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We talk to author and journalist, Tansy Hoskins, whose latest book Foot Work: What Your Shoes are Doing to the World leads us to explore issues of labour rights, clothing sustainability, and the failings of global shareholder capitalism at large. We met Hoskins at Fixfest in Berlin last year. Her call for legislated reform has only become more timely, as our global system is reeling from the pandemic and its fallout.
A personal problem
Throughout Foot Work, Hoskins takes us on a journey to reconnect with the processes and cost — not only in a financial sense — of shoe production. An integral barrier to change in this industry she says is the personal attachment that we have to our clothes.
“It kind of skews our thinking about the fashion industry as well because it’s such a personal consumption item. Often people end up getting trapped in only thinking about it as a personal item rather than a political item or an object of global industry.”
Hoskins also notes that the mystification of production and labour contributes to this detachment from the origins of our shoes. We discuss how this came to be through the exportation of labour and the strength of brand identity. Hidden by this are the hazardous — and sometimes deadly — working conditions of garment workers in the Global South. These issues then worsened by a lack of unionisation and enforced government regulation. We explore what changes to make as a society to be able to take proper responsibility as informed consumers.
How much do we really need?
Moreover, we discuss how the idea of ‘need’ can lead to our acceptance of these environmental and human rights abuses. Shoes have been essential for humans for quite a while but this does not mean that 66 million pairs need to be produced every day, as was the case in 2018. (That’s equivalent to 23.5 billion pairs a year, over ten times the number of mobiles produced!) Many of the same sustainability issues that we found in our mobiles episode are echoed in the footwear industry. These include a lack of repairability; consumption of raw materials at an unsustainable rate; and an incredibly quick turnaround in buying new.
Global, radical change
Recently, the media is searching for an environmental silver lining to our current pandemic-imposed lifestyles. Hoskins is adamant there is nothing positive for the fashion industry. In fact, many major brands are failing to pay workers for items that they have already produced. This wage is often the difference between barely getting by and hunger and circumstances are only worsened at present. However, it does appear that more people are beginning to see the wealth disparity that is prevalent in the Western world too. She asks if capitalism is currently working on a global scale — not only for garment workers but for consumers also — and for her, the overwhelming answer is no.
“This to me is going to involve global legislation with teeth…None of this lies with shopping differently. And definitely none of this lies with leaving this kind of change to brands to do by themselves.”
Hoskins stresses the limits of only focussing on individual action. Only through legislation can larger issues like labour and environmental abuses be tackled properly. While it is important to be mindful on an individual level, we must also seek system-level change for changes to stick.
- Foot Work: What Your Shoes Are Doing to the World
- NYT: Why Won’t We Learn from the Survivors of the Rana Plaza Disaster?
- Restart Podcast Ep. 50: Why we must win the right to repair our smartphones
- History of the Anti-globalisation movement
[Images courtesy of Tansy Hoskins]