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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.

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.

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