Once Upon a Time: Shoes


Once upon a time…shoes lasted for hundreds of years, yet they left no footprint on the Earth.

The oldest known shoes were found at Fort Rock, Oregon USA, preserved under layers of volcanic ash. They were sandals woven from sagebrush and are around 8-9000 years old, possibly older. The meticulous weaving and shaping of the sole indicate that these shoes had an intellectual heritage much older than this – they certainly don’t look like the experimental result of a “lightbulb” moment for the first ever shoemaker!

The oldest enclosed leather shoes have been found in Armenia, Ireland, Denmark and other parts of Europe and dated to around 4000 years ago. These type of ‘shoes’ (essentially just pieces of leather wrapped around the foot and sewn or laced together) probably existed in colder climates long before this, but most of them would have disintegrated before modern archaeologists discovered them.

Sandals were also used throughout South America, the Pacific Islands, the Mediterranean and central Asia. Originally, these shoes were probably created as ad hoc protection against harsh terrain or temperatures, as most humans were (and still are) happier barefoot. The classic espadrilles, which are so fashionable today, originated around the 13th century in the Pyrenees region and were worn by peasants shepherding the rocky mountainsides. It was the rise of civilisation around the Mediterranean that inspired the idea that shoes, as a part of clothing, were a sign of power and sophistication – in towns, only slaves and paupers were seen barefoot.

Despite variations in style and function across thousands of years, all these shoes had one thing in common – they were 100 % natural fibre and would eventually disintegrate, leaving no waste. They were also made of locally-sourced materials, by hand, by local people. English shoemakers did start to import high quality leather after the Middle Ages, mostly from Spain, and latest fashion shoes from France in the 1800s, but these were only a small portion of the market, for wealthy customers.

The English shoe manufacturing industry was not industrialised until the late 1800s, so until then shoemaking was an active local craft – cordwainers made shoes and cobblers repaired them. “Carbon footprints” weren’t even a twinkle in an economist’s eye at that stage, but these people were beating us all at our own game.

Die Schuhe
Otzi the Iceman’s shoes. (Photo: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Today…shoes are mass-produced, cheap and made to be thrown out within a couple of years/months, either from wearing out or going out of fashion, whichever comes first. The vast majority of these shoes are 100% synthetic fibres, or at least have synthetic soles, lining or other components. Very few modern shoes will disintegrate back into the Earth’s system in the next few thousand years, if ever at all. In just over 100 years, the modern shoe industry has affected the health of its workers and the environment more than in its 30,000 year history.

Synthetic shoes are recycled fossil fuels – they are made from petrochemical materials, in factories that use huge amounts of electricity through machines and lighting. The vast majority of these factories are in China, but they are also increasingly found in Brazil, eastern Europe and other Asian countries. Ecotoxicology studies in China have found that shoemaking factories are some of the biggest polluters of air and water quality in their surrounds. Not to mention the carbon load from shipping the finished product back to company headquarters, and then off again around the country to retail stores.

The health of shoe industry workers is also under more stress. Once industrialisation swallowed the English shoe industry in the late 1800s, the social problems didn’t just arise from village shoemakers going out of business. The shift of the craft from individual homes or village shops into large crowded factories with hundreds of other people sparked a sudden rise in contagious tuberculosis – it was the highest cause of death among English shoemakers at the turn of the century. Now, our modern “innovations” of chemical solvents and petrochemicals are causing similar problems for shoe workers in many countries, who spend all day breathing in fumes from the shoes they assemble.

Tanning has always been a pretty unpleasant process; hence the traditional isolation of tanneries from town centres. But until the development of chrome tanning methods, which arose out of Industrialisation’s desire for “more and faster”, tanning agents were naturally-occurring, usually tree bark or other vegetable products, limestone or even bread dough, and the worst part of leather-making was probably putting up with the smell.

It is still possible to tan this way, it just requires more time and patience. But it also produces a better quality leather that lasts longer (the quicker modern tanning process and the chemicals it uses degrade the leather so it wears out faster). Some companies are trying to return to these techniques and still maintain a competitive advantage in today’s competitive world – there are traditional bark tanneries still operating in Australia, England and Sweden. Natural tanning is also still practiced by indigenous cultures, including Native Americans and the Nepalese leather caste, who have been honing these skills for centuries.

Modern shoe manufacturers excel at greenwashing, and ‘outdoor’ or ‘adventure’ labels are often the worst culprits. Many of the big brand shoe companies that claim to have an eco-conscience or produce carbon neutral shoes are, quite frankly, dodging the truth. The more a company claims to be BFFs with Nature, the more likely it is to be two-timing her behind her back. Regardless of how much percentage of recycled plastic a shoe claims to hold, the truth comes out at the end of its (often very short) life – a synthetic shoe will take a very, very long time to break down.

Of course, the best way to ‘tread lightly’ on the Earth is to go barefoot – it’s good for the environment, your conscience and your feet. But, we all love shoes, so the next best thing is to help the environment and your own community, and make an effort to buy locally-made shoes, directly from companies that source local, natural materials and use traditional manufacturing methods.

You will be surprised how many traditional cordwainers are making shoes in your own country. In Australia, we make everything from elegant men’s brogues to cane toad leather sneakers (buy local with bonus pest control!)…you just won’t find them in any retail chain store. Most countries have independent, locally-based shoemakers hidden away in villages and towns, from the chappal makers in Indian bazaars to bespoke English shoemakers, so it’s not hard to find a natural alternative to the global brands. Or just make your own!

Hundreds of millions of pairs of synthetic shoes get recycled or thrown into landfill every year. (Photo: Brendan Bosworth/The Boulder Stand)

© Manu Saunders 2013

5 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time: Shoes

  1. Joe Soap August 29, 2013 / 2:18 AM

    Interesting post! Looking back through history (especially the last century), it seems like we have really begun to excel in making low quality goods at rock bottom prices using a large amount of non-renewable resources in the process. Planned obsolescence is an especially relevant concept in the context of your post. When the sole goal of most corporations is to maximize profits and that goal depends increasingly on repeat customers, your best bet is to make products that last just long enough so as not to be deemed poorly made (in comparison with the closest competitors) but not so long that they have a negative effect on corporate profitability. Who ever said economics can’t be classified as a science?

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    • manuelinor August 29, 2013 / 9:33 AM

      Thanks for the comment Joe! I completely agree – ‘Planned obsolescence’ will create a huge waste problem in the future, it’s already starting now. We are so trained to think of the ‘Now’ and ‘instant gratification’ we’ve lost our ability to think of the future, and assess what impacts our actions right now will have down the track – whether it’s intentional or just honestly short-sighted, that is how companies sell apparently ‘green’ technologies that will actually have a greater impact on the environment than the thing they want to replace!
      I agree with your last point too – but being an environmental scientist myself, I would personally call economics more of a strategy than a science 😉

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      • Joe Soap August 29, 2013 / 5:43 PM

        Funny that you mention the sales of “green” technology because I have been seeing the word green or sustainable popping up on a lot of sites selling products that most definitely aren’t “green”. I hate to even use the words green or sustainable anymore (but I frequently do) because their meaning has become so diluted.
        Besides being a “science” and a (rather poor) strategy, some people even call economics a religion! Poor souls. I wonder if they worship Bernanke or Greenspan? 🙂 Happy blogging and looking forward to reading future posts!

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        • manuelinor August 29, 2013 / 6:47 PM

          Thanks! I’m looking forward to reading more on your blog too. The whole ‘green’ marketing thing really frustrates me – the only thing it is achieving is driving an even bigger wedge between the environment and the ‘ordinary’ consumer. I’ve banged on about it plenty before, and plan to in future! The ‘Green Issues’ category should have most of my posts along those lines. Also, Guy Pearse’s book Greenwash is an awesome reference for the worst culprit brands, if you haven’t read it…I think he is publishing an updated version soon.

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