There are many aspects favouring choosing traditionally constructed quality shoes – apart from the fact that they look nice and are of high quality. They are good for the animals, good for the environment, and produced in good working conditions. Shoegazing explains further.
This article was originally published on the Swedish menswear site Manolo in 2015.
The economic aspect is one thing that is often discussed when it comes to quality shoes, and whether it’s worth spending the extra money they cost to get shoes that last longer. However, there are so many aspects to consider here that it’s difficult to make a fair calculation of whether it’s worth buying cheap cemented shoes and throwing them away after two years, or buying quality shoes that are more expensive to buy but last much longer. So, leaving the economics aside, we take a broader view and concentrate here on some more societal areas.
Goodyear welted or even hand welted shoes may cost a lot of money, but you’re also paying for more than just an advanced construction method. Calf leather is by far the most common type of material for quality dress shoes, and good quality calf leather also means buying leather from animals that have been relatively well off. The quality of the leather is greatly influenced by the well-being of the animal. Calves that are allowed to grow naturally, have a relaxed environment, barbed-wire-free pastures, stress-free transport to slaughter (all leather is of course a by-product of animals raised for food production) and so on, also leave behind a skin that has a good chance of becoming really high-quality leather. If we could accept scars etc. to a larger degree, then all the better.
The high price of leather is partly a direct reflection of the actual cost of raising animals properly. It’s mainly in Europe that there is a relatively strong organic animal husbandry that results in finer calf leather. Cheap shoes use skins that are in poor condition, where marks from barbed wire, for example, may be covered with a thin layer of plastic (called corrected grain, hi-shine, polished binder, etc.), where the animals have been fed a lot of concentrated food and have grown unnaturally fast, are kept in tight areas and due to this unnaturally treated with antibiotics to not get sick, and where a stressful lifetime has left the animal in poor health, which is then reflected in the low quality of the leather.
In the case of exotic leathers such as crocodile, alligator, stingray, lizard, ostrich and others, it’s important to choose leather that is CITES certified, which guarantees that the leather comes from animals that have been well handled and properly slaughtered. All reputable manufacturers of quality footwear use CITES-certified leather.
When it comes to the environment, there are some main aspects that make quality shoes better than cheaper mass-produced ones, like tanning emissions and durability.
By far the most common method of industrially tanning an animal skin into leather is chrome tanning, which in itself is not a very environmentally friendly tanning method, even though it uses so-called trivalent chromium, which is not as dangerous to the environment as hexavalent chromium (although leather products should be sorted as hazardous waste, as the chromium in the leather turns into hexavalent chromium when incinerated). The fact is that the well-regarded tanneries in France, Italy, Poland, England and the US in particular, which account for the vast majority of all leather used in quality footwear, have well-developed purification and waste management systems.
This is not the case in many of the Asian and South American tanneries that make cheaper, inferior leather that ends up in the cheaper, inferior products. Many Asian and South American countries have very different environmental requirements for tanneries, and emissions are in many cases very serious, affecting both nature and people. Things are progressing here, luckily, and you can find great leathers also from for example Asia, but a lot still needs to be done on a wider scale.
Then there’s the fact that a quality pair of traditionally constructed shoes will last much longer than a poorer quality cemented pair, which of course means less consumption. If a pair of worn-out shoes lasts for about 1-3 years, while a pair of quality shoes lasts for 10-20 years, it goes without saying that there will be less impact on the environment when consumption is reduced.
Many people like to say that shoe enthusiasts buy lots of shoes and consume like crazy, which may be true, but the great thing here is that the resale value of quality shoes is relatively good and the majority of the people who buy many pairs of shoes then sell off others that are not used, and they get to live out their entire life on another wearer.
A prerequisite for good shoes to last a long time is, of course, that they are cared for and repaired, for which, for example, the welted construction is particularly brilliant. Here I also think you can see the value in repairing also cheaper quality shoes, which may have cost €200 or so to purchase and where many people seem to hesitate to spend over half that sum on a half-sole and re-heeling when they think they can get a new pair for just a bit more. Then consider the environmental aspect and make sure to repair them instead of buying new ones. Also, nothing beats a well-worn pair of shoes coming back from the cobbler after a thorough repair and refurbish.
The working environment in many garment and textile factories especially in parts of Asia is a controversial and relatively well-publicised topic. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t better in many of the tanneries and shoe factories that produce the cheap, mass-produced, cemented shoes that sit on most people’s feet in the West. It’s no wonder. If you want to make cheap products, you have to pay low wages, work long hours, skimp on safety, use cheap materials and so on. That’s why also the positive development with an increasing amount of quality shoes that comes from the low-wage countries still are priced relatively high, since it costs to make things well everywhere.
The situation is in general much better in the European, American and Japanese (and good ones in other parts of Asia and South America) shoe factories that produce most of the approximately 1.4 million quality shoes made in the world every year. It’s not that the factory workers there live a luxurious life, but they earn decent money, have decent working hours, often have collective agreements, and so on.
In other words, there are plenty of reasons to spend your money on traditionally constructed, high-quality shoes instead of disposable stuff. If you want to be a bit solemn, you could say it’s a contribution to the world.