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February 7, 2012 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Ethical everyman shoes?

Looking for some comfortable shoes along the lines of Vans, Doc Martens, or Converse All-Stars. Something that's casual and relaxed but doesn't look like a sneaker, something simple and durable and inexpensive that goes with most everything.

The above brands would probably have fit the bill once upon a time, but to my knowledge all of them today have pretty much cashed in on their reputations and moved production facilities across the sea to countries with little in the way of labor standards. If they were still made in union shops, or at least in a country that had some semblance of real labor law, I'd be all over them. Instead, I'm looking for an alternative.

So, does anybody know if there's someone out there making all-purpose, inexpensive, comfotable everyman's shoes without exploiting the shit out of their workers in the process? If so, I'd love to hear about it.
posted by Scientist to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (34 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great brand that does sneakers and some other casual shoes that are good looking and ethical

http://www.oliberte.com/
posted by geekigirl at 2:36 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


TheNo Sweat website looks like they only sell their shoes wholesale, but lots of local shops in my area sell them. They're 100% union made and they look like Converse shoes.
posted by oxfordcomma at 2:41 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


My vegan friends swear by this store.

If leather is fine with you, KB Footwear has some similar styles to some of the old Docs.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:41 PM on February 7, 2012




Those look awesome but I should have qualified that there is no way I am paying more than $60 for a pair of shoes. (Ideally $50 or less, I'd stretch to $60 for something super awesome.) I know that severely limits things, but I did say I was looking for something inexpensive. I know that you tend to get what you pay for with shoes but right now and for the forseeable future my finances are such that I'll just do without rather than pay more than $60 for shoes.
posted by Scientist at 2:43 PM on February 7, 2012


I don't see how you're going to get stylish, high quality, and ethically made shoes that use all-union labor in the developed world for under $60. American Apparel can barely churn out a hoodie for that price, and there are all kinds of holes in their labor ethics.
posted by Sara C. at 2:53 PM on February 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


I would go with gently used shoes on Ebay or via a consignment store. I know that squicks some people, but if you seek out reliable sellers and make sure there are lots of pictures, you can do quite well. I've bought a couple of unsuitable pairs out of many and I had a funny feeling about them from go (vintage rather than gently-used, sort of an oddball kind of shoe, etc). You can easily get a gently-used pair of Doctor Martens for under ~$60.

(I figure that buying used is a bit better than buying new and doesn't incentivize producing new sweatshop shoes.)

The sad truth about America is that for years we've let ourselves get poorer and more exploited to the point where few of us can afford non-sweatshop goods - this was concealed by the sudden flood of incredibly cheap stuff so no one was thinking about it, but the fact is that you generally can't get non-sweated shoes in good materials new for cheap because labor is expensive. Honestly, my expectation for shoes is that I will buy used Allen Edmonds/Alden/Trickers/Walk-Over (which are all non-sweatshop) at prices ranging from $40 to $200 depending on the shoe and degree of use. Allen Edmonds is pretty formal and the cheapest ones tend to be loafers (like, I got a really nice pair of suede AE loafers very lightly used for ~$30.)
posted by Frowner at 2:58 PM on February 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


Well, if such things were easy to find then I'd likely have found them already and wouldn't be bothering Metafilter about it. ;-) I realize that I've set a tall order, but seriously, what's a broke guy to do if he needs a new pair of shoes and doesn't want to feel like he's walking on the face of the Chinese working class? Is there really no option out there for a poor person who wants a decent shoe without screwing over even poorer people in other parts of the world? I'm willing to accept that there may not be a good answer here, but I thought I'd at least ask and see if anybody knew of something. I will be overjoyed if someone can solve my dilemma.

I will now stop threadsitting and leave y'all to it.
posted by Scientist at 2:59 PM on February 7, 2012


Exploitative manufacturing in countries with low wages and zero labor protections is the only reason that brand-new shoes for under $60 even exist. Go to a resale/consignment/vintage shop.
posted by theodolite at 3:00 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there really no option out there for a poor person who wants a decent shoe without screwing over even poorer people in other parts of the world?

theodolite has it-- being broke but wanting high quality goods is why used clothing stores were invented. Ebay and craigslist, too. And when the shoes wear out, get them resoled.
posted by deanc at 3:03 PM on February 7, 2012


You can get insoles that are made in the USA, google says. Might make up for buying used.
posted by Adventurer at 3:08 PM on February 7, 2012


OK, sorry to jump back in but I'm hearing what y'all are saying about needing to buy me some used shoes, both in order to buy quality that would otherwise be beyond my means and to avoid sending my money directly to some sweatshop-owning shoe tycoon. I should mention that I have nothing against used clothing, shoes included. In fact, I do all my clothes shopping at thrift/consignment/vintage stores and can't remember the last time I bought a new piece of clothing. Problem is, I have never but never found a pair of used shoes that I wanted to buy at any store in my area (though if anyone knows of a place that has a great selection of used men's shoes in the New Orleans area, I'd love to know).

Frowner's advice that I try eBay is great, and if anyone knows of somewhere else that might be a good source either online or off then I'm all ears. I'd also love if people could help point out brands that are comfortable, casual, and good-looking (think Vans -- which I am checking out on eBay as we speak) which I might search for on the used market.

Thanks for bearing with me on this, I know how unrealistic it is of me to expect to be able to easily find some goddamn shoes that a poor person can afford which don't increase the overall sum of human misery in the world. You all are doing a great job with what is kind of a crappy set of conditions.
posted by Scientist at 3:18 PM on February 7, 2012


Check out some resale or thrift stores in your area. I've seen practically new Doc Martens going for well under 20 bucks, and bought my elderly aunt a pair of SAS shoes a like-new pair for three bucks a month ago.
posted by jabes at 3:18 PM on February 7, 2012


I think your best bet is going to be to scour clearance pages on sites that may carry what you want. New styles and generations of shoes are starting to filter out now from the manufacturers, so old stock may be on the way out -- example.*

I don't feel qualified to comment on the Ethics of particular manufacturers, but this pdf has some data.

*Full disclosure - This is one of my employer's sites.
posted by Jacob G at 3:20 PM on February 7, 2012


what's a broke guy to do if he needs a new pair of shoes and doesn't want to feel like he's walking on the face of the Chinese working class?

The best chance of getting stupidly high-quality shoes for under $60 that are non-sweatshop will be used Allen Edmonds. The AE's are mostly made in the US, otherwise made in Italy. The other handmade non-sweatshop brands are generally harder to come by on the cheap. I searched up Allen Edmonds on eBay, and came up with over 1200 hits for pairs under $60. Many of their styles are more formal, but there are plenty of casual shoes. The quality and comfort of these shoes is really hard to beat.

The big difference between these shoes and the run-of-the-mill crap shoe is that these shoes are repairable, that is, you can get them resoled every year or two on the cheap. You can easily get ten years out of a pair of these shoes if you polish them once in awhile and treat them right.

The tough part with them is this: getting the right size will be tricky. I personally wear a 11.5 or 12 on most pairs of shoes. My AE's are 10.5 EEE. If you have a Nordstrom's Rack within a reasonable distance, go try on some of the AE's and try to determine your size. Most AE shoes will be $135-$150 at the Rack.

Other brands to look for would be: Ferragamo, Alden, John Lobb, and A. Testoni. Again, tougher to find for under $60.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 3:25 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


i've had good luck buying vintage shoes on etsy.
posted by iahtl at 3:30 PM on February 7, 2012


Like you, I won't buy new shoes that aren't union (or at least ethically) made, but I'm too poor to spend more than $40-$70. My strategy:

1. For tennis shoes/sneakers, I usually feel like I can afford to make an ethical purchase by buying used. Most of my sneakers come from thrift stores, and keeping myself in shoes pretty much requires looking every time I'm thrifting, which, for me, is weekly. I haven't had much luck finding vans on eBay--once shipping is accounted for, they're either too expensive or too worn--but your mileage may vary.

2. New Balance is (I think) the only major sneaker manufacturer that still makes some shoes in the United States, though they're pretty much just the expensive 991/992/993 ("Steve Jobs") model. I have bought these when I'm feeling flush and unstylish, and still have a pair around which I only use for running.

1. Consider resolable leather shoes. I can often find them used with enough sole left to justify a higher-than-thrift-store purchase price on eBay or a consignment shop, and once the heel or sole goes I can have a local craftsperson repair it for roughly the price of a new pair of shoes--which is essentially what I have when I get them back.
posted by pullayup at 4:36 PM on February 7, 2012


I know it doesn't directly address your question, but I'm going to harp on the "consider leather shoes" theme a little more because I've come to the conclusion that it is the way I feel most comfortable spending my shoe money. I think Frowner's point about the prevalence of cheap and exploitative goods is absolutely correct, and one of the ways I handle this in my own life is by shifting some of my shoe purchasing budget to the services of my local shoe repair shops. It supports local workers, prolongs the life of an otherwise disposable good (often after the first owner has discarded it), and is surprisingly economical.

So, a couple of thoughts:

1. Leather-soled shoes have crummy traction compared to rubber, especially on wet surfaces, and are almost impossible to wear while riding a bike. You can have a thin layer of rubber ("topy") applied to the sole to address this in the short term. Ultimately, when the sole does need to be replaced, it's possible to have a rubber or crepe sole applied instead of leather, though you may need to shop around to find a shop that can do it, and you may pay a slight premium over a basic resoling job.
2. Not every dress shoe can be resoled easily. Learn to identify a "Goodyear welt," which indicates that the sole can be replaced and also suggests that the shoe is of traditional, high-quality construction.
3. If you are at some point able to buy new (union-made) Red Wings, they can also be resoled as long as the leather upper is intact.
4. You'll need to care for the leather by cleaning, oiling or polishing, etc, so you have an upper left to attach the new sole to. If you can scrounge up two or more pairs, give them a day off after wearing to dry out--this will dramatically lengthen their life. This was the hardest adjustment for me to make after a lifetime of absolutely beating my shoes to death.
posted by pullayup at 5:03 PM on February 7, 2012


what's a broke guy to do if he needs a new pair of shoes and doesn't want to feel like he's walking on the face of the Chinese working class?

When Camper moved their operation to China, they claimed that it wasn't for the cheap labour, but because the quality of the workmanship was better. Fluevog made the same decision for some of its shoes. Take that with as much salt as you like, but there are definitely tiers of shoemaking these days in China beyond "sweatshop". Paul Krugman's piece on outsourced manufacturing from 1997 has been recirculated over the past couple of weeks, in the context of the NYT report on the Apple manufacturers in China; in the 15 years since he wrote it, China's manufacturing base has grown sufficiently to support higher-end work with comparatively higher wages.

Picking up on Frowner's point about the cost of consumables: when I think about the price my dad paid for his first pair of good shoes back in the early 60s, it gives me a different perspective on what they ought to cost today in order for someone making them in my own country to have a decent working-class wage. It's not $60, and if that means saving money over a few months the way my dad did, so be it.

All that said: at your budget, buy good used shoes that can be repaired or resoled.
posted by holgate at 5:31 PM on February 7, 2012


Oh, hey, for buying dress shoes on Ebay: get the outsole measurements (insole is harder to take accurately; I prefer to get outsole measurements and simply look at the shoe) and compare them to your existing shoes. For instance, I know that a shoe whose outsole measures ~11.25 x ~3.8 will fit me if it's a very dressy shoe where the upper of the shoe is the same size as the sole. But if it's a chunky "country" shoe where the sole is a lot longer and wider than the upper and sort of sticks out, then the sole measurement needs to be ~11.75 x 4.5 to fit. I also look at which parts of my foot are widest. My foot is wide all the way to the toe, so to speak, which means that shoes which narrow a lot toward the toe tend not to fit me well - I need rounder toes instead of pointier ones.

Getting measurements has really helped me a lot. If a shoe is sort of a wide style (which is not the same as a wide width - those country shoes I linked above are a wide, rounded style but they come in a standard width) and the length is correct, I can be pretty sure that it will fit. Now, it's not a perfect/bespoke fit or anything, but all my shoes are pretty comfortable. When in doubt, I go a little wider.

IME, Allen Edmonds regular width is a hair small. I usually take an 8 in men's shoes and a regular width; for Allen Edmonds I am happier in either an 8.5 or an 8E. Aldens (should you luck into getting a pair; they are among the priciest of used shoes) run big.
posted by Frowner at 5:39 PM on February 7, 2012



When Camper moved their operation to China, they claimed that it wasn't for the cheap labour, but because the quality of the workmanship was better. Fluevog made the same decision for some of its shoes. Take that with as much salt as you like, but there are definitely tiers of shoemaking these days in China beyond "sweatshop". Paul Krugman's piece on outsourced manufacturing from 1997 has been recirculated over the past couple of weeks, in the context of the NYT report on the Apple manufacturers in China; in the 15 years since he wrote it, China's manufacturing base has grown sufficiently to support higher-end work with comparatively higher wages.


In theory this is true - and honestly, you could do a LOT worse than used Campers, they're pretty nice and kind of on-trend. But I've had a chance to handle some of the dress shoes from higher end lines that are made in India (Grenson, Florsheim's fancier lines) and they are not a patch on UK shoemaking or even US shoemaking. (IME, UK shoemakers are the world's best, hands down) The thing is, what Grenson and Florsheim do (I think) is make some substantial investments in Indian factories/workshops so that the shoes are pretty good, well above what you'd expect. But they don't invest enough to equal their UK production - just enough so that they can talk it up in the media and the quality difference doesn't immediately cause everyone to throw their shoes away. And also, the artisanal tradition and apprenticeships aren't there; neither is the pride in a shoe-making tradition going back several hundred years in the same towns and workshops. It's not that you absolutely couldn't invest enough in China or India to make truly fine shoes, but it wouldn't generate as much profit. I suspect that really fine shoes will be produced in India or China by an Indian or Chinese company (probably working on Western models, true) decides to do it. There are really excellent shoes produced in Japan by Japanese makers - the style is fanciful but lovely and the quality is amazing.
posted by Frowner at 5:46 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tom's? You can get them for around 40 bucks when they put out new styles every few months.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:39 PM on February 7, 2012


No argument there, Frowner -- and I say this as someone with a pair of boots that I ordered from the factory in Britain and collected six months later. My point is mainly that Chinese shoemaking has definitely expanded over the past couple of decades to cover more than stereotypical sweatshop work -- indeed, much of that has gone elsewhere in SE Asia. "Pretty good" shoemaking that requires (and rewards) a more skilled workforce is, in strictly ethical terms (heading back fully on topic) an improvement on the kind of disposable crap that ends up in MegaShoeWarehouse. Northampton had to start somewhere.
posted by holgate at 6:57 PM on February 7, 2012


Unfortunately Toms aren't made in the US. These guys say, "According to information from the TOMS website, the company manufactures its shoes in Argentina, China and Ethiopia. They are also not a part of the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization that specializes in products and apparel sold to the US and Canada. Though 'sweatshop-free' has no agreed-upon definition, transparency is a good start. TOMS is vague and unspecific when defining their own standards."
posted by Adventurer at 9:59 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think TOMS does a fine thing with its donations, but as Adventurer says they're not transparent at all about their manufacturing practices. Every pair of TOMS shoes I've ever seen in person has "made in China" on it, so I don't know how many of the shoes made in Argentina even get onto the US market (and I am pretty iffy about Ethiopian labor law as I understand it).
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:35 PM on February 7, 2012


Simple has, alas, gone out of business, but Zappos still has some stock at your price point.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:37 PM on February 7, 2012


When Camper moved their operation to China, they claimed that it wasn't for the cheap labour, but because the quality of the workmanship was better.

I'm cynical, but I suspect that this statement is probably only partially true; I think that Asia can probably provide better quality shoes in the quantities and price points that Camper and Fluevog require, and are able to "retool" more quickly to produce new seasons/styles. This is really a question of the different business models of Camper vs. more "traditional" high-quality American/European shoemakers, which employ highly-skilled workers to produce a limited and usually almost invariant range of styles. Their shoes also tend to be very expensive by modern standards: Allen Edmonds, Aldens, Tricker's, Church's, Crokett & Jones, etc. run in the $300-$600+ range, a notch above even Camper.

If you pick prices out of Florsheim ads between 1915-1960, you used to be able to buy a pair of Chicago-produced shoes for what would be ~$150 today*, the price of a pair of Campers. Now, I know that this thread started out asking with a question about cheap shoes, but I have an uncomfortable feeling that $300+ is actually what a pair of shoes made in the first world by a worker being treated decently by his or her employer should cost--we've lost the economies of scale (and the base of skilled workers) that allowed us to manufacture a $150 shoe.

*Using a comparison based on the Consumer Price Index. I know that this may not be a perfect comparison; if anything, it's a lowball estimate. Try it yourself!
posted by pullayup at 10:45 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Aldens (should you luck into getting a pair; they are among the priciest of used shoes) run big.

Aldens are made on a variety of lasts, some of which run up to a half size large--notably the Barrie, which is usually as the basis for several of their popular styles, including the "gunboat" longwings.
posted by pullayup at 10:49 PM on February 7, 2012


we've lost the economies of scale (and the base of skilled workers) that allowed us to manufacture a $150 shoe

Also, there's a lot more competition on the world market for animal hides than there was 60 years ago and more. Leather shoes were just an unheard-of luxury in many high-population parts of the world where they're now the norm for the middle and upper economic classes and aspirational for the working poor.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:27 PM on February 7, 2012


Another possibility might be to join a Flash Sale site like Gilt and check their shoe sales every day. The occasionally have things at your price point.
posted by Jacob G at 6:50 AM on February 8, 2012


Also, you might want to keep your eyes open for used Redwings on Ebay. They're made in the US.

(although they tried to move to China - I got this whole story from my shoe repair guy, a long-time Minnesota shoehead type - and broaden out into making non-workboots/workshoes and the quality was so terrible that they came back to the US. There's this perception, I think, that offshoring is always cheaper and easier, that you can just find a vendor in China or wherever and they will cheaply and easily be able to match your production needs. (This is kind of like how people think that doing graphic design is easy because you 'just use a computer program' - because they don't understand the work and know-how involved, they think it's just push-button.) Actually, of course, making Redwing-quality shoes in China would still be fairly expensive, it would require a TON of careful communication with the producers which would also be expensive, and it would require a lot of travel/monitoring and project management, plus it would be a major hit to the brand, since they would no longer be differentiated by their 'made in the US' status. Offshoring is often as much ideological as practical, IME - especially when it's a company like Redwing which makes basically the same shoes year after year after year, maybe different colors and slightly different shapes but not the Fluevog-like "new lasts and new heels every quarter" thing.)

If anyone who would like to drop some change on new US-made shoes is reading this thread, Walk-Over has reopened with a bunch of suede bucks, brogues and so on all made in the US. They're ~$250, which isn't bad for what you seem to get - I've been reading reviews on Styleforum and elsewhere and the general consensus seems to be that they're in the Allen Edmonds range. I'm going to buy a pair myself later in the year when I've saved up because I want to encourage them.
posted by Frowner at 7:15 AM on February 8, 2012


Bought a pair of Simple Old School Sneakers in blue. They are made in China, but given that the company is out of business and not making any more, I don't feel like I'm incentivising sweatshop labor, at least no more than if I bought a pair of used shoes made in the same country. Also they're made with recycled materials, which is nice. The sustainability of shipping shoes across the world is rather dubious, but in this case the shoes are already stateside and no more are coming, so it seems better to at least make sure they get worn. The style was about what I was looking for, reviewers say they're true to size, and the comfort factor is supposedly excellent. Should be just what the doctor ordered.

(I already have several pairs of dressier [i.e. shineable, repairable leather] shoes, and while they're normally quite comfy I have sort of naturally unhappy feet and something cushier is sometimes in order. Not to mention that in my social circles it's kind of weird to be constantly wearing dress shoes.)
posted by Scientist at 7:32 AM on February 8, 2012


Good shoes are worth saving up for.

I got new Docs at Christmas, and they are the made in China type. When I try to pick them up from where they it on the floor (you know, ith my thumb in one and four fingers in the other), they are so slick and man-made that they slide out of my hand. It' goddamn creepy.

I am going to save my pennies and either get some shorter Red Wings that look OK with khakis, or some real made-in-England Docs again.

OP, I suggest you pick up some used shoes and start saving up. Sorry. :7(
posted by wenestvedt at 1:12 PM on February 8, 2012


Superga shoes seem to be pretty popular lately—they look (to my eyes) a little nicer than cons or bans. But I'm having trouble finding anything useful on their labour practices.
posted by oxford blue at 12:30 AM on February 10, 2012


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