What your shoes are doing to the world.

Interview with Tansy E. Hoskins Author of FOOTWORK

Photo: Pablo Hermosa


We've all read the headlines. Fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil production. However, it appears our focus has mainly been on the clothing industry, and concern about the human and environmental impact of what we wear seems to stop at our ankles.


While in the past few years, media, consumer and some conscious fashion brands have rightly focused on the negative environmental impacts and supply chain exploitation clothing has had on our planet. It seems we rarely think about our feet, and the environmental impact our shoes, sneakers and trainers have on the planet.


With not as many consumer eye-balls focused on the manufacturing and supply chain footwear sector, the industry appears to have been given an easier ride it in terms of environmental consumer awareness, and is a decade behind the fashion clothing industry in terms of worker rights, ethical regulations and marketing transparency.


"This needs to change" says Author Tansy E. Hoskins, which is the passion purpose behind her latest book. FOOTWORK - What Your Shoes Are Doing To The World. I came across Tansy's book as a recommendation within my personal audio app. By mid first chapter I was gripped by this stellar well-researched and passionate masterpiece. An education and eye-opener on the footwear industry like no other, I immediately reached out to Tansy for an interview on Sustainable Diva (I have since finished her book), and much wiser, delighted to have a conversation with her thanks to Zoom, cup of tea in hand.


Caroline@ Sustainable Diva: What was your intention and motivation in researching and writing about the footwear industry?  


Tansy E Hoskins: I find the things that we wear fascinating, as they tell us so much about the systems and societies we live in. #Shoes are such a global product, they are complex, carefully constructed from dozens of individual pieces and are all made by human hands. I wanted to write Footwork to make people think not only about what is on their feet, but about the consequences of globalisation and capitalism.


I wanted to write #Footwork to make people think not just about what is on their feet but about the consequences of globalisation and capitalism. While the #fashion and clothing industry is in the spotlight for its exploitation of people and planet, awareness about what we wear seems to stop at our ankles. I hope that will change.


Tansy E. Hoskins: Author of FootWork: What Your Shoes Are Doing To The World


Caroline@SD: What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions consumers have about the shoe industry, their impact on the environment, human equality, safety and the marketing machine behind it? 


Tansy: There is very little consumer awareness about the impact our shoes have on people, planet and animals. About 50% of all leather products are shoes, and yet cattle farming is the number one cause of deforestation of the #AmazonRainforest. Families of four homeworkers making shoes earn under $8 per day and have to work with toxic glues. And the environmental impact of shoes is enormous – but how could it not be when we make 66.3 million pairs of shoes per day and then chuck 90% of them into landfill.


Caroline@SD: Let's talk trainers (UK) and sneakers (USA). In your book you give a full description of your personal experience attending a Sneaker Con event as part of your research. You mention some of the thousands of attendees and the mainly demographic of males - with many women attending being the moms of youth and young boys. What was your takeaway from that event?


Tansy: It was a strange experience to dive headlong into a world of people who eat, sleep and breathe the hype, branding, dreams, and commodity fetishism of footwear. It was another level of obsession where people were completely wrapped up in this micro-world of sneakers. Many were keen to talk and explain what they were up to. The #Sneakerhead scene can be a place for (mostly) boys and young men who would often be marginalised by race and class to gain respect for something they loved to do. At the same time, it is not a respect that translates into wider society and nor is it a respect reciprocated by the brands they idolise. 


The amount of money changing hands was ridiculous, (£500-700 per pair of sneakers/trainers), and as a result a lot of the kids come from very wealthy backgrounds, were at boarding school in London, or had parents that had given them money to start their sneaker-trading business. 

Photos Credits: Jakob Owens|Hayley Lawrence|Jairus Gallimore|Malveshida Magazine| Edgar Chaparro | Tansy E. Hoskins


"The sneaker scene operates on hype – a big celebrity promoting a shoe that only has a limited run, meaning that you have to really hunt or pay big to get the shoe. Or they buy fakes which is increasingly happening".


Caroline@SD: With your experience can you give us an idea of the realistic cost of producing a pair of sneakers or trainers. And what types of conditions and environments are they made in?


Tansy: The price is still really dependent upon the country, factory, type of shoe. However, this is an industry in which a lot of people are paid a lot of money to drive the cost of production down and further down still. #China is the main producer of #footwear with no other country coming close to China’s output. The factories are very varied – some are okay and some are terrible. Making shoes is high stress work, as people just do one job one a production line and they have to keep up with everyone else around them and get in trouble if they do not as factories try to shave every second off the production time. Shoe workers also work with toxic chemicals like glues – often in small spaces where ventilation is non-existent. 


Some of these companies are absolutely enormous. There is a Taiwanese company called Yue Yuen which is the biggest producer of sports shoes on the planet with over 400,000 employees. It has 60,000 employees in Dongguan in China and makes big named brands like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Converse and so on. In 2014, a massive strike took place with 40,000 workers walking out due to underpayment of their employment benefits and low wages.


Caroline@SD:You mention in your book the informal economy of “Homeworkers” who produce shoes at scale. Now we are in a global pandemic due to Covid-19, how do you think this area will change?


Tansy: There is a whole chapter on #Homeworkers in Foot Work and it was one of the most interesting and shocking chapters to write as this is such a hidden pillar of #globalisation. Homeworkers are often women with dependents like children or elderly parents, they are given work by local factories or agents and have very little say in how much they are paid. Homeworkers are also the most vulnerable workers in supply chains. They are not in factories so they do not have trade unions, or employment rights or benefits.


One family I interviewed in Pakistan earns $8 a day between four people. This is the reality for millions of people. These are also the people who have been massively impacted by the Covid crisis - work has stopped. Not slowed, but stopped. There is no work for millions of people.


"The shoe sector is also going to be swamped by factory workers who have lost their factory jobs in the last few months due to the pandemic, so competition for work will be even greater. The homeworkers who are doing okay are the ones who have grouped together into co-operatives and are getting big contracts to make giant orders of PPE" .


I recently published a piece on a garment factory in Guatemala where 201 people tested positive for #Covid-19. The factory supplies GAP, American Eagle, and Amazon and at the time of the outbreak [August 6th 2020], it was making Covid masks for export to the USA


Caroline@SD:With your experience can you give us a clear picture of what is the realistic price cost of producing these trainers/sneakers?


Tansy: The price is still really dependent upon the country, factory, type of shoe – but here is an industry of people paid a lot of money to drive the cost of production down and down.

China is the main producer of foot wear with no other country coming close to China’s output. The factories are very varied – some are okay and some are terrible. Making shoes is high stress work as people just do one job one a production line and they have to keep up with everyone else around them and get in trouble if they do not as factories try and shave every second off the production time. #Shoeworkers also work with toxic chemicals like glues – often in small spaces where ventilation is non-existent.  


Some of these companies are absolutely enormous. There is a Taiwanese company called Yue Yuen which is the biggest producer of sports shoes on the planet with over 400,000 employees. It has 60,000 employees in #Dongguan China, and makes footwear for big named brands such as #Nike, #Adidas, #NewBalance, #Converse and others. In 2014, a massive strike took place with 40,000 workers walking out due to underpayment of their employment benefits and low wages.

Caroline@SD: So, where are all the millions of used shoes ending up and what is it consumers don’t realise, but you feel they ought to?


Tansy: In Foot Work there is a chapter on waste. When I interviewed Dr Shahin Rahimifard at Loughborough University (a global expert on recycling shoe waste), his calculation is that 90% of shoes are still not recycled. That is a lot of shoes when you think about it. Worldwide we make 66.3 million pairs per day. Shoes that don’t get recycled go into landfill or get incinerated. It is really bad news for the planet.


Photos by: Mohammad Metrie, Edward Howel, Vicky Hincks, Noah Buscher, Apostolos Vamvour


Caroline@SD: Perhaps there is hope and more awarness with Gen Z, who are now Generation Z in particular have spurred the climate action movement in the last few years in terms of climate protests on the streets, however it appears there is little link nor education targeted to or from this generation on the environmental costs consumption of fast fashion clothing, including shoes and sneakers, are responsible for.


Tansy: Generation Z can relate to the fact that navigating modern society means being bombarded with messages that tell us we are being judged on what we wear, eat and drive. Thousands of adverts link consumption to our social status and tell us to be insecure about what we have. I believe everyone should have a hand in redesigning ( the system of production), to switch to prioritise what we really need, rather than what corporations want.  I think we need to re-orient society away from valuing and stigmatising people based on their appearance and what they wear. This is a huge challenge because all the messages that tell us we aren’t good enough are designed to make us shop so ultimately we need to unpick capitalism and create a fairer world that values people not objects. 


Photo by Edward Howell


Caroline@SD: How do we solve this? (behaviour habits, industry change, mindset, system change, government regulations, educating people on the real facts?). 


Tansy: Within the book I mention a tool I've developed to address this issue called the Triangle of Change to help address this. The Triangle contains three issues: Individual, Political and System Change.


Individual Change: This is placed at the top of the Triangle,  because shoes are a consumer item, emphasis is often placed on changing ourselves, rather than the world around us. Individual change is not invalid, but it can function as a trap. The trap is thinking that as long as the top of the triangle is fixed, everything will be fixed. 


Political Change:  Questions of power begin to be examined. This level covers regulation, legislation, freedom of association and taxation, all elements that involve placing political pressure on governments and institutions and pushing them to regulate capitalism. By its very nature, it is collective and covers a far greater number of factories and countries. 


System Change: By far the biggest and often the most unspoken elephant in the room. This is quite literally the basis of the problem. It is here we find the most intransigent problems of capitalism: the systematic exploitation of women, the exploitation of the Global South, the creation and maintenance of racism and the imposition and exploitation of class and poverty. This third level means confronting capitalism and moving towards system change.


“My conclusion from Foot Work was that overall the shoe industry is about ten years behind the rest of the fashion industry in terms of standards, safety, transparency and accountability.”


Tansy E. Hoskins is the author of FootWork: What Your Shoes are Doing to The World (ORION 2020). An author and journalist based in London, she has written about the textile, clothing and footwear industries for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, i-D, and the i papers. Her work has taken her to Bangladesh, Kenya, Macedonia, and to the Topshop warehouses in Solihull. Her award-winning book Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion made Emma Watson’s ‘Ultimate Book List’ in 2018.



Photo credits: With the exception of Tansy E. Hoskins. All photos featured are courtesy of unsplash.

  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Pinterest
  • Twitter

© 2020-2021  Sustainable Diva  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED