Are you stepping as lightly as you could be? When we buy shoes, we don’t just make a fashion statement — we become part of a system which impacts the planet, other people, and, ultimately, ourselves.
Every year, the fashion industry is linked to tons of waste and exploitative practices that put the health of garment workers at risk. Buying fair trade sneakers seems like an easy way to avoid the exploitation that we know goes along with popular clothing brands, but is it really a better choice?
There are a number of different fair trade organizations, but they all have similar criteria for companies that want to be accredited: paying workers fair wages, respecting the environment, and not using child labor or forced labor, among other standards. And while we can’t dispute such admirable goals, we can acknowledge that making them work in today’s world isn’t going to be easy.
In fact, leading development economists have ranked the effectiveness of fair trade near the bottom out of 10 programs designed to combat poverty. The top three most effective programs were improving access to fresh water, improving children's health, and providing mosquito nets. These initiatives are better positioned to have a massive impact on poverty-stricken areas — but this ranking doesn’t mean that fair trade programs have no value at all.
Fair Trade Shoes: One Step In A Larger Movement
Once the priorities of a community’s health and welfare have been assessed, the next step is to ensure long-term progress by building platforms for self-sufficiency. Fair trade projects aim to give people from poverty-stricken areas the tools to take control of their own lives and amplify their voices in the global economy.
Without visiting every single person involved in the supply chain, we can’t be certain that fair trade works perfectly for everyone, every time. But what we can be sure of are the less tangible benefits that this type of product can bring.
We know that, generally speaking, fair trade does offer a better life for the workers who make the products we buy. Fair trade practices advocate reliable and stable incomes for workers who would have otherwise been subject to fluctuating global market prices. Additionally, when we demand organic materials, we feed into a system that benefits the planet. And through increasing demand for fair trade products, we can ensure that manufacturers start to listen and respond with fairer practices of their own.
Wearing fair trade products can also spark conversations about ethical practices that may never have happened otherwise.
Tackling poverty is complex, and each one of the companies below offers their own unique take on exactly how to go about it. What is certain is that it’s possible to find a company whose values align with your own, whether you prioritize animal welfare, workers rights, organic farming, or sustainability. Then, wear your fair trade shoes with pride, knowing that with every step, you are treading gently.
The Best Places To Find Fair Trade Sneakers
Veja produces a range of shoes which look fairly conventional, but their ethos and approach are far from the norm. Veja is all about action, not talk. The company is committed to constantly learning and evolving its practices to produce truly ethical and sustainable footwear.
Veja is fully Fairtrade certified, but the company states that certification is not its goal. Instead, the certification is a set of minimum standards which it sees as a foundation to build upon. Veja is constantly searching for ways to go above and beyond using fair trade materials and treating workers fairly. As an example, Veja recognizes that, by purchasing 60% of the ADEC (Associação de Desenvolvimento Educacional e Cultural) cotton farmer association's produce, the company links the success of these farmers closely to the company's own.
Related: Sustainable Fashion 101
What really makes this company different is its integrity and transparency. Veja is not afraid to own up to the areas in which it needs to improve. For example, it says that although deliveries from Brazil to Europe are made entirely by ships and barges, as of today, Veja still has to fly products to America and Asia.
Where other manufacturers may gloss over their shortcomings, Veja turns them into a virtue by keeping its promise of transparency. The open attitude continues on the company website, which displays the price Veja pays for its organic cotton (65% above market value + 0.5 EUR per kilo) and the yearly purchase quantities.
You will have to seek this company out if you wish to support their vision of integrity, as Veja does not advertise. Although its footwear costs three to four times more capital to produce than normal brands, Veja is able to keep the final selling price down using money that would have been spent on advertising.
Ethletic’s story began in 2004 — six years before its shoes appeared on the market — with a range of ethical footballs. The German company’s founders, James Lloyd and Dr. Martin Kunz, wanted to create the world’s first fairly manufactured football. They chose Pakistan as their manufacturing base.
Kunz wanted the rubber used in the balls to be sustainable, but there was no recognized seal of sustainability. He set out to work toward making one and helped to create the Forestry Stewardship Council’s certificate for rubber from sustainably managed forests.
Six years later, this same FSC certified rubber is used to create the soles of Ethletics’ range of alternative, old-school sneakers. These shoes were also the first sneakers to feature Fairtrade certified cotton uppers, and they are available in hi- and lo-top versions. Additionally, Ethletics canvas sneakers are certified vegan by PETA — the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Since 2006, Ethletics has donated 15% of the purchase price of its products to a worker’s welfare fund. The workers themselves then choose what to spend the money on — pensions, children's education, community facilities, or anything else they believe would be beneficial.
The company continually re-assess its practices to make sure they are as ethical as possible. For a sustainable alternative to the perennially cool hi-tops, look no further than Ethletics.
Sole Rebels was founded by current CEO, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, to provide a way out of poverty for the people of her neighborhood. Sole Rebels is the only footwear brand to be World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) certified.
A vibrant, creative feeling runs through the company’s products and its ethos. Sole Rebels is clearly proud of its contribution toward improving the world. Using recycled materials is a way of life in Ethiopia, and all Sole Rebels shoes have a recycled tire sole that is made in the company’s factory. The company even recycles camouflage materials and uses organic fabrics.
The WFTO certification has a 10 principles policy, and Sole Rebels meets these obligations in fresh ways. Workers (and their families) have access to doctors through the company’s 100% medical coverage program. Disabled workers are offered transport to and from the factory, and all the workers get fair pay. In fact, Sole Rebels’ workers earn wages which are 233% higher than the industry average, equalling four times the minimum wage.
Wages at Sole Rebels are a guaranteed amount — no quotas here. So, workers have a vested interest in making sure the brand is successful. Any conscious consumer who appreciates a hip and vibrant aesthetic should take a look at what this brand has to offer.
Oliberté has been producing ethical shoes since 2009. In 2012, Oliberté bought its very own factory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and in 2013, that factory became the world’s first fair trade certified factory (through Fair Trade USA).
“Every purchase, every pair, every person matters,” says the company’s website, making it clear that Oliberté prides itself on its respect for its workers, customers, and the environment. The Addis Ababa factory employs 70 people, 60% of them women. As part of the fair trade certification, which involves a total of 255 compliance standards, the company arranges weekly doctor visits to staff, respects workers rights, and invests money back into the local community. Oliberté also encourages workers unions and offers full benefits.
Respect for the environment at Oliberté is based on using raw materials that are as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible. The leather used in the company’s shoes is sourced locally from the Hafde Tannery — the only tannery in the world to have a Chrome-3 recycling system. Rubber for the soles comes from Africa, and fabric for the minimal packaging and labels also comes from local sources. Even the machinery that makes the shoe soles is sourced from Africa whenever possible.
Respect continues with the customer: every pair of Oliberté shoes comes with a lifetime warranty against defects. What could be fairer than that?