We are delighted to welcome author and journalist Tansy Hoskins to talk about her recently published book, ‘Foot Work, What Your Shoes Are Doing to the World’ which takes us inside the shoe industry to reveal the damage its relentless production is wreaking on workers, animals and the environment.

TRAID: The sub title of Footwork is ‘What Your Shoes Are Doing to the World’ – from your research, what are the three biggest impacts of our shoes that we should be mindful of?

Tansy Hoskins: People, Planet and Animals.

  • People – The shoe industry is ten years behind the rest of the fashion industry in terms of human rights. Production means poverty wages for millions of people, Syrian refugee children stitching in basements, homeworkers in Pakistan losing their sight from stitching on tiny beads, air filled with glue fumes, fires and factory collapses, and the persecution of people who stand up for their basic rights.
  • Planet – Every point of shoe production is in environmental crisis, leather production created the fifth most polluted place on the planet, we are mowing down the Amazon rainforest to build cattle farms, 90% of shoes are not recycled and end up being incinerated or being checked into landfill. The plastic elements of our shoes are made from fossil fuels and rivers and lakes in the Global South are being destroyed by dye and chemical runoff.
  • Animals – The vast majority of our shoes are made from the skin of animals that have been industrially farmed, brutalised, and then slaughtered. Animal farming is bad for the planet but it is also incredibly cruel – there is no fair way to kill an animal that just wants to live. Animals have not consented to be treated like this and we urgently need to move away from thinking we can subjugate them just because we have more power than they do.

TRAID: When considering the ethics of the fashion industry, why is it that the socio-environmental problems caused by shoe production, consumption and waste tends to be over looked and under scrutinised.

Tansy Hoskins: While the fashion and clothing industry is in the spotlight for its exploitation of people and planet, awareness about what we wear seems to stop at our ankles. This is partly because, although there have been fatal disasters, there has not been a tragedy on the scale of Rana Plaza the factory collapse that killed 1,138 garment workers in Bangladesh. But we must not wait for such a horror to wake us up – we must all work together in solidarity with shoe workers and environmental campaigners to stop the destruction before it is too late.

TRAID: For many, the status denoted by trainer brands and labels is incredibly important. At TRAID, many of the unwanted trainers we sort are because they have lost status, even though they may still be in great condition. How can we persuade ‘sneakerheads’ to value the shoes they already have?

Tansy Hoskins: Navigating modern society means being bombarded with messages that tell us we are being judged on what we wear, eat and drive. Thousands of adverts link consumption to our social status and tell us to be insecure about what we have.
Unfortunately this is a pressure that now starts very young and so we see children (as well as adults) desperate to own and wear a certain brand and type of shoe because their peer group considers other types of shoe to be a stigmatised product.
This is really depressing and I think we need to re-orient society away from valuing and stigmatising people based on their appearance and what they wear. This is a huge challenge because all the messages that tell us we aren’t good enough are designed to make us shop so ultimately we need to unpick capitalism and create a fairer world that values people not objects.

TRAID: The chapter on slaughtering cows for the leather industry is an extremely difficult read. The level of cruelty is unimaginable, yet is it a banal everyday fact. Do you see a time when brands will not use animal products?

Tansy Hoskins: I had no idea how badly visiting a slaughterhouse would affect me – it was absolutely horrific to see cows being taken into that hellish place where they absolutely did not want to go and where they did not belong. There is just no need for the slaughter – plant based materials include mushroom leather, pineapple leather, there are Portuguese companies doing great things with sustainable cork, recycled fishing nets and plastic bottles are also being used by many smaller brands. This is the necessary future, not just for footwear but for the planet.

TRAID: The UK used to have a thriving shoe making industry, but today, most shoe manufacturing takes place in hyper-globalised supply chains. How has this changed our relationship with footwear?

Tansy Hoskins: As shoe factories in the Global North closed down, people here lost their links with production as they no longer had friends or family working to make shoes. The objects in shop windows began to become mysterious. This means there is a huge knowledge gap around shoes. The manufacture of footwear is shrouded in mystery which leaves us unable to make truly informed decisions about which shoes will last or which can be repaired. And it leaves us reliant on trusting multinational corporations to give us truthful information which is never a good thing. Shoe brands spend billions of dollars are spent trying to make us believe shoes spring from puffs of pink smoke at the snap of a fairy godmother’s fingers. Corporations prefer the illusion that there are no supply chains and that shoes can be made, sold, bought and discarded in their tens of billions without consequences. This is so dangerously far from the truth that much of the work of Foot Work was me trying to demystify shoes for people.

TRAID: Over-consumption is a huge problem in the fashion industry full stop. What is the scale of shoe production right now and what problems particular to footwear does it cause?

Tansy Hoskins: Footwear production is out of control! In 2018, 66.3 million pairs of shoes were made every single day. This adds up to 24.2 billion pairs per year. Millions of pairs are being churned out on unsafe Global South production lines, the speed does not mean that the shoes being made are good – in fact they are not being built to last and will often fall apart far too soon. This means that consumption never stops. When we think that 90% of shoes are not recycled these figures get even more worrying. We cannot afford to clog up the earth with old shoes made from synthetic parts that will still be there in 1,000 years.

Author Tansy Hoskins ©Michelle Woods

TRAID: Many of us want to put our best foot forward. How can we support a transformation of this industry, and could this link to wider social transformation?

Tansy Hoskins: Changing the world is no easy task. In Foot Work I have developed a tool called the Triangle of Change to help address this. The Triangle contains three issues: individual, political and system change. Individual change is placed at the top of the Triangle – because shoes are a consumer item, emphasis is often placed on changing ourselves, rather than the world around us. Individual change is not invalid, but it can function as a trap. The trap is thinking that as long as the top of the triangle is fixed, everything will be fixed. The second level is political change, and it is here that questions of power begin to be examined. This level covers regulation, legislation, freedom of association and taxation, all elements that involve placing political pressure on governments and institutions and pushing them to regulate capitalism. By its very nature it is collective and covers a far greater number of factories and countries. The third level is by far the biggest and is often the unspoken elephant in the room. This is quite literally the basis of the problem. It is here we find the most intransigent problems of capitalism: the systemic exploitation of women, the exploitation of the Global South, the creation and maintenance of racism and the imposition and exploitation of class and poverty. This third level means confronting capitalism and moving towards system change.

The best starting place for people who want to change the clothing and shoe industry, or the world, is to find groups of like minded people and to start working collectively. I would recommend Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label, TRAID, War On Want, United Students Against Sweatshops, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion plus many more.

Foot Work is now available as a paperback, e-book and audio book. Visit Tansy’s website for details of how to buy.