Greenslinging: Recycled Shoemaker Not Perfect, Says Newspaper

As the rising buzz around "green" easily gives way to the static of "greenwash," a report in London’s middlebrow The Mail on Sunday last month slamming recycled footwear maker Worn Again has raised some eyebrows around these parts. The piece claims that the shoes—made out of recycled materials and lately made famous by eagerly green Tory leader David Cameron—are “actually made in a vast shoe factory in China where workers, who live in grim dormitories, are so unhappy with their pay and conditions that nearly one-tenth of them walked out on their jobs in February." The shoes are made out of recycled materials shipped from the UK to China's Guangdong province at a high CO2 cost. More locally, a nearby river "has turned black from industrial pollution, and massive landfill sites are overflowing because of a proliferation of shoe factories." Since we all vote with our dollars, and since corporations play one of the most crucial roles in protecting our environment, scrutinizing claims of social goodness is something we should all value...Last year, the Mail on Sunday's iPod factory story, though it lacked some perspective, pushed Apple to examine its manufacturing process. But what may have begun here as good intentions--that is, keeping a green business honest, and keeping us informed--somewhere became a piece of what might be called socially-conscious sensationalism. Greenslinging. Accuracy and fairness gives way to exaggeration and the logic of "Hey, look! No one can be completely good!" (It doesn't help of course that the article also mixes its attack on Worn Again with its dislike on the leader of the Tory party, an easy political target.)

Fortunately, though, the article offers a valuable chance to think about corporate attempts at doing good, and, as a time when consumer knowledge equals green power, it reminds us to reflect on how we get that knowledge to begin with.

As Worn Again notes in its response, and as anyone familiar with China's factory cities knows, one-tenth of a migrant workforce staying home over a national holiday is not an unusual phenomenon in a country where salaries and standards of living are steadily rising. Indeed, that very rise in standards bespeaks a development story that begins with labor-intensive industries like shoe-making and develops into high technology and services industries. Whatever your feelings about corporate responsibility, even companies hoping to make a change are bound by some of the rules of the market. For example, if Worn Again wants to make eco-friendly shoes appealing and affordable to masses of hip Britons, it will go to Guangdong, which is "by far the most efficient place to make shoes." In this case, the ugly market also happens to be providing jobs in China, and doing so with shoes that not only save materials otherwise bound for landfill, but ones that also make a valuable statement about recycling.

The materials aren't always locally-sourced, but as managing director of Terra Plana Galahad Clark explains,


We offset our emissions with Climate Care (which I appreciate is problematic from a point of view) but a proportion of the money the consumer spends on the trainers goes directly to alternative energy projects and sustainable development. As we build up production in different areas of the world we aim to only source materials from local sources. For example, we have just started collaboration with Friends of the Earth from Hong Kong for Worn Again made in China.

As Patagonia found with its own recycled clothing line, manufacturing with non-locally sourced recycled materials still used 76% less energy than making new material. A full Life Cycle Analysis would help companies like Worn Again better demonstrate what effect their shoes are having or not having on the earth.

Meanwhile, the pollution in the nearby river tells another story, albeit not necessarily one about Worn Again (indeed, the article offers no evidence that the Worn Again factory is linked with the river pollution). Still, pollution throughout China, especially its manufacturing and coal centers, is no secret. But it needs to be said that China still has an opportunity (an an urgent need) to edit its Industrial Revolution story into something greener; ironically, it is the polluting industries themselves that could drive that change, especially considering how much they have to lose from pollution. Worn Again aside, the rise of socially-responsible corporations in China -- something that England in the 1850s couldn't claim -- is a promising development. The factory where Worn Again shoes are made is set to receive an ISO 14001 rating, the highest international environmental performance standard.

A worker stitching Worn Agains in the Brilliant factory

Just as crucial in establishing any sustainable path is good, open information. That not only helps raise awareness of problems among the public and government officials, but it makes it easier for eco- and socially- minded consumers to make better choices at the shoe store. Open information has never been more crucial in China. Private and semi-private companies are more important than ever, bringing with them what will someday be the world's biggest consumer class. Amidst the din of the market, the government still proclaims its slogan of a "harmonious society" that seeks to temper unbridled capitalism with the tenets of socialism--or at least calm the growing discontent among the country's have-nots, who are still losing their land and environment to economic growth. Along with a strong rule of law, transparency is an absolute must for China if it is to strike a balance between the interests of the few and the many.

Of course, this is easier said than done in modern China. The control of information is one of the government's most versatile tools, and censorship aside, it has corrupted even the freest of the country's most important agents of information: journalists. Some notable exceptions aside, the combination of censorship and government control--and the need to compete with internet sources and TV for readers' attentions--has helped generate a tendency toward sensationalism and corruption. As Southern Weekend journalist Fu Jianfeng noted in the wake of the iPod factory story, "The Chinese media is swaying between power and money, so how shall we maintain the responsibility and conscience that the media ought to have?"

In this context, what role does the Mail on Sunday, or any foreign media outlet, have? As scary as the story about China's environmental situation is, and as easy as it can be to criticize companies in China--to say nothing of the politicians who wear their products--foreign reporters should be especially careful not to sensationalize with stories like these. The need for honest and fair information in a place where such information is so hard to come by, is especially urgent.

Worn Again readily admits that the manufacturing situation in Guangdong is not ideal, but the company deserves credit for being open about that situation, and giving consumers as much information as they can. Transparency is a lot to expect from a company these days--and responsible, fair reporting is a lot to expect from a tabloid newspaper.

Obviously, manufacturing in China is not an uncomplicated proposition. But by manufacturing shoes out of the world's trash pile (which is already choking China) in a careful way, and in a place that needs models of careful growth more than anything, Worn Again is literally making the best out of a bad situation.

That may not make headlines, but it will make a better place to live.

Tags: China | Corporate Responsibility