A single shoe has up to 65 separate parts, and a fairly complex supply chain. This means tracing the production of a shoe—from raw materials to final stage factories—may not be as simple as a cotton t-shirt.

The complexity of footwear supply chains only makes action more urgent, as millions of unseen workers continue to be exploited and the planet is pushed to the brink by unsustainable production practices.

When we first researched fashion industry supply chains in 2013, we focused on clothing companies, including some large companies that produce a mix of clothing and footwear. This year, we have broadened our research to include 25 footwear companies.

Using our 46-question survey, we assessed the human rights and environmental policies and practices that companies have in place and scored them out of 100. You can visit our Brand Finder to see how your favourite shoe brands scored this year, but here’s a glimpse into the footwear industry.

Footwear At A Glance

  • The average score of footwear companies is 22.62 out of 100—almost 10 below the average clothing companies’ score of 32.
  • Over half lack supplier knowledge, such as names and locations of raw materials including animal hides and cotton, resulting in substantial unmapped human rights and environmental risks.
  • Only 8 percent have processes for remediating cases of child and forced labour at final stage factories compared to 26.7 percent of clothing companies, causing an inability to effectively respond to these human rights violations when uncovered.
  • None of the footwear companies surveyed paid a living wage at any stage of their supply chain (this is the income a worker needs to meet their basic needs like food, shelter and clothing, and to help break the cycle of poverty for their families).
  • 64 percent lacked evidence of functioning grievance mechanisms: tools that enable workers to anonymously raise issues in the workplace, improve conditions, and ultimately break the cycles of modern slavery and abuse.
  • While 70.8 percent of footwear companies use some sustainable fibres in their shoes, more than half of footwear companies use less than 25 percent, which may amount to little more than a token range or single components of a shoe.

Tanneries Are Taking Their Toll In Bangladesh 

Those soft leather jackets or patent leather pumps we love to wear typically come from animal skins that are heavily processed and treated at tanneries.

These tanneries have a significant impact on workers, local communities, and the environment. Tannery workers in Bangladesh—some of whom are children as young as seven—experience health problems such as acid burns and lung cancer due to hazardous chemical exposure.

In Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, where 150 tanneries once operated, the air became so densely polluted by chemicals and the smell of rotting hides, and the local river so poisoned, that it was named one of the most polluted places on earth. In 2017, the government ordered leather production move to Savar, where it’s now reported that tanneries are draining chemicals into the Dhaleshwari river and dumping toxic waste into open fields, extending the environmental disaster to another region.  

It’s Time We All Ask, How Are My Shoes Made?

The fashion industry in Australia has been under the microscope for over a decade now. Pressure from shoppers has driven companies to make some significant changes in the way they operate.

This year, R.M. Williams—a clothing and footwear company known for their leather footwear—increased their score by over 20 points from 2021. Through an investment in supply chain tracing, work with leather certifiers, and supplier relationships, they continue to build on their ethical sourcing program. And they’re not the only one; we celebrate a range of highly improved companies in the 2022 Ethical Fashion Report.

But this year’s research shows that footwear companies still have a long way to go in progressing towards social and environmental justice. We hope our research inspires companies and shoppers like you to make meaningful change for the workers who make our shoes, and for our environment.

To learn more about what you can do, read Five Ways To Shift The Fashion Industry by Ethical Fashion research specialist, Bonnie. Now is the time to ask footwear companies to step up and be accountable.