A few years ago, I decided to stop buying leather shoes. After all, I reasoned, I’m a vegetarian (well, actually, a “fishetarian,” since I do occasionally eat fish), and it would be inconsistent to reject beef but still buy leather products. So, on a trip to New York a couple years ago, I went on a minor shopping spree at Moo Shoes and purchased several vegan pairs, among them, a pair of black Mary Janes made by the Earth shoe company.
Fast-forward to this week, when I came across this long but interesting blog post highlighting the contradiction between the vegan ethos of nonexploitation and the fact that most shoes, leather-free or not, are made in Asian factories whose labor standards are waaaaay lax compared with those of the first world. Granted, many of the employees in those factories are no doubt thankful for their jobs, but their working conditions would probably give many Western consumers pause.
The post also makes several criticisms of Earth, including the fact that the interiors of the company’s shoes feature the image of the American flag—which I actually remember seeing in the store and thinking, “Oh, cool, these were made domestically”—but with the words “Designed in USA” in very small type under Old Glory. At that point I had to stop reading and grab my shoes to see for myself. Yup. Not made in U.S.A. Designed in U.S.A. Pretty cheeky, huh?
And also somewhat bizarre, given that the Our Company page of Earth’s website is very up front about the fact that its shoes are made in China. It even casts that as a good thing, because it means better value for the consumer. As for labor conditions in the factories, “Family members and executives go there frequently to watch operations and working conditions.... The factory and offices are up to par with many US plants, and our workers enjoy a lifestyle above Asian standards.... In short, Earth, and other US companies operating in China’s special industrial zones, have created a new life for Chinese workers. We are pushing the envelope and raising the bar; fighting for better living and a better environment. We have and will continue to influence changes to improve people’s quality of life everywhere on Earth.”
As I read those words, I could feel my skepticism hackles raising. From what I’ve read about these special manufacturing zones, they represent a complicated web of contractors, subcontractors, and go-betweens. Orders can float from factory to factory, and oftentimes companies don't even know which facility is making their goods.
Luckily, there is another way: third-party certifiers such as Social Accountability International and Verité, which work with companies to ensure that the workers producing their goods are treated ethically.
So here’s the message I emailed to Earth a couple days ago (no response yet; I’ll let you know if/when I hear back):
I was just reading the Our Company page on your site, and my interest was piqued by your words on China. You say, “Family members and executives go there frequently to watch operations and working conditions.”
Here’s the thing, though. These days, companies are falling all over themselves to make claims about how green and socially responsible they are. Consequently, there’s a lot of greenwashing going on. The smart consumer doesn’t simply believe everything she hears or reads.
For a company’s CSR claims to be worth anything, it’s important for them to be backed up. So I was wondering if Earth is considering using the services of an independent third-party certifier, such as Social Accountability International’s Corporate Programs, or Verite, which New Balance uses. If not, why not?
I was also curious about the environmental impact of Earth’s shoes. You say that you are an environmentally responsible company, but are your shoes manufactured in an eco-friendly way? I can’t seem to find any information about this on your site, and factories in China are famous for how polluting they are. Do you have any oversight in this regard?
I encourage any readers out there to send similar notes to companies whose products they are concerned about. Let me know what comes of it!