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Why Your 'Green' or Vegan Shoes May Be Neither

Companies that farm out vegan shoes to China often don't know enough about the labor conditions -- or if the final product is even truly vegan.
 
 
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Here's a riddle: If you buy 'green' shoes that are made in China, are they still green? Ecologically speaking, it seems a very bad fit. After all, the eco credo of buying and selling local is designed to sustain small businesses competing against the corporate giants, while reducing the greenhouse gases from shipping products to and from China and Third World factories to sell in American retail stores.

But the footwear industry as a whole has been trekking in that direction since the late '80s when companies made the exodus to the Far East for sourcing, leaving behind a void in available manufacturing components and workshops to assemble them. Today, it's not surprising to visit a DSW outlet and find that even the fashion-forward green and comfort brands like Born Shoes and Sofft carry the imported mark on their labels.

According to the Vegetarian Site, companies farming out vegan shoes to China for production often don't know about the labor conditions, or if the final product is truly vegan.

While shoe makers might disagree with this allegation, brands like Simple (the greenest of the green, next to going barefoot) argue they cannot be profitable without sourcing Chinese labor. Simple joined the emerging natural footwear industry in 1991, introducing materials such as felted wool, cork, unbleached hemp, biodegradable cornstarch, recycled car tires, inner tubes and bamboo lining into its fun footwear. Simple even created a manifesto for 100-percent sustainability in manufacturing. But the healthy elements comprising "simple shoes for nice people" are all shipped to China so the shoes can be made, then shipped back home to retailers.

"They were sent out once we couldn't meet demand here any longer," a Simple employee tells me. "We have our own factory there, and we are owned by our parent company, Deckers Outdoors, which has five shoe brands including us."

Fashion observers tell us it has been too difficult to compete with the labor in Asia and developing nations when it comes to footwear production, and no technology in manufacturing can "narrow the gap" in rates paid to workers.

Cost isn't the entire story, according to Mandy Cabot, who, with her Danish husband, Peter Kjellerup, founded the highly successful Dansko shoe company based on a comfort clog they had discovered in Denmark.

"Our first choice hands down was to produce in the states and we tried with a production facility in Southern Maine," Cabot tells me. "We would have liked to have stayed in Maine but we were at the tail end of the New England shoe companies in that area, and when they all left, the infrastructure imploded. When other companies took their component suppliers to the Far East in the mid-nineties, it left us high and dry."

An enthusiastic workforce was also drying up, Dansko found when it began sourcing in Portugal, China, Italy and Brazil to produce its widely popular clogs and high-fashion sandals that promote foot, leg and back health.

"The general sense was American workers were not interested in standing on production lines," says Cabot. "I guess it's not part of the American dream, part of the fabric of our culture, unless it is being done out of necessity as part of a wartime patriotic gesture."

But patriotism has come to play again in the form of President Obama's State of the Union battle cry for his cronies on the hill to give tax credit incentives to U.S businesses to develop and keep renewable energy and other industries on American soil. At one time, those sort of tax credits allowed preferential treatment for U.S employers giving jobs to civil servants, as Cabot recalls.

Dansko says it is open to trying local production again, especially with a planned compostable cellulose shoe called the Solvei High-Path of the Sun. It currently is in research and development at the company's headquarters in West Grove, Pennsylvania, a gold certification winner in LEED design.

"Ideally, our zero-waste line of footwear should be sourced locally and distributed locally, and as we expand our brand internationally, we need to make appropriate shoes for those local markets with local components." she says. " If you ask what I want written on my gravestone, it would be about putting something out on the marketplace that is truly sustainable and responsible."

Cabot returned from China recently after opening a new office there; she says she closely supervises the workshops and they are run with high ethical standards. "We have been working with the same folks for three or four years in the same factories and we go half a dozen times a year," she says. "We know factory conditions are good and have good sense of our component suppliers, tanneries, sole makers, all of that."

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Meantime, Dansko and other companies might find a mentor in athletic shoe maker New Balance, the only locally made comfort shoe brand for men and women posted on the new Planet Shoes Made in the USA site. While not considered an eco brand, the company decided that in a global economy where quality components come from all over the world, it strives to play a leadership role by making a percentage of its shoes in the USA. Those that contain 70 percent of locally sourced materials qualify. NB has five factories in New England, three in Maine and two in Massachusetts.

This promotional video attests to how being local has affected the local economies:

Some responsible brands, such as El Naturalista, are striving to leave behind a reduced carbon footprint by being commercially viable enough to be able to donate 1 percent or more of their profits to helping the planet. This is how they commit to sustainability while sourcing out.

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As Cabot sees it, the solution of being as profitable domestically would require a two-fold commitment: More cobblers, tanneries and makers of outer soles setting up shop again at home and a workforce interested in this line of work. "It depends on culturally what the American worker is ready to handle and up to handling," she says. "If not a wartime patriotic motivation than perhaps the greening movement and the idea of green-collar jobs will inspire people. When that has more maturity, we can consider our footwear as part of that movement and that would be a thrilling opportunity."

 
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