The footwear industry is a multibillion-dollar industry, with supply chains that span internationally.
The production of footwear is heavily concentrated in developing nations with poor working conditions and environmental practices.
This article analyzes the effects of the footwear industry on human health and the environment.
The footwear industry is a global market that brings in nearly $80 billion annually to the US, which has the largest footwear market in the world, and $58 billion to China, which is the leading footwear producer. A prominent sector of the garment industry, shoe production occurs primarily in:
These countries lack similar labor laws and workers’ rights as most developed countries, and as a result, can offer inexpensive labor and production costs to major footwear companies.
Read more: The Evolution of Factory Working Conditions
Many of these countries lack substantial minimum wage laws that provide their factory workers with suitable living wages, causing laborers to work an average of 10-12 hours per day in many countries, often with seven-day workweeks. Working hours are especially long in peak production seasons, namely holiday seasons when demand for products rise, and many factory workers have reported working up to 18-hour shifts.
These long hours and low pay contribute heavily to the poor living conditions in these developing nations, where employers exploit the poverty of their workers to push for longer shifts and higher production.
Footwear is one of the largest and fasted growing industries in the world, and factories often struggle to keep up with the rising demand. Companies like Nike, Reebok, Puma, and Adidas outsource their production to developing nations where labor laws are lenient and frequently unenforced, allowing for cheap labor that yields fast, inexpensive products to be sold for higher costs in more affluent countries.
Many of these multinational corporations use subcontracting methods in developing nations, where production requests are sent to small-scale factories that escape regulation from national labor laws. This allows companies to quickly change orders and keep up with the footwear industry’s rapidly changing styles and demands, with little to no risk put on the corporation themselves. Instead, the costs and risks of changing orders fall upon the factories, and most commonly, the workers, who suffer from extensive hours and minimal pay in the case of rejected products or changed timelines.
Many workers across the developing world earn an average of $1 per hour, resulting in workers earning a fraction of what corporations and retailers earn for the shoes they produce. This results in factory workers having to take on extensively long shifts to meet the costs of living. In addition, employers frequently force workers into overtime to meet the fast-changing demands of the industry.
By working 18-hour shifts in the most extreme circumstances, workers experience high rates of injuries and stress-related conditions. Fatigue caused by long hours can make workers further susceptible to dangerous accidents. Many workers experience:
- Fainting and dizzy spells
- Stress injuries
- High blood pressure
- Machinery-related injuries
- Limb damage or amputation
While factory conditions vary worldwide, these injuries and conditions are prevalent in factories across developing countries (see Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Indonesia). In addition, footwear is frequently made with harmful chemicals and leather processing methods that pose severe risks to workers, who are exposed to dangerous substances daily. These substances include:
- Leather dyeing chemicals
- Fumes from plastic and rubber processing
- Raw nickel in metal processing
In a study performed in Indonesia, approximately 4% of factory workers tested positive for skin-based allergic reactions to the substances they handled. Other studies produced more severe results, with an increasing trend in cancer mortality in shoe factory workers, largely from handling and inhaling toxic substances on a daily basis. Many factories do not permit the use of gloves in the workplace to keep production costs as low as possible, and many factories lack proper ventilation systems to protect their workers from airborne chemicals.
In addition to causing significant stressors on human health in factory workers, the footwear industry also contributes heavily to environmental pollution. The majority of this pollution comes from the manufacturing stage of the product’s life. Most factories that produce footwear use coal as their primary energy source, emitting millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. These greenhouse gases not only contribute to severe human health impacts through toxic air pollution, but also contribute heavily to the global environment, with some studies suggesting that sneaker production alone accounts for 1.4% of climate change.
Read more: Industrial Contributions to Climate Change
Additionally, shoes require high amounts of leather, rubber, and plastic, which result in increasingly high greenhouse gas emissions from cattle rearing and oil extraction. The complex supply chains of footwear production further contribute to climate change through the use of these resrouces.
Along with impacts to climate change, the footwear industry is also a major contributor to material waste, primarily through solid waste and chemical pollution from material processing.
Chemicals used in shoe production often leak into waterways and soils when factories improperly dispose of their waste. These chemicals include:
- Cancer-causing benzene
- Chlorinated phenols
- Other adhesives and leather-preserving substances
Not only are these hazardous to the workers that regularly handle them, but these substances can easily leak into the environment and create hazardous pollution to the people and organisms that are exposed to them. This underscores the importance of ensuring that footwear manufacturers comply with international standards for the safety and quality of their products in terms of material and chemical properties.
Read more: Pollution of Shared Resources
Shoes also create high amounts of solid waste, from both factory wastes and end-of-product-life disposals. Footwear factories create solid waste from defective products and unused material, often disposing of these materials in landfills and local dumping grounds. In developing countries that lack proper sanitation and disposal, this can result in further chemical leakage into waterways and soils.
The plastics and rubbers used in the majority of shoes are non-degradable, which leads to the billions of shoes produced every year ending up in landfills and oceans at the end of their product life. Reports indicate that approximately 38% of people donate or reuse their shoes as much as practicable. While this helps to minimize waste from footwear, the increasing worldwide demand for readily-made shoes contributes heavily to the solid and chemical waste around the world.
Billions of shoes are produced every year, with the majority of them produced in developing nations that lack substantial workers’ rights regulations. The increasing demand for footwear products results in poor working conditions for factory workers, as well as detrimental environmental impacts. Individuals can encourage the use of sustainably-made footwear by limiting their consumption of fast-fashion shoes and supporting sustainable and ethical companies that promote better practices in the footwear industry.