How ethical are our trainers?

Last weekend I bought a new pair of trainers. They were, in fact, Nike trainers. They were, in fact again, Nike trainers made entirely of synthetic materials – which means plastic. So how does that sit with a plastic-avoiding, environmentally-conscious girl like me who champions ethical and sustainable consumption?

What’s wrong with Nike?

Nike sounds alarm bells for many people because they received a lot of criticism in the late 1990s and were subject to a massive consumer boycott. Nike were targeted because they were a best-selling brand; the reason for the boycott was Nike’s refusal to accept responsibility for the practices and treatment of workers in the factories it subcontracted to make its clothing and footwear ranges.

That was 13 years ago (the boycott ended in 2000). How does Nike perform today? They have definitely become more transparent. They have a detailed section on their website about their reporting and governance, including links to published reports, and an interactive map (last updated May 2013) which lists all the factories that make their products.

Maquila Solidarity Network, a Canadian-based workers rights organisation, published a Revealing Clothing Report in 2006 detailing labour standards reporting by retailers and brands selling clothes, and Nike scored 68%. Of the 30 companies investigated, Nike were fifth in the rankings. Lululemon, the yoga-inspired athletic brand, scored just 18%.

Still, there is a lot of room for improvement. In Ethical Consumer magazine’s latest Trainer buying guide, Nike scored 6.5 out of 20 on its ethical and environmental scale. Which sounds pretty bad, although when you you read further you find that Umbro, Adidas, Reebok, Puma and Brooks scored lower than that.

What about other brands?

Nike aren’t perfect and they still have a long way to go, but they are now committed to transparency. That is an important step. Consider though, that Nike were deliberately targeted for a boycott because they are a best-selling brand with a huge reputation. They were the scapegoat for the clothing industry. What about other, lesser known brands? Were they doing things differently? How committed to sustainability are they? How transparent are their reporting systems?

Looking at the Ethical Consumer scores, many other major high-street brands (Adidas, Reebok, Umbro, Puma and Brooks) scored no better than Nike. Oxfam Australia are putting pressure on Adidas and Puma as well as Nike to improve workers’ rights and other issues they have identified. Clearly Nike aren’t the only guilty party. Nike may have got the bad rap but they’re no worse than any of these other brands.

Are there any ethical trainer brands?

I found three interesting articles about this (two from the Guardian, one from 2008 and another from 2012, and one from the Huffingdon Post). The general consensus seems to be that whilst it’s possible to buy fashion trainers from ethical brands (Ethletic scored 17/20 on Ethical Consumer’s review but only make converse-style trainers), finding athletic sports shoes is more of a challenge.

That’s not to say that there aren’t great brands out there, but it’s going to take a fair bit of research and dedication to find them, and it’s unlikely you’ll find them in your local high-street shop.

Want to know more about ethical shopping?

I’m going to follow up this post with a guide to ethical shopping, but for now I’ll just give a few links if you’d like to read more.

The Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping is a great place to start. This book was published in 2004 so whilst some of the company information is a little dated, the principles remain the same. This is a book I read when it first came out and I learned a lot.

Ethical Consumer is a UK-based magazine available in print and online. They are a non-profit alternative consumer organisation dedicated to the promotion of universal human rights, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Some of the information is available for free on the website or you can subscribe for £29.95 a year to access all the reports.

Labour Behind the Label is another UK organisation that run campaigns and also publish investigative reports, and works to support garment worker’s efforts worldwide to defend rights and improve wages.

Maquila Solidarity Network have a great list of resources, both Canadian and International, on their website – there’s too many to list and I haven’t checked them all out, but head over there to see if there’s anything that is relevant to you.

How do I feel about my purchase?

Do I regret my purchase? No. I haven’t bought a pair of trainers in over 15 years. I had absolutely no idea what I was looking for. I went to a shop to get some expert advice and these were the shoes that they recommended. I made a decision based on what I needed, what was available and the knowledge I had. I didn’t want to buy second hand because I didn’t want trainers that were molded to the shape of someone else’s feet. When they wear out, I will be able to make an informed decision based on what I know I need, and  I can choose a pair that are made by a more sustainable company. Hopefully I can find some made with natural materials and not plastic! I certainly won’t be replacing them before they wear out, even when the colour goes out of fashion or if I see a new pair on sale for a bargain price. These guys are with me for (their) life.

Another thing I’d like to add, is that (excluding some underwear I purchased in January) this is my first brand new clothing purchase all year. We are almost into September. In 8 months, I have only purchased one new thing. I have also bought a second-hand skirt, a second-hand coat and a second-hand jumper. That is it.

I’m not perfect, and I don’t claim to be. I’m just trying to do the best I can.

17 replies
  1. EllaDee
    EllaDee says:

    Great post. I love your last line, it sums me up too… I knew following your blog would be a good thing :)… and my purchasing habits are similar, except for my experiences trying to acquire decent trainers. Retail just depresses me. I agree, the only way is to consume less and where possible second hand/recycled, and eco if you can find/afford it. I bought a new pair of Merrell trainers last year, and despite being professionally recommended and fitted it took me a year of almost daily walks with double socks to wear them in. I hope they last me at least 15 years but the reality is the liners after just over 12 months have holes in the heels. My previous efforts in buying trainers, also professionally recommended and fitted was so unsuccessful and uncomfortable that frustrated one day wearing them I walked into a store, bought a pair of sneakers and left the awful trainers outside on the footpath for someone who would enjoy them better than me. I do not want to admit even to myself how much that cost all up.
    I was curious about how ethical Merrell is, and it’s same same. Originally planning to manufacture their product in Italy… “In 1987 Merrell was purchased by Karhu. The new owners moved production of Merrell products to Asia, reducing retail prices and expanding sales.” Then, “In 1997, Karhu sold Merrell to Wolverine World Wide…” I imagine they are still made in Asia. Dammit.

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Thanks! Retail is like that, i cannot understand how people get enjoyment from traipsing round the shops at the weekends buying (mass-produced sweatshop-made) stuff on a weekly basis! Once a year wears me out! So Merrell are off the list too. I read that Patagonia are quite a good (or do I mean less bad?) company but they don’t sell footwear in Australia. To be truly ethical I think I’ll need to resort to making my own out of cardboard and knitted hemp : \

      If you haven’t already, check out the video that Shani posted below. Perfect! Just what I needed to hear!

  2. Chamali
    Chamali says:

    Thanks to Shani for sharing an inspirational video.
    I studied podiatry for some time and a Brooks representative came to spruik their wares to the final year students (as all the major shoe brands do). They made a big deal out of creating a more “eco-friendly” midsole material which breaks down a lot faster than the 1000 years it takes to break down the “normal” midsole material. Even the eco-friendly version takes 25 years to break down in anaerobic conditions in landfill according to the Brooks website.,default,pg.html
    This is the best they can do from a company that is trying to promote itself as being more environmentally friendly (I haven’t researched the other aspects of their production like labour and energy use). I asked the representative about the rest of the shoe and how long it takes to breakdown. Close to a 1000 years was the answer.
    Podiatrists generally recommend that people get new trainers/ runners when the cushioning is worn out. Even if the rest of the shoe looks ok, cushioning is the first thing to go. With regular use, that can be within 6 to 12 months. So a new pair of runners every 6 – 12 months that take 1000 years to degrade in landfill. Sigh.
    I don’t have an answer. I’ve been searching for ethical shoes for more than 5 years and haven’t found them in Australia yet. I’d be very interested to know if we can create the same cushioning and stability with natural materials that we currently have with man-made materials in shoes. Disclaimer: I’m not a qualified podiatrist.

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Thanks for your comments, that’s all really interesting so thanks for sharing : )

      It’s such a shame that you can’t just get new cushioning to insert into old trainers. Thing is, I guess there’s no incentive for shoe companies to design shoes like that cos they want everyone to continually replace their old shoes. Ker-ching!

      Barefoot running – if only I could do that!

  3. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    Great comments here, thanks (and an excellent post). It’s a real dilemma isn’t it? I struggle with these types of issues often, and you can beat yourself up a lot over things sometimes. I agree that we all need to do the best we can, and things will continue to improve.

  4. Party Booth Devon
    Party Booth Devon says:

    t figure our way out of our consumerist addictions we will eventually have to go cold turkey.
    The effects of higher daytime lows are mostly good. t walk into
    the grocery store without being asked if I.

  5. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    There’s veja and vivobarefoot that I know of, and a few other’s with low availability that I forget the name of(the latter being made in Africa(I forget where, part of me wants to says nigeria?), they have pictures on their website of the facilities that are accompanied by essays or text addressing the concerns you and other’s mention on this page). If I find the others I’ll drop you a line.

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Thanks for sharing these. There are a few companies that make fairtrade fashion trainers and veja looks like one of those – I wouldn’t fancy running very far in their shoes! The other ones (vivobarefoot) look more suitable for running, but not suitable for me sadly – I need cushioning to protect my knees! Maybe by the time I need another pair of trainers, they will have a bigger range!

      • merlintheyogin
        merlintheyogin says:

        Just wanted to point out that cushioning (and other factors in the design of many running shoes) are actually worse for your knees than no cushioning at all. I won’t go into it all here but feel free to pm me if you would like to know more.

  6. Robin Peake
    Robin Peake says:

    Thanks, this has been so helpful to see I’m not the only one struggling to find ethical trainers! Going shopping tomorrow – Will aim to pick up Mizuno or Puma thanks to your helpful goodshoppingguide link

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Yep, it’s hard – and there’s always some kind of compromise it seems! My boyfriend just bought some Etiko trainers this week – the ones that look a bit like Converse. They have organic cotton and FSC-certified rubber. He’s very pleased with them. But you wouldn’t want to run in them and you have to like the “Converse” look!

      Hope the shopping trip goes well : )

  7. Chana Foster
    Chana Foster says:

    Nike is not the epitome of a perfect shoes, we have our own taste of comfortable shoes. We must not look for the brand hence we must be choose the one that is appropriate for that certain activity that you will use it.


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