(NaturalNews) Walk into a shoe shop today and typically you'll be overwhelmed, not by the wonderful smell of leather, but of plastics, glues and other chemicals. You'll notice that shoes don't last as long, the thin leather wearing easily away, the soles breaking up, the straps coming loose.
It seems that the majority of shoes are now made in China. Shoes from China are typically cheaper than those from other countries. As people around the world snap up these bargains, the workers suffer through illness and may die because of the working conditions.
In the "shoe-town" district of Bishan many workers get sick and once they are better, go back to work and get sick again. There is no other work available. One of the common illnesses is severe anemia caused by the benzene in glue used to swab shoes. Benzene damages the bone marrow. It usually takes at least three months to recover from the illness.
While benzene is banned elsewhere, it is used in many factories, particularly smaller ones. The reason benzene is used is because is costs less than other glue.
In 2002 the Occupational Disease and Prevention Control Act was enacted in China to place restrictions on workplace poisons. However, it is generally agreed by experts in China and overseas that there has been little enforcement of the Act. For example, between 2002-04 the average amount of benzene used was 11 times more than the allowable level (www.pulitzercenter.org/openitem.cfm?id=701) .
When inspections occur they may be staged or may occur in a smaller factory where conditions have been modified. In addition, local officials have a vested interest in keeping the factory in the area, and keep a blind eye on working conditions. The government is also not interested in the wellbeing of the workforce.
During the industrial revolution in western countries, unions emerged as a force to protect the rights of workers. Unfortunately for Chinese workers, the one trade union allowed in China is controlled by the government. This union is interested in improving production and ensuring worker discipline.
However, for the west this is good news as this keeps products more affordable leading to cost savings for consumers and bigger profits for organisations. This is because overheads in the west for workers, including compensation insurance, occupation health and safety, extra pay for overtime etc, tend not to exist in China.
The conclusion appears to be that cost savings are driving production in China and in an effort to achieve even more savings, cheaper but toxic chemicals are used. These chemicals return back to the source of the demand – consumers really aren't better off.
Alternative shoes are possible. Look for shoes produced using sustainable methods and materials. Simple Shoes uses recycled car tires, cork, jute and uses recycled post-consumer paper for the shoe boxes, see (www.simpleshoes.com/greentoe/) . Or try fair-trade sneakers from (www.etiko.com.au) .
Terra Plana won the Observer's award for "Ethical Fashion Product of the Year 2007" (www.terraplana.com/) for a great range of shoes made using recycled materials.
For consumers concerned about the use of leather in shoes, Natalie Portman has a new range of non-cowhide shoes available at Te Casan (NY city). Beyond Skin using no animal products and hand makes shoes in the UK, available through (www.suigeneriscollection.co.uk) .