vegan shoe brands.

Jonny’s Vegan – site is in German, but a solid range of vegan shoes.

Bourgeois Boheme – some good options for smarter shoes in particular.

Nicora shoes – handmade in the US, offer flat-rate worldwide shipping.

Bahatika – a lovely aesthetic, Vegan society approved.

Muroexe – super minimal design, all vegan.

Avesu – stock a pretty massive range from lots of the brands I’ve mentioned here, and some others. A good starting point.

Ahimsa – a Brazilian brand offering free worldwide shipping. 100% vegan.

Vegetarian Shoes – a long running and well known brand, a worth a visit any time you’re in Brighton!

Bella Storia – made in Italy, 100% vegan.

Flamingos Life – animal free sneakers.

Insecta Shoes – made in Brasil, 100% vegan.

Native Shoes – a pretty wide range, catering for both adults and kids.

I’ll try to keep adding to this list as I find new ones (and hopefully eventually find the winter boot of my dreams!) but if you have fave brands that I’ve missed in the meantime please let us know in the comments 🙂

 

 

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Environment: Cotton

The globalised world makes things, on the one hand, more accessible and at the same time  isolates us from one another. The impact of our consumer choices has far reaching consequences. It affects the lives of people all over the world and contributes to climate change. This is true when one buys everyday clothing goods. I wanted to illustrate this with the humble cotton t-shirt.

Cotton is the most widely used fibre in the world. This can be attributed to European colonisation of America. Crop production in the Southern states was the foundation of the American economy. Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin (gin is short for engine) in 1794. This greatly reduced the time it took to separate the cotton boll from the seed. In turn this created an explosion in demand for Black slaves. The US produced 750,000 bales of cotton in 1830, due to the cotton gin this rose to 2.85 million bales in 1850. The English economy equally profited. Textiles were a main export, thanks to technological advancements in the 1760s. The US and English supply chains were unified when the English opted to buy cotton from the South instead of India. The economies of European nations were built by the labour of slaves. Since this time cotton has been an internationally profitable industry which explains its wide use.

cotton aral sea 2
Image courtesy of David Stanley via Flickr

Sadly slave labour is still a feature of the cotton trade today. In Uzbekistan, a major global exporter, the government forces millions of its citizens, including children, to pick the crop or face state oppression. The citizens make little money, if any, for carrying out this labour-intensive work. In contrast  the government and their inner-circle  make US$1 billion in annual profit. The Cotton Campaign seeks to raise global awareness to force governments and institutions to put pressure on the Uzbek government. We too can play a part by raising awareness, and using our purchasing power to buy goods from progressive companies.

Many companies state they do not know where their cotton comes from due to the complexities of the trade. This may be a case of wilful blindness. The US government subsidises its farmers in order to ‘dump’ their cotton crop on the global market, below cost-price. Farmers in developing nations are undercut and locked into the cycle of poverty. It falls upon NGOs and informed consumers campaigning to call out the practices of large companies. Driven by the scale of global cotton production, questions have been asked of the environmental impact it has. Cotton accounts for 2.5% of the worlds farm land and uses 16% of global pesticides – more than any other crop.

The process of producing a cotton t-shirt is resource intensive, requiring  2700 litres of water to make just one t-shirt. With 73% of global cotton farming requiring irrigation, the impact upon communities and the surrounding area can be disastrous. The Aral Sea is a well known example. Overuse of the rivers leading into the lake led to it dramatically reducing in size. The use of pesticides on the farmland lead to run off, which sees pesticides enter the surrounding rivers. This leads to  the loss of species and the contamination of fresh waterways.

cotton aral sea
Aral Sea 1989 – 2008 Image courtesy of UN Development Programme via Flickr

Conventionally grown cotton is an intensive business. In order to maximise yield, and thus profit, insecticides are used. It is said that seven out of the 15 most carcinogenic chemicals in the world are used in cotton farming. Defoliants are used to force leaves to fall from crops to speed up the harvesting process. The Americans used Agent Orange, a defoliant, in  the invasion of Vietnam to remove forest cover. These substances enter the soil, waterways and vegetation generally. The impact, as is too often the case, falls disproportionately on poorer people in developing countries. The use of chemicals is not limited to the field. In the finishing process; formaldehyde, sulphuric acid and caustic acid are used. It is worrying that harmful chemicals are used on this massive scale and that this practice isn’t routinely known. There is, at least, a better alternative to this method of farming that seeks to address these concerns.

‘organic methods save 95,000 Olympic size swimming pools of water against conventional farming’

Organic cotton farming is growing in popularity as people learn about conventional methods. In terms of environmental impact the facts are staggering. As the Soil Association state, organic methods save 95,000 Olympic size swimming pools of water against conventional farming. Due to the levels of insecticides and pesticides used, it takes a conventional farm three years to transform to meet organic standards. Organic methods reject multinational GMO seed creation. Farmers, and not business people, are at the heart of the production stage. As a result the farmers, their communities and the environment are not exposed to carcinogenic material. Organic cotton is 98% less pollutant than conventional cotton. In order to ensure the fertility of the soil, farmers plant  a variety of crops. This biodiversity improves the quality of the cotton and diversifies the income farmers are able to generate. Less water is used, which safeguards all of our futures. Organic cotton farming is able to use less water as the soil is better able to retain water, thus irrigation is not required.

To ensure the goods you purchase are organic certified look for the GOTS and Soil Association labels. It may be claimed that organic cotton is more expensive than conventional / cruel cotton. However, this is due to the practices inherent in fast fashion. The low prices, much like chemicals used, are artificially manufactured. It is abhorrent that farmers / communities are forced to endure life on the bread line so that I may have a cheap t-shirt. When one factors in the environmental destruction caused by conventional  cotton we are all paying a high price for those low costing goods. The answer is to change our relentless consumption. Buy less and Be more.

There are a number of companies who adhere to the organic cotton ethos (not all companies are vegan);

The White Shirt Co.

People Tree

Braintree

Beaumont Organic

You can also find a list of companies who support organic cotton on the Cotton On and About Organic Cotton websites. NB Not all of the companies featured are vegan.

Below is a short documentary about how a t-shirt is made and the people who make them.

How our love of fast fashion is undermining the pursuit of an ethical lifestyle

Many of us follow fashion and like to seek out new items for our wardrobe as the new season breaks, or a new trend catches our eye. But our constant appetite for new trends and new clothing is driving a corporate machine that places a really low value on ethical and sustainable material sourcing and production, and ethical workplace practices in production and distribution.

Instead of two fashion seasons, we’re on a constant treadmill of new trends, fed by items that we can pick up on the high street for bargain prices. In order to keep this treadmill going, quality has dropped, quantity has grown, and production has been outsourced and scaled to offer the best return on investment. In reality, this means corners are cut and production costs are squeezed. The most prominent illustration of this is the Rana Plaza disaster, in which a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers. The factory produced garments for many of the most prominent brands on the high street today, including Primark, H&M, and Benetton. The justification for these brands turning a blind eye to the conditions and working practices is often that they are a ‘better’ alternative than the other jobs available in these regions. Whether or not that’s true, these brands have the capability (in size, in profit, in resources) to offer standards which are comparable to more accepted working standards in the rest of the world, to offer rates of pay and employee programs capable of supporting genuine empowerment and social change, and placing employee welfare at the top of their priority list. They don’t, because the market isn’t forcing them to. As long as they aren’t worse than the existing alternatives, they can keep their heads below the parapet. Workers in these countries report, in accounts given in The True Cost, that attempts to unionize and lobby for better conditions or pay are met not with silence, or indifference, but violence from the factory owners who employ them, and their own governments. Production contracts are so lucrative, and competition between countries so widespread, that many governments seek to provide the ‘best’ offering to corporations to ensure the contracts aren’t lost to other countries where labour is cheaper or easier.

The True Cost – currently available on Netflix, the True Cost looks at the fashion production industry with a critical eye and presents some stark accounts from garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia]

The ethical questions around workplace conditions can’t be underestimated, and the impact large clothing retailers could have on the welfare and lives of those they employ around the world is potentially huge, but currently drastically underexplored. Recent work done by Labour Behind the Label and reported by Ethical Consumer indicates that just 4 of the 40 largest international clothing brands could demonstrate steps being taken towards a living wage (Source Nov 2015).

One of the things that strikes me when reading around this issue is how broadly the term ‘ethical’ has been interpreted, allowing it to be bent to the will of corporate retailers. Take, for example, the news that H&M was recently named the ‘World’s Most Ethical Company’ for the fifth time. This year’s list, produced by EthiSphere, also recognises L’Oreal, Starbucks and GAP, amongst many others. Many consumers, myself included, have serious questions about the ethical practices of these companies when it comes to issues like employee welfare, sustainability, and animal testing, to name but a few. This is just one example among many, but it indicates that we aren’t always clear what we mean when we talk about ‘ethical’. That ambiguity allows companies and industries to interpret it in a commercially beneficial way and as an increasingly handy marketing tool. EthiSphere judge ethical companies as those which “go beyond making statements about doing business “ethically” and translate those words into action. Honorees not only promote ethical business standards and practices internally, they exceed legal compliance minimums and shape future industry standards by introducing best practices today.” (Source Nov 2015). These standards are set by industry, for industry, and it shows. The criteria listed by EthiSphere focus on corporate governance, and don’t seem to get too interested in actual operating practices like production, materials, or employee welfare, so how meaningful is this as a measure of ethical practices, really? (Source Nov 2015).

die_for_fashionImage by Solidarity Center via Flickr

For a really detailed look at H&M’s promises and practices, take a look at this post from the Clean Clothes Campaign: 10 ways H&M is spinning the facts on worker safety, or this analysis on Medium: Is H&M Really the World’s Most Ethical Company?. To give H&M their dues, they were the first brand to sign a commitment to safer working environments following the Rana Plaza disaster, but recent studies have shown this to be well behind schedule, suggesting that the initial PR management may have been more of a priority than effecting real change (Source Nov 2015). We’ve looked at H&M as an example here, but the deliberate muddying of the term ‘ethical’ is widespread across commodity industries, and plays to our consumer interest in ‘good actors’, whilst requiring the most minimal changes to working practices and industry standards.

It’s easy to imagine that poor pay and conditions for textile workers is an issue faced, or even caused, by developing countries. However, recent studies have indicated that this issue impacts workers in developed countries like the UK, too (Source Nov 2015).  With poor pay and working conditions seemingly rife in the UK market and the US industry too, just checking the country of origin isn’t enough to ensure your purchases are ethically produced in safe workplaces.  Finding smaller scale producers and makers local to you is one way to reduce the environmental impact of your purchases, whilst also going a long way to keep labour local and fair. We appreciate that such brands are often more expensive and typically harder to find in some parts of the world than others, so I’d also recommend checking the list at Ethical Consumer.  At the time of writing, BHS easily outstrips the other high street retailers with a score of 12/20 on the measures used by Ethical Consumer (I’ll leave you to decide the relevance of BHS’ recent sale by Arcadia Group, which scores 7/20). Ultimately, by creating the demand and prioritising quantity and price over quality and ethics, we’re perpetuating the supply. As consumers, we have the power to demand clarity on issues like ethics, and to vote with our money when it comes to choosing products and companies which fulfil the ethical standards we want to see become the norm.

This issue is huge, and the impact doesn’t stop with workers in the supply chain – there are huge issues for sustainability, the environment, and non-human animals, which we’ll cover in a separate post soon.

Further Reading

I cannot recommend this essay highly enough, it’ll change the way you think about this issue as you go about your day to day – it did for me

The Sweatshop Sublime, Bruce Robbins: http://www.columbia.edu/~bwr2001/papers/sweatshop.pdf

Ethical Consumer worked with industry bodies to put together a special report on the fashion industry, 1 year after Rana Plaza – there’s a lot of useful information in there if you want to know more and, of course, Ethical Consumer’s handy ranked lists. http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/ethicalreports/fashionindustry.aspx