Ethical sneakers, where’s the catch?

Trade for Development Centre - Enabel
30 October 2019
The number of footwear brands claiming to be fair and/or ecological has been growing in recent years. Some of them have even become important players in this vast market. Is it just a fad or is the footwear scene really undergoing fundamental changes? In any event it is a business worth billions.

The market for sports shoes (sneakers, basketball shoes, trainers, you name it) is booming worldwide. In 2019, the market will be worth $90 billion! And according to the forecasts, the growing trend will continue in the coming years. It should come as no surprise that the largest footwear manufacturers are based in China, India and Vietnam, countries where the industry does not excel in environmental care or concern for social or ethical considerations ...

In this huge business - where the gap between very cheap and enormously luxurious is still widening - a new segment is developing, that of ethical sneakers. This new trend is still negligible in absolute figures, but it is growing fast on the sneaker scene. Indeed, sneakers have become more of a fashion accessory than a sports item.


Veja, cool and transparent

One of the most popular ethical brands right now is the French brand Veja. The company was founded by Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion in 2004 and has already sold more than three million pairs of shoes. These are all made in Brazil with sustainable materials and in accordance with the rules of decent work. Veja currently has 1,800 sales outlets in some forty countries, and employs more than 100 people.

Veja currently has 1,800 sales outlets in some forty countries, and employs more than 100 people.

A pair of Veja sneakers
© Veja

Veja means 'look' in Portuguese, the language of Brazil, meaning: look beyond the sneaker itself. Look how it was made. Good idea, let's have a look ... The French duo chose Brazil because the country has all the raw materials necessary for producing shoes. Some of the rubber for the soles is purchased from ‘seringueiros’, workers who tap latex from wild rubber trees in the Amazon rainforest using traditional and respectful methods. The cotton comes from the Northeast region of Brazil, on the Atlantic coast, or from Peru, and is organically grown. As for the leather, Veja guarantees that it does not come from the Amazon rainforest and that no area has been deforested in order to produce it. The brand also ensures that the tanneries meet strict environmental standards.  Some models are even 100% vegan. In addition, Veja uses new materials such as B-mesh, mesh fabric made from plastic bottle shreds. And the brand guarantees that all these raw materials are purchased according to the principles of fair trade, by negotiating directly with the producers, at predetermined prices that are not linked to the market, in order to guarantee them a decent income.

Another advantage of Brazil, as far as Veja is concerned, is that its factories have much higher social standards than Asian ones. Production takes place in Porto Alegre, one of Brazil's most developed regions. The majority of workers live near the factory, their basic working hours do not exceed 40 hours per week and overtime is limited. In addition, they enjoy four weeks of paid holidays.

In addition to the ethical argument, Veja incorporates sleek and timeless designs to win over consumers. Word-of-mouth advertising and social networks do the rest, for example at the end of 2018, when the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, caused a buzz by making her entrance during an official trip to Australia with a pair of Vejas on her feet.


TOMS, solidary and business-minded

Another shoe brand that is extremely popular in the United States in particular is TOMS, which stands for Tomorrow Shoes. The company's strategy is based on the One For One concept, developed by founder Blake Mycoskie: for every pair of shoes you buy, the brand donates a pair of new shoes to a poor child. Since being set up, TOMS has donated more than 86 million pairs of shoes, with the type of shoe varying depending on the terrain and the season, in Argentina, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Rwanda, etc. In the meantime, the company has expanded its activities to include eyewear (where TOMS is committed to helping individuals restore their eyesight), bags and clothing (improving the health of mothers), and even coffee (access to water).

TOMS is less transparent than the French brand, but states on its website that "corporate social responsibility emphasises the environmental and social impact of our activities, responsible giving and the quality of life of our employees". The brand also indicates that its shoes are made from plant-based and sustainable materials: natural hemp, organic cotton and/or recycled polyester ... In addition, TOMS shoes are produced in China, Ethiopia and Argentina, in factories supervised by its own teams.

TOMS has had its critics since being set up, in particular regarding the relevance of its donation-based business model. Critics have argued that the main benefit of the model is to give consumers a clear conscience. In response, the company has moved its production lines to the countries where donations are made, in order to promote economic development. The brand is now looking to the European market.


Panafrica and N'go Shoes, the most ethnic brands

Another approach being developed by several ethical sneaker brands is culture. With their products, they want to highlight the craftsmanship of certain countries, to make them popular and, of course, make themselves stand out on the market.

The Panafrica project focuses on African colours and patterns. The brand primarily purchases the canvas for certain models in Ivory Coast, at a time when the African textile industry is feeling the pressure from Chinese canvas, which is two to three times cheaper. The cotton comes from Burkina Faso and is woven in Ouagadougou. The sneakers are produced in Morocco, in a workshop that respects the rights of the workers, according to Panafrica.

Besides producing sneakers with a view to the social, economic and environmental impact, the brand donates 10% of its profits to partner organisations working on projects to provide access to education and vocational training in Africa.

Education and culture are also a key focus at N'go Shoes. Founded in 2016 by two friends, this French brand commissions Vietnamese craftsmen from ethnic minorities to design its sneakers, using a traditional hand weaving method.

Beside its commitment to producing its shoes with respect for the planet and the people, N'go Shoes works with the NGO Sao Bien, which aims to build schools in the most remote and marginalised provinces of Vietnam, to which it donates a share of its profits.


And the list is even longer...

Perús also focuses on education. Each pair of sneakers sold finances one day of school for the pupils of San Jeronimo, a poor suburb of Cusco, in Peru.

And for those who really care about ecology, the Spanish brand Wado has linked its project for ethical sneakers to the fight against deforestation. The brand has undertaken to plant two trees for every pair of shoes sold, together with the NGO We Forest.

Ecology is also at the forefront of the Flamingos' Life project, which aims at upcycling waste to produce sneakers. If the shoe fits ...


You can also read the interview with Sandra Rothenberger “Ethical sneakers are on the rise”

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