Sacha Holub


Sacha Holub

From the processing of raw materials to constructing the form, there are numerous problems with the manufacture of footwear. This content aims to cover the issues of the inadequate health and safety measures, the low cost of labour and lack of consideration for the post-consumer life of shoes.


Health & Safety

Health and safety is linked to sustainability. Solving environmental issues e.g. the water pollution from leather tanneries, also improves the industry’s health and safety standards e.g. safer working conditions for leather tannery workers.


We’ve all heard the disaster stories associated with fast fashion sweatshops, such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013, which cost 1,137 lives [1]. This was not the first tragedy of its kind, and many question whether enough has changed in regards to monitoring and enforcing workers’ rights since then. Footwear specific manufacture isn’t a topic of discussion, and yet similar factory accidents happen:

  • In 2013, 2 dead and 6 injured in a Cambodian shoe factory collapse.

  • In 2014, 16 dead in a Chinese shoe factory fire.

  • In 2015, 72 dead in a Philippine shoe factory fire.

We’ve tried to provide a little more insight with this visual list that highlights a number of health and safety problems: (click for more information)

Labour Costs

To be able to keep up with the demand for cheap fashion, many workers are exploited in order to offer the best price.

Ignoring the need for safe working conditions means labour costs can be kept to a minimum. Employees see very little of the final shoe’s profit in exchange for their service. Both the Fashion Revolution campaign and The True Cost documentary highlight the issue of labour exploitation across the whole fast fashion industry - shoes included.

The NGO Labour Behind the Label investigated the footwear industry for their campaign, Change Your Shoes. To gain an understanding of the kind of wages that workers can expect, here are just a few examples worth noting:

  • “In Ambur, women homeworkers are paid less than 10 pence a pair, for stitching the uppers of shoes sold in the UK for prices between £40 and £100.” [2]
  • “The maximum Jyoti can stitch in one day is 16 pairs, earning her under £1.60. Although cost of living differs, this is simply not enough to cover her basic needs. A kilo of rice alone costs her 43 pence. Jyoti earns well below a minimum wage, let alone a living wage.”
  • The chart to the left shows that workers’ wages make up the smallest proportion in the final price of the shoe. The largest proportions go towards the brand (21%) and the retailer (37.5%). [3]

Environmental Impact

One of the major environmental impacts of shoes come from the manufacture. Energy forms, energy efficiency, use of chemicals, recycling and water treatment are things that have direct effects on the environment.

“A single shoe can contain 65 discrete parts that require 360 processing steps for assembly.” [4] A recent study suggests that the manufacture process accounts for 68% of the carbon footprint of a running shoe, with materials being the second biggest element. [4] The amount of energy it takes to produce one shoe depends on the materials, the manufacturing method and the structure of the shoe. One example of a more environmentally friendly shoe is one made using fabric that has been dyed with waterless methods.

The source of energy and energy efficiency should also be considered. 88% of the world’s footwear is produced in Asian countries [5] like China, where coal and other unsustainable energy sources are still widely used. [6] Luckily the interest of developing renewable energy forms is on the rise. For example Portugal, one of the main footwear producers in Europe [7], ran on 50.4% renewable energy in 2015. And this number is growing rapidly - in May 2016 the entire country ran solely on renewable energy for four consecutive days. [8]

Other than sustainable energy use, the responsible use of chemicals is essential to ecological footwear manufacture. Leather tanning, petroleum oil extraction (for plastic components) and solvent-based glues contribute to environmental damage through acts like poor water treatment, the destruction of natural habitats and air pollution. But there are ways to minimise or avoid these problems. One possibility is to use glueless construction like Proef have done with their Loper shoes. We have a growing list of case studies if you’re keen to see more examples of this kind of thinking.

Waste is also of huge concern, considering that 1.2 million tonnes of post-consumer shoe waste are produced each year. [7] The choice of manufacture methods (as well as the material selection) affects what happens after a shoe’s useful life. The knock-on effects of this decision should be addressed earlier on in the lifecycle, rather than having to solve the bigger problem of growing landfills later on. Interested in this subject? We’ve discussed the post-consumer life of a shoe in more depth over here.


  • Clearly, leather is a problem. So either avoid the use of leather altogether by researching our suggestions for alternative leather like Piñatex™, or…
  • Clean up your existing leather production process by:
    • Ensuring full cooperation with REACH regulations by following up on your positioning in the legally required REACH dossier.
    • Search for Gold, Silver, Bronze rated and Audited tanneries through The Leather Working Group.
  • Support the wellbeing of factory workers by:
    • Considering the effect the shoe’s design has and how it can be manufactured, and using alternative construction methods as a starting point for answering the design brief - much like the glueless methods of the Terra Plana POP, LYF Shoes or Po-Zu.
    • Introducing a higher price point and passing this on through fair wages.
  • Consider all stages of the lifecycle of your shoes, including disposal. Analyse your products through in-house exercises e.g. the LiDS wheel or software e.g. LCA Calculator or use independent assessments like Positive Luxury or MADE-BY to publicly declare your excellent standard of conducting business!

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