Are Your Asian-Made Vegan Shoes Truly Vegan?

by David Sudarsky

Before you start worrying about that obscure animal byproduct hidden somewhere in the soles of your shoes, let me be up-front with you. I'm not writing about vegan purism or even animal byproducts in vegan footwear. Rather, I'd like to focus on the broader vegan ethic of non-exploitation. Even if a product contains no animal ingredients, a vegan or ethical vegetarian will not buy it knowing that animals were heavily exploited in order to bring the product to market. Likewise, when humans are heavily exploited in manufacturing certain products, we may choose to avoid those products as well, even if the products are free of animal ingredients. After all, humans are animals too!

It seems that nearly everything is manufactured overseas in Asian countries nowadays, and this is particularly true of footwear. Unfortunately, both the working and living conditions of factory workers are still lacking in many respects. Sixty or more hours of manual labor each week, low wages, and a requirement that workers live at company facilities in group dorm rooms are not uncommon. Standards and practices that would violate labor laws in the Western world are legal in Asia, where laws are more lax and human rights are not up to par. But exactly what constitutes acceptable working conditions, wages, etc. is somewhat ambiguous. In many cases, employees are simply happy to be earning a living, even if it occupies most of their waking hours. Due to the inexhaustable Western demand for shoes (and everything else), large, well-funded factory operations have sprouted up in some of the countries where jobs are needed most. In principle, that's a good thing. It would be nice, however, if worker paychecks were also generally well-funded and fewer hours were necessary in order to earn a decent living.

A large fraction of the new animal-friendly and vegan merchants who have arrived on the scene in recent years (both online and 'brick-and-mortar' stores) are offering a product selection that is entirely, or almost entirely, from Asian suppliers. In most cases, some vague claim of 'fair labor' is made, but it is clear after talking with them that they don't actually know much at all about the working or living conditions of employees. They don't have reliable data on the real number of hours worked (required overtime work is very common in these busy factories), the maximum number of working hours per week, the wages earned, avenues for worker complaints, independent factory monitoring, dimensions of group living quarters, square footage per occupant, etc. In many cases, the vegan merchants don't even know the actual location of the factory, because they are not dealing with the factory, but with an offsite salesperson. It's not to say that everything that comes out of China or Vietnam is tainted by human exploitation. There are many shades of gray here, but it is important--and a matter of honesty--to know the details before asserting 'fair labor' or 'ethical manufacturing.'

You may have also noticed that a few well-established vegan stores are offering a larger and larger selection of Asian-made footwear (and bags/accessories) than ever before. One popular brand of Chinese-made shoes sold through such merchants is Earth shoes. In addition to their leather shoes, Earth offers a rather extensive line of vegan footwear. Earth does not like to advertise that their footwear is made in China (just as they don't like to explain that most of their footwear is not actually eco-friendly, despite their brand name.) It is understandable that 'Made in China' is not a big selling point for a product line, as it tends to relegate you to the Wal-Mart camp in the minds of many vegans. But Earth takes things a step further: I examined a pair of their vegan shoes in a retail shop the other day and immediately noticed an American flag sewn inside. Are their shoes now made in the USA? No. Upon reading the fine print, I learned that the shoes had been designed in the USA, but they are actually still made in China. Perhaps the company could put together a more appropriate design, with a People's Republic of China flag instead, because the Chinese are the ones working the long hours to produce these shoes.

Often times, the very country in which a particular product is produced will change without notice. Furthermore, some manufacturers use multiple Asian factories, and since they do not actually own the factories, the conditions under which footwear is made may vary substantially between factories. For example, Garmont makes their high-end Garmont Vegan hiking boot in a Chinese factory, although it was previously manufactured in Romania. They also make a current range of lighter vegan trail hikers and trail running shoes in a different Chinese factory. In both cases, their workers are paid 25-50% above the minimum wage (depending in part on skill level), but their employee criteria are quite different. In the Garmont Vegan factory, employees 18 and older are hired and are expected to work 40-52 hours per week. In contrast, the light trail hiker/running shoe facility will hire 16-year-olds and requires a hefty 54-72 hours every week. Even with fair wages, most would consider that number of required hours on the excessive side. Yet a well-established US vegan retailer boasting "the largest selection of cruelty-free items in one location" currently sells the lightweight trail hikers while simultaneously claiming that they have a "thorough screening for all shoe and accessory companies" and that there are "no excessive hours for employees" producing the products that they sell. Either a 6-day work week at 9-12 hours per day making shoes is not deemed excessive in their view, or they are not doing detailed research concerning how their products are being manufactured. Perhaps that's a downside to offering such a huge selection of vegan products, a large fraction of which are supplied by China. Even worse are the online superstores that care not at all about human or animal rights, made clear by the fact that they are selling every available mainstream brand of shoes. Some such companies offer a section of vegan or 'nonleather' options for their vegetarian patrons. Virtually all these shoes are made in Asia, and many by companies with egregious workers' rights violations on their records.

But why do vegan merchants choose to sell Asian-made vegan footwear in the first place? There are a few good reasons. One is cost. The cost is simply lower and the mark-up is higher relative to footwear made in the USA or in Europe. Another reason is selection. Let's face it, there is not an unlimited selection of vegan shoe styles made under true fair labor conditions. Where stylish shoes do exist, the suppliers are usually smaller (e.g. Vegetarian Shoes brand) and often chronically low on stock, making altogether difficult the merchant's job of effectively selling products and keeping customers happy. There is also the ambiguity of whether selling Asian-made footwear is always a bad thing from a human rights standpoint, especially when manufacturers assert that they are 'raising the standards' for workers rights and helping the communities to which they provide employment.

What about the FLA (Fair Labor Association) and factory monitoring in Asian countries? The FLA certainly has made some improvements in large-scale factories over the years, but keep in mind that the FLA is funded and controlled by the very corporations that have repeatedly been found to be sweatshop violators (e.g. Nike). The FLA does not monitor most of the factories in which off-brand vegan shoes are manufactured anyway. Most of those factories are 'self-monitored' to conform to local labor laws and regulations. Truly independent (i.e. no conflict of interest) and largely reliable monitoring of factories can be provided by nonprofit human-rights-promoting organizations such as Verité. Verité is a socially responsible auditing, training, capability building and research organization established in 1995. Their mission is to ensure that people worldwide work under safe, fair and legal conditions. They achieve this by partnering with corporations, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), governments, and international institutions. Their experience spans over 70 countries and territories. New Balance, who manufactures some nonleather footwear in the USA but also uses Chinese factories, utilizes Verité's services. It would be a boon to confidence in other Asian-made footwear brands if more companies followed suit, but most have not. In the absence of such oversight or detailed information concerning specific factory operations in Asia, 'fair labor' claims by vegan retailers or anyone else are rather empty, and the caring vegan consumer may reasonably decide to purchase shoes made where stronger labor laws exist (such as in the USA and Europe). Of course, that limits your choices in footwear substantially, but at least you'll know that your shoes are truly vegan.

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