I’ve been back in my hometown for a month now and naturally this diet of home-cooking has invited some extra padding on my middle section. There is a simple solution – ‘let’s start jogging’. There is also a not-so-simple problem – I’m a complete stranger to sports. Don’t get me wrong, I walk almost everywhere, and stay generally active, but I haven’t bought a pair of trainers in six years. So I began my research into cheap and reliable trainers. Then I remind myself – sweatshop. It’s a vague word – most of us have an image in our heads of what a ‘sweatshop’ might look like inside, or how much sweatshop employees might be paid, or the conditions under which said employees work, but the politics of ‘the sweatshop’ is quite complex, as I have come to discover.
I’m not sure why sweatshop became my concern when researching trainers specifically. I had no issue buying two work-shirts from H&M earlier this month. Perhaps I’m just delaying my exercise. Perhaps it’s just that my Citizenship lessons at secondary school have led me to believe that a pair of Nike trainers is the single most unethical purchase one can make. Nonetheless, I had started my mission to find the most ‘ethical’ purchase.
Beginning with a simple online search – ‘non sweatshop trainers’ - the majority of what I was presented with was simply forums of people asking the same question I was: ‘Where can I buy non-sweatshop athletic shoes?’ There are plenty of places offering ethically made formal and casual shoes, but for some reason, there is no alternative for the (both determined and not so determined) athletes out there. A few companies names came up: Brooks make their shoes in the USA (great – but I’m looking for companies in the UK); Loco Shoes are based in New Hampshire but made in Asia; Vegetarian shoes (British) don’t make running shoes. One company that was mentioned more frequently than others was New Balance who produces many shoes that are ‘Made In The USA/UK’. This seemed to be exactly what I was looking for; however, on these forums I met a few comments concerning the futility of boycotting companies that employ sweatshop manufacturing. It is an interesting argument – by boycotting sweatshop am I doing a disservice to the sweatshop labourers? Is sweatshop work actually the best option for these workers? A whole new debate had been opened up to me – in some ways this did seem like a logical argument but in others it seemed to be admitting defeat. I eventually decided not to submit. I was adamant: ‘Sourcing my footwear locally is a step in the right direction! I can diminish my carbon footprint whilst helping to make my country more self sufficient!’
My next move was to do some research into New Balance and their ‘Made in England’ title (http://bit.ly/l1u4iU) which I approached with an open mind and a sense of hope but also an awareness that sometimes these phrases mean nothing (I needn’t go into the ‘free-range’, ‘organic’, and ‘fair-trade’ spiel right now.)
‘Currently New Balance, which employs over 210 people at its site in Flimby, Cumbria, and produces over 28,000 pairs of shoes a week, derives nearly 90% of sales revenues from exports, with 40% of all footwear sold going to European markets.’
I encourage you to give the whole statement a read because I have only provided a short extract. Upon reading, it seemed very sensible, progressive but also too good to be true. A little extra clarification was required. I needed to find out which New Balance shoes were made in England and where the materials were sourced. After perusing the FAQs I decided to go in for the kill and e-mail them directly. Asking the questions: How many of the New Balance trainer designs are produced in England? How can I be sure that the design I am buying is produced here? And are the shoes 100% produced in England? Can I be certain that the shoes aren't partially produced abroad and then finished in England? Where are the materials sourced? Unfortunately I am not allowed to post their response word-for-word but I can let you all know that despite the good intentions of the ‘Made in England’ title, these shoes are manufactured abroad and assembled in the UK. I made a second enquiry, asking for some more details but was told that this was difficult to answer as each design varies and that they withhold some levels of information from the public.
I gave a final response, letting them know that I think ‘Made in England’ was a good start, but at the moment it means I will not be purchasing their products, because, after all, what’s the use of a boycott if you don’t let the company know why you are boycotting their products. Don’t feel scared to do this. Don’t feel you are making a personal attacks on anybody.
‘Back to square one’ I was tempted to believe. But this was not true; I was a little bit wiser on the topic and, being a creative sort of guy, I was simply required to look into different options. I will skip my cognitions and get right to my conclusion. The buzzword today is ‘Second-hand’. It seems to me that I can avoid the guilt of purchasing a new pair of trainers by simply buying ‘barely-used’, ‘good-as-new’ trainers from eBay. It’s recycling (which is always nice) and, most importantly, it does not create demand for sweatshop trainers. This is by no means a solution to the problem. I must stress that this is just a means of getting hold of a product without creating a demand. The product already exists, it is a perfectly useable product, and I am giving it a new home. I will be signing anti-sweatshop petitions and continuing my boycott – it is in this way that I will try to help the progression towards more sensibly manufactured products.
Please be aware that this is just my best advice on the topic. I am very open to debate if anybody wishes to persuade me into another way of thinking. But for now my advice remains: BUY SECOND-HAND!