The case for ethical footwear
By BEL JACOBS
Missed my talk about ethical footwear, futurism in fashion and why we need to find alternatives to leather at the Po Zu Ethical Lounge during London Fashion Week?
Here it is again:
"I’ve known Safia for almost 20 years; as you know, she is a passionate voice and campaigner for challenging the system and offering something beautiful in its place.
I’d also like to take the chance to introduce, to those of you who don’t know it already, the Po-Zu collections, in particular the collaboration with Stars Wars, and to talk about why they’re such great footwear, both in the philosophies behind them and in the way they’re made.
When I was thinking about how futurism manifests in fashion, I came across an article in elleuk.com which talked about why ideas of the future are such perennial sources of inspiration to designers - and it cited, as illustration, the shiny dresses that had appeared on AW catwalks: Gucci’s glitter bodysuits, the dress made of chainmail at Paco Rabanne and a silver skirt at Balenciaga.
But there’s another type of futurism that doesn’t appear on high fashion catwalks; it appears in what I regard as, in some ways, even more important locations: in colleges and art schools.
Earlier this year, I went to the Central St Martins degree show and I saw students grappling with ideas of climate change, of food and water shortages, of a world where many of the things we take for granted now are in much shorter supply.
They were making vertical farming systems and creating pieces about time.
And it’s not just amongst artists that the shift is happening. Younger designers are also responding, in ideas of longevity - clothes that last - and in ways of working with natural renewable fibres. Fashion design students are also challenging the status quo, while responding to an uncertain future.
This isn’t depressing. It’s encouraging. Today’s young people are approaching the world’s problems with incredible creativity and imagination. In this context, the shiny dresses on AW17 catwalks seem oddly out of touch.
Of course, this other vision of the future is one that has underpinned almost every storyline in Star Wars, the most seminal science fiction franchise of all time.
Almost everyone in Star Wars is operating in incredibly challenging environments. They’re scavengers and orphans like Rey, they’re slaves like Finn, they’re warriors like Leia or they’re opportunists like Han Solo. They’re active and dynamic and driven and, throughout The Force Awakens, I really really wanted to dress like Rey.
Now, with fantastic Po Zu's Star Wars collaboration, I can.
I’d also like to take this chance to talk about the shoe industry. There is currently - and Safia has been one of the key motivators in this - a really significant movement within fashion towards better practice fuelled by a growing awareness of the environmental and humanitarian impact of the clothing industry, one of the most polluting on the planet, second only to oil.
If you think about the pesticides used in cotton farming, the dyes used in manufacturing and the great amount of waste discarded clothing creates and also the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping: perhaps it’s not a surprise.
And that’s before you count the millions of mainly women in poorer countries who work long hours, with no prospects, few rights, divided from their families and children - all to make things that, in many cases, shouldn't have been allowed off the drawing board.
People are starting to understand this and the sheer, destructive injustice of it.
But, oddly, amidst this fantastic energy, the impact of the footwear industry has been sidelined. I’ve done it myself. Despite being passionate about sustainability, I’ve put on fair-trade and vintage and then slipped on a pair of leather shoes from a high street store. For a long time, footwear has been a black hole in ethical fashion.
That’s changing. And that’s good, because more than 20 billion pairs of shoes are made each year. For each pair, you need fossil fuels to power machinery, toxins and chemicals to treat the fabrics, to make them tough enough to wear.
And that’s not taking into account into account the animal and human costs of making shoes.
Earlier this year, I chaired a panel about a 2010 film called My Fancy High Heels. The director Ho Chao-Ti looked the shoe industry in China, filming workers and documenting many of tthe hings I mentioned before: poor working conditions, families divided, horrendous health and safety and zero animal welfare standards.
I think at one point after filming that the tanners, literally almost knee deep in waste and chemicals, admitted they’d only worn masks because they knew the filming crew was there.
The film begins and ends in the slaughterhouse and, in the process, the cows became a metaphor for exploitation practised in the Chinese shoe industry: from the way they were led, very patient and curious, very trusting, into the slaughterhouse to their eyes as their skin was removed, while still conscious.
I will never forget them or the calls of calves, slaughtered just hours old - without even having had a chance to suckle from their mothers - to make calfskin leather wallets.
This film had a huge impact on me. I went home, looked on the floor of my wardrobe and saw, not shoes, but the remnants of animals who had not wanted to die, the products of suffering and pollution.
I will literally never see leather in the same way again. It’s as if the infamous disconnect between what we use and how it’s made had been answered - and this again is why ethical footwear brands like Po Zu are so important to me.
Because I want alternatives to everything I’d seen in that film.
So Po Zu really encompasses a lot of things for me. Its aesthetic (of freedom and movement) and its philosophies (that we can’t just take what we want from the earth without repercussions, that we can’t abuse its animals and its people) are utterly of their time, contemporary. It is - and here’s an odd word - appropriate.
An appropriate response to the world we’ve made.
These are shoes lovingly crafted from renewable resources, from latex and cork, from organic cotton and British wool, and from my current favourite material of all because it’s such a fantastic alternative to leather: Pinatex. made from pineapple leaf fibres.
There’s chrome-free leather but I know that Safia is searching for options.
I went briefly to the launch of the Po Zu/Star Wars collaboration at the Museum of Brands earlier this month. During the event, another champion of ethical fashion Caryn Franklin spoke about a spiritual connection between clothes and their wearer; that somehow, at a visceral level, if the body knows what it’s wearing isn’t responsible for pain and waste and pollution, it will somehow feed back into one’s psyche.
I’m not a very spiritual person and a few months ago, I might have dismissed that. But ethical shoes have really given me something of that peace."