Overview On Footwear Production

There were over 22 million pairs of shoes produced in the world in 2013. Behind our shoes, especially leather shoes, there can be human rights violations or harming of the environment in many places along the supply chain.

Footwear is a labour intensive product involving a considerable amount of manual low-skilled work. For this reason many European footwear brands outsource all or part of the manufacture to countries where wages are low and harmful practises more common. In these countries workers often lack the possibility to improve their conditions; such as as low wages, illegal levels of overtime and lacking health and safety measures; due to restrictions on collective bargaining and freedom of association.

Today 87 % of shoes are made in Asia, with China as the main producer, producing almost 2 out of 3 every pair of shoes sold in the world. When it comes to leather shoes, over 40 % are made in China, followed by Italy (6%), Mexico (6%), Brazil and India (4% each).

Usually these countries offer less restrictive environmental rules as well, which benefit greatly the leather production, a core part of the leather shoes supply chain. In the producing of leather shoes two of the most harmful stages are tanning – making the animal skin into leather – and assembly in the shoe factory.

Right to living wages

One of the biggest problems in many shoe manufacturing countries, especially in Asia, is low wages. Even if workers were paid the legal minimum wage, it still might not be enough for them to live on. The minimum wage in China is only about half of what would be needed for a decent living and in Bangladesh only a fifth. A living wage (http://www.cleanclothes.org/livingwage) is a human right that is often not materialised in the shoe production countries of Asia.

Home based work

The footwear industry subcontracts many activities as piecework to the informal sector. Home-based work is done most often by women in or near their own homes for a cash income, at the same time as they take care of children and other relatives or do agricultural work.

Home-based work is a way for employers to reduce costs: Wages are low and often based on piecework, employers pay no social premiums, and overhead costs are lower because homeworkers pay their own rent, electricity, machines and maintenance costs. Homeworkers have no guarantee at all of employment and, if their employers have no orders, they do not have to pay the staff or begin a dismissal procedure.

Low piecework prices are seen as a factor in the continuing existence of child labour in home-based work. Home workers on their own produce 10 to 15 pairs of shoes a day, dependent upon the type of shoe, but production per family can increase significantly if they involve children in it.

Right to safe working conditions

Almost half of all the leather produced is made in Asia and the overwhelming majority is made in impoverished countries. Globally the top 5 producers for leather are China (18%), Italy (10%), Republic of Korea (7%), India (7%) and Russia and Brazil (both 6%).

One off the riskiest processes of leather production is the tanning phase – a process that turns animal skin into leather that can be used, for example, in shoes. One of the most problematic chemicals used is chromium. Chromium III is often used, which can, when the tanning process is not well controlled, oxidize to Chromium VI, which is highly toxic to the people and the environment. About 80 – 90 % of leather is tanned using Chromium, since Chromium tanned leather is usually significantly cheaper than vegetable tanned leather.

Right to safe products and transparency in the shoe supply chain

The global shoe supply chain suffers from well-known and widespread problems with poverty wages, poor working condition and use of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Still there’s is only little actual transparency. In practice it is virtually impossible to know exactly where a given pair of shoes are produced and under which condition for workers and the environment.

This lack of transparency makes it very difficult to hold specific producers and brands accountable allowing them to claim that the problems are not really in their part of the supply chain. As a consequence the appalling conditions are not being sufficiently addressed and workers and the environment continues to suffer.

The lack of transparency contradicts the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection that states the consumer’s right to be informed about the product they buy.
For consumers buying shoes information is essential to:

  1. Empower consumers to choose better and more sustainable shoes that are produced with respect for workers’ rights and the environment.
  2. Enable consumers to protect their own health by choosing shoes that do not contain toxic chrome and chemicals.