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Book Review Footwork

Book Review: Foot Work, What Your Shoes Are Doing to the World by Tansy E. Hoskins

Sustainability in the fashion industry is a hot topic, but the spotlight remains firmly remains on clothes. The equally ubiquitous item, shoes, hardly get a mention. However, our seemingly harmless looking daily wear item has long-term consequences. Helping us understand the story behind a shoe is the British author and journalist Tansy E Hoskins.

She has done all the hard work to put together a thorough account of the shoe industry and the damage it is doing to workers, consumers, and the planet for her latest release, Foot Work: What Your Shoes Are Doing To The World.

In an urgent and passionately argued book, Hoskins opens our eyes to the dark origins of the shoes on our feet. And while topics like social justice or environmental degradation are weighty, the book has the power of the narrative. Over the ten chapters, Hoskins takes you on a compelling journey, from slaughterhouses and sweatshops in Asia to Sneaker Con in London, a premier buy-and-sell event for sneaker enthusiasts. And each chapter begins with a human being in a certain situation, whether it is the 12-year old sneakerhead Sami attending the extravagant Sneaker Con or Muhammad who walks for thirty minutes to the shoe factory that pays him less than 8 pounds a day.

Foot Work covers all aspects of the shoe industry, ranging from historical references to cottage industries to the current-day use of robots to make shoes in large numbers. But what makes it a compelling read is its ability to identify and articulate the linkages between footwear production and globalization, capitalism, and consumerism.

Did you know that in 2018, 66.3 million pairs of shoes were manufactured across the world every single day? Yes. Every single day. And that adds up to a total of 24.2 billion pairs. Shoes have never been cheaper to buy and our temptation to buy them has been at an all-time high. Unfortunately, the planet and the worker in the supply chain are bearing that cost.

Sample a few stats. Across Eastern Europe, shoe workers receive 25-35% of a living wage(minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs). Syrian refugee children as young as six make shoes in Turkey for £25-35 per month.

Hoskins writes that the shoe industry is far behind the fashion industry in terms of wages, working conditions and corporate standards. Also, compared to clothes, the process of making shoes is more toxic, thanks to the chemicals used in the leather tanneries and glues used to stick different parts of the shoes together.

Next time, while going through your shoe collection, spare a thought for the person who made your shoes. As stated in the book, workers in Bangladesh’s tanneries have been found to have a 50% chance of being dead by the age of fifty. That’s because they are exposed to leather chemicals, including chromium six, cadmium, lead, and mercury.

Footwear manufacturing is impacting the biosphere in equally damning ways. Cattle farming(that feeds into the leather industry) is the number one cause of deforestation in Amazonia.

Despite all the doom and gloom, in the last chapter, aptly titled Kick Back, Hoskins looks at how things can be done differently. Amongst other things, she proposes a move to plant-based, metal-free shoes made with non-toxic glues and dyes. Her provocation to think radical also includes the concept of shoe libraries.

Every shoe we own is a world within a world. And Foot Work explains that phenomenon in detail.

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