Search for ethical shoes a hard slog

01:41, Nov 26 2012
Sarah Dunn
MARATHON SHOP: Reporter Sarah Dunn was inspired to look for a pair of sustainably made, socially responsible sneakers.

Sarah Dunn goes looking to buy running shoes that haven't been made in a sweatshop.

Here's a confession. I'm a regular runner, and I have had the same pair of The Warehouse-brand sneakers since 2005. They started out baby blue and white before slowly becoming a more-or-less uniform creamy grey.

This hapless pair of Active Intents has taken me tramping, road running, through months of sustained gym time, and narrowly avoided being worn up Machu Picchu.

The main reason for my neglect is very shallow. I think sneakers are ugly, which makes it hard to care when my pair gets tatty. New, old, adidas, Nike, Active Intent, Number One Shoe Warehouse own-brand - none of them does it for me in the same way a nice pair of leather boots can, so my hard-earned cash gets spent on different things.

Unfortunately, once the soles started coming off both shoes and slapping together when I ran, I had to admit a shopping trip might be a good idea. While I'm not one of the organic-handmade-everything crew, I did have a bit of an awakening after reading Lucy Siegle's 2011 book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?

Siegle is an experienced journalist who has contributed to news sources like the Huffington Post as well as magazines like Grazia and Marie Claire. Browsing through her book, I was struck by the way she deconstructed myths about the ways sustainable shopping is painted as an unnecessary trend for the young and self-absorbed.


Instead of pushing marketing slogans, Siegle relentlessly produced research to explain how buying responsibly is a reasonable, obvious response to an irrationally wasteful world.

It was confronting to read impartial evidence of the damage we consumers are doing to the environment through all this buying. According to Siegle, the world's total yearly production of textiles in 2007 was 80 million tonnes, which meant 55 kilograms of fabric for every person on Earth. The manufacturing behind that individual total required 33kg of oil, 3300 litres of water and generated 55kg of general waste.

Reading To Die For made me realise that labour laws may have been tightened up since the activism of the 1990s, but they're still not fair. Big brands have made sure workers in their factories are paid according to the minimum wages of their respective countries, but the truth is that those wages are often not enough to live on.

Similarly, Siegle said it has become generally unacceptable for factories to directly rely on child labour, but when agents deliberately award huge orders to factories which are unable to fulfil them, those factories often contract the work out to armies of mothers who are paid to work from home and must rope in their children to finish the job as fast as possible. Unethical behaviour in fashion is not dead, it has just grown more insidious.

With these arguments ringing in my ears, I decided instead of going back to The Warehouse for my new runners, I would fork out for a pair of sustainably made, socially responsible sneakers. I began my search on the internet with a couple of brands in mind - Veja, ToBe - and vague expectations of some token offerings from the larger brands.

Disappointingly, Siegle's only hard advice on the sneaker front focused on casual leather trainers. She linked adidas, Nike and Reebok with the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest through Brazilian leather maker Bertin, which supplies the raw materials to Chinese leather finishers working for these companies. Adidas uses 14 million square metres of leather a year, and 85 per cent of this originates in South America.

In an age of effortless consumerism, it was almost exciting to go searching for an item that was hard to find, but to my surprise things started looking bad for my social-conscience shoes right from the start. Nearly all the shoes I had admired in passing at Wellington's Starfish or Good as Gold stores turned out to be unsuitable for running.

French company Veja produced the world's first fair-trade sneakers in 2004. Its product is designed to be beautiful as well as ethical, and all its shoes are manufactured with wild-tapped Amazonian rubber in a fair-trade Brazilian co-op. They would have been easy to buy online through Starfish's website, but with their flat soles and organic cotton uppers, they just weren't designed for any kind of workout.

Kiwi-made trainers ToBe sounded promising with their use of New Zealand merino and leather from Tasman Tannery, but the entire range was designed with hi-top uppers.

I got more excited when I found another French company, Vasque. Its Aether Tech runners were ugly but functional, and they seemed to make the grade on many eco-organisations' lists of "approved products". Unfortunately, the company seems to only sell hiking boots in New Zealand.

If I spoke French I might have been able to figure out how to order the sneakers direct from their website, but when I found out that their sustainability was based in the inclusion of just 30 per cent recycled material in an otherwise ordinary shoe, I let them pass.

Having given up on the internet, I decided I would go and ask the experts. I visited Smiths Sports Shoes in Richmond Mall first. When I explained my mission, the salesman was the first of several to look surprised, then amused. "You'd be lucky," he said. "We had some on sale a while ago but the company's gone now. I think they got bought out by Skechers."

"What if I went out and tried to find some of those?" I asked hopefully.

"Nope, I don't think that would work," he replied. "They're all gone now."

"So there's nothing else?" I asked.

"No, there's really nothing out there," he said.

The answer was the same at Rebel Sports in Nelson. The saleswoman helpfully sent me to Shoe Clinic on Bridge St, saying it stocked more niche brands and might be able to offer something different, but the salesman there was another sympathetic unbeliever. He showed me the Brooks Adrenaline GTS 12 which had a "MoGo" sole made to encourage less wastage, but we both agreed this probably didn't make enough difference to be worthwhile.

In the end, I settled for a pair of hot-pink Nike Revolution MSLs. Siegle's book explained that after Nike and Reebok's sweatshop controversies during the 1990s, Nike had reformed to become one of the more transparent global manufacturers. It was also rated as one of the top three corporates on Clean Air-Cool Planet's 2007 climate-change responsibility survey.

"Oh, you're back!" said the Rebel Sports saleswoman as I tried on my runners.

"Yeah, it looks like there's just not a lot out there," I said.

"So you just decided to get a pair that looks good instead?" she asked.

I looked down at my feet, encased in rubber, mesh and miscellaneous shiny bits.

"Well, no, but these will do."