The trials and tribulations of finding fair trade sneakers
By Natalie Serafini, Staff Writer
This is a bit embarrassing: I’ve had the same running shoes for six years. After six years of me running, walking, Grouse Grinding, jumping, and generally sweating in them, they are quite the worse for wear. You see, dear reader, when I bought these shoes, I was an innocent eighth grader with little to no awareness of sweatshops and the moral problems associated with shoeing my feet. As time passed and I became slightly more morally aware, I’ve been hesitant to buy new shoes without knowing where they came from. Also, I’m incredibly frugal and it’s only recently that I noticed my shoes were falling apart, forcing me to gear up Google and look for sweatshop-free shoes.
I don’t pretend to know everything or to have read extensively on the issue, but to my knowledge, the main concerns with sweatshops are regulations and finding solutions that don’t soften the complexities of sweatshops. Companies that outsource to other countries provide employment for those locals, and in some cases where factories have been shut down, workers have been forced into prostitution. So I’m not too concerned about the existence of factories in other countries, but the treatment of these workers. The problems arise when regulations—if there are any—fail and companies pay workers as little as possible and treat them as badly as possible because they can. What makes sweatshops so complex is neither wanting to support companies that treat their employees unfairly, nor wanting to jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of people who work at factories.
The corporations who set up employment in other countries could be helpful if they actually treat their employees fairly through regulations. Because of this, I’m trying to find a company for running shoes that, regardless of where their factories are stationed, treat their workers with a modicum of decency.
So I’ve been tip-tapping away, searching for companies who at least make an effort in producing fair trade shoes. Let me tell you, it ain’t easy. I’ve found so much conflicting information on the monster companies of New Balance, Puma, and Nike. I think we all remember the Nike scandal from years ago. I’m reluctant to “just do it” after all the horror stories of factories past, which may not be entirely resolved.
[quote style=”boxed”]So I’ve been tip-tapping away, searching for companies who at least make an effort in producing fair trade shoes. Let me tell you, it ain’t easy. I’ve found so much conflicting information on the monster companies of New Balance, Puma, and Nike.[/quote]
Although some of Puma’s factories sounded decent based on reports from the Fair Labor Association, the association itself may not be a bed of roses. Jeff Ballinger, the director of Press for Change, was quoted in the New York Times as saying “[the] Fair Labor Association is largely a fig leaf. There’s all this rhetoric from corporate social responsibility people and the big companies that they want to improve labor standards, but all the pressure seems to be going the other direction—they’re trying to force prices down.” Yeah. I’m thinking I’m not going to listen to the Fair Labor Association.
After a lot of research, I eventually found a company that I feel decent about buying shoes from. I say decent, because there has been so much conflicting information, and because sweatshops are so incredibly deplorable. But I found information about Natural Sport shoes, which are supposed to be quite ethical and reputable, and are sold at the store Naturalizer, a supposedly ethical store. Alongside these runners are Ryka shoes, and, although I didn’t find a whole lot of information on them, their parent company Brown Shoes are supposed to be quite the moral mavens.
Because I feel so uncertain, chances are I’ll continue to research and I encourage any of you who are in the market for new runners to do the same. We’re so far removed from the production of our clothing, partly because finding information on the quality of factories is so difficult to come by. Even if it’s difficult, I think we’re all aware of how deplorable sweatshops are. It’s worth it—you, your society, and your feet—to push for more knowledge and greater transparency.