My Soul Is on the Ground (a look at socially responsible footwear)

This might surprise you, but I’m not the most fashion-forward person out there.  In fact, I’m pretty fashion-backward.  I pay little-to-no attention to color matching, and in the winter I literally get dressed in the dark.  Only the “business casual” dress code of most of my places of employment has forced me to learn the basics of garment-related aesthetics.  Why am I telling you all of this? Because I recently had an interesting and philosophically engaging experience when embarking on my quadrennial quest for a new pair of shoes.

Yup, you read that right.  Quadrennial.  As in once every election/olympic cycle.  Ah, the joys of being a heteronormative guy.

I’m not a guy who likes complications when it comes to footwear.  Prior to this excursion, the sum total of shoes I own was 1 each of the following types:

  • Formal dress shoes (polished, leather soles)
  • Business casual dress shoes (unpolished, rubber soles)
  • Slippers
  • Sandals
  • Sneakers
  • All-Weather/Terrain boots
  • Snow Boots

I also received two pairs of checkered Vans slip-ons as gifts, but they were worn almost exclusively for ska-related events and not part of my typical collection.

With that glimpse into my closet in mind, the qualities I care about in a piece of footwear are usually limited to a short list:

  • Fit
  • Comfort
  • Weather-resilience
  • Price

This time around, I thought I’d add a new quality to the list: Socio-eco-political sustainability.  After all, the sneaker business is known far and wide for its exploitation of foreign workers and its harmful environmental impact. Even the classic symbols of working-class American footwear (Vans slip-ons, Converse Chuck Taylors) have been absorbed by the Nike empire and are now made by overseas laborers in questionable conditions.  If I have to buy something for my feet and I don’t care about aesthetics, why not buy something that bucks those trends? But it turns out that it’s not quite as simple as “ethical Vs. unethical,” and the question of which type of social responsibility in shoemaking would win my valuable dollars…

Candidate #1: Toms

By far the more famous of the two candidates, Toms shoes are becoming very popular among young, social responsibility-minded American consumers who want to buy shoes and contribute to charity at the same time.  Toms pledges to donate a pair of shoes to a child in an underprivileged nation for every pair sold in stores.  You can read all about their mission (as well as check out their latest designs, including a collaboration with Charity Water) at their website.  It seems like a great deal, right?  Unfortunately, there are two catches.  First, the shoes you buy in stores are different from the ones given to children in underprivileged nations.  It turns out that we’re the ones getting cheaped out on, while they get more durable and sturdy footwear!  I’m not begrudging these poor folks by any means, but it would be nice if everybody got the strong shoes, don’tcha think?  Second, the shoes are kind of … ugly.  While the style of the classic Toms shoe doesn’t leave much of an impression on me either way, people in my immediate circle of friends have expressed their distaste for them.  Caveat emptor, dear readers.  Try before you buy, and see if they’re of a style that suits you.


Favoring a completely different approach to ethical footwear, Kalle Lasn and the folks from Adbusters Magazine set out to create a shoe that was socially, ethically, and environmentally responsible in every possible way.  Blackspot sneakers are made from Vegan-friendly organic materials (including recycled tires for the soles and hi-test hemp in place of canvas) and assembled by fair-trade workers in Portugal who are paid an honest-to-goodness living wage.  All three versions of Blackspots come Unbranded, which means that they feature a blank white circle where a logo would traditionally go.  This encourages owners to come up with their own personalized graphic statement, instead of championing a corporate flag and acting as free advertising.   Finally, every Blackspot owner becomes a shareholder in the Blackspot enterprise itself, making the shoe an investment as well as a purchase.  Could you ask for a more ethically-constructed shoe than that?  As with the Toms, there is a catch, but a very different one: Price.  Blackspots will set you back a cool $90 (more for the Unswoosh boot,) which is a bit much to ask for what are, to all outward appearances, knock-offs of the classic Converse Chuck Taylor low-top sneaker.  Still, for someone like me who sees his shoe cost amoritized over a four-year period, an ethically-produced shoe at that price is still acceptable.

THE WINNER: Why Choose?


In the end, I decided that this will have to be a long-term study and decided to purchase both the Toms (at retail) and the Blackspots (online, since the retailer stopped carrying them years ago due to low profit margin.)  My hope is that with two sets of casual shoes to choose from, I won’t wear out either one as quickly and will have them both for several years to come.  Plus, while the Toms are great for warm, dry weather, they are not designed for long walks in snow or freezing rain (the Blackspots, on the other hand, seem to be even more durable than their Nike-produced competitors!)   Next time you’re headed to the shoe shop, take a moment to think about where and how those shoes were made and decide if you want that burden on your sole. (sorry, couldn’t resist!)


One Response

  1. I’ve always found you quite stylish!

    In other news, I have a lot (like, A LOT) of shoes. My favorite pair, I bought from a bargain bin for 7 dollars. I’m pretty sure there is no shoe in my collection that is ethically made.

    SO… I suck. Actually, I just need to do some research and find some heels that are ethically made.

    Also, I like the Toms! I think they’re kind of cool. The next time I need sneakers (which will probably be soon), I’ll check out both of these people. Maybe, instead of buying $300 dollar boots, I’ll buy $90 dollar sneakers, both saving myself a pretty penny and helping the world!

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