Footwear: An Industry Laced With Exploitation logo


+ how to tread lighter for people and planet



Article by Morgan Theakston, Tearfund New Zealand
*Names changed for protection.

It’s a sweltering day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Mohsin* and Helal* are telling us about their jobs at the leather tanneries.

They’ve both spent nearly 40 years chemically treating hides to turn them into leather that, down-the-line, will likely be fashioned into a pair of trendy boots. This is dangerous and low-paid work. They have both seen numerous people die.  


Mohsin tells us he works 16-hour shifts and says, “The gasses in the air are strong enough to melt iron and any jewellery we wear. We only have chemicals in our bodies by now”. Helal reveals the tannery owes workers hundreds of thousands of dollars (NZD) of unpaid wages, “Living and food are always a problem. There once was a buyer that cared about us, but since him, companies have only come for business”. He's also seen child labour. “The children do the same dangerous work we do because the company depends on it,” he says.  

After reflecting on the industry, Mohsin concludes “The rich are getting richer but the poor are dying”.

Over the past decade, the apparel industry has come under the microscope. Scrutiny from conscious shoppers and non-profits like Tearfund has exposed its dark underbelly of poverty and exploitation. But when it comes to our shoes, there is far less research, little public pressure on companies and a severe lack of transparency. We wanted answers, so we’ve focused on footwear for our annual research into the fashion industry.  

Tearfund, in collaboration with Baptist World Aid, researched 25 footwear companies representing more than 90 brands and measured their level of disclosure on human right and environmental policies and practices in their supply chain. We’ve scored brands out of 100 based on their performance in our 46-question survey that covers 18 indicators of ethical practice. Of all the brands included this year, six are Kiwi brandsi.  

There’s no sugar-coating it; this year’s scores for Kiwi shoe companies are low. Popular brands Hannahs and Number 1 Shoes scored 0/100, while Mi Piaci, Merchant 1948 and Deuce scored 12.82/100. We’ve pressured the clothing industry for years and have seen progress. With these scores, it seems shoe companies have barely begun adopting the best practices that we’ve come to expect in the apparel industry. We hope this research becomes a catalyst for meaningful change in the New Zealand footwear industry.

Here’s a snapshot of this year’s results:

  • The average footwear score was 22.62/100. 
  • 40 per cent of companies knew where all their direct suppliers (Tier 1) were.  
  • A quarter of companies didn’t know where any of their inputs (Tier 2) came from (e.g., leather tanneries, fabric mills).  
  • 56 per cent of companies didn’t know where any of their raw materials (Tier 3) came from (e.g., cotton, animal hides).  
  • No shoe companies could show they paid a living wage. 
  • 20 per cent of footwear companies have published an emissions target and decarbonisation strategy in line with current UN Fashion Industry for Climate Action.

*Assessed on public information only

2022 Scores

Before you dive into the scores, please note that the Ethical Fashion Report and research is a tool to provide insight into the industry and hold companies accountable for transparency around their social and environmental practices. You'll see that many scores are low, with the highest score at 58.30/100. We hope that the scores are insightful, but remember the most ethical and sustainable wardrobe is the one you already own and the best thing you can do for people and the planet is to stop the demand for overproduction by buying less.

Key: Y=Yes, P=Partial, N=No

View full chart

*Assessed on public information only
Some of these companies include more brands—see the Ethical Fashion Report Appendix for the full brand list and to see how companies scored on all 46 questions.
You can read more about our methodology and decision to switch from grades to raw scores in our FAQs.

Now let’s unpack the story behind our shoes:

From Made in New Zealand to Made in China

Until the late 1980s, about 95 per cent of footwear in New Zealand was made locally. This began to change when the government embraced free trade and reduced import taxes significantly. Access to low-cost offshore manufacturing was a capitalist jackpot.


Kiwi companies could now make shoes far cheaper through outsourcing labour to countries with more relaxed employment laws and lower minimum wages, import them for a low fee, and net a higher profit. By 2008 more than 95 per cent of shoes sold in New Zealand were imported, mainly from China1. Today nearly 90 per cent of the world’s shoes are made in Asia. Companies that still manufacture footwear in Aotearoa are small and specialised.

Globalised supply chains disconnect us physically and emotionally from the people who make our shoes.

This fosters unawareness and indifference about how our shoes are made and the conditions they’re made in. For example, footwear is the third largest Kiwi import (behind garments and electronics) at risk of being made with slave labour—with 20 million pairs of risky shoes imported into the country in 2019 alone (four pairs for every Kiwi)2. Offshore manufacturing isn’t inherently bad and can facilitate job creation and GDP growth for countries, but it increases the risk of exploitation. When it comes to the footwear industry, there are things we can’t ignore.  


Real sustainability includes sustainable wages

None of the shoe companies we researched could show they pay workers a living wage. Only 16 per cent have started to calculate living wage estimates in some of the regions they source from and 12 per cent have a public commitment to working towards a living wage.

For context, most companies require payment of the legal minimum wage throughout their supply chain, but in many regions, the living wage would amount to roughly two to three times that.

“Even with overtime, our salary is not enough to live on. No one can help us,”

Helal says. Low legal minimum wages are a drawcard for manufacturing countries. The incentive is for governments to suppress wages to remain attractive to companies looking for manufacturing locations. Labour is a large portion of the manufacturing cost—keeping wages low allows companies to net high profits while keeping prices low for consumers. Workers throughout the supply chain are vital to the success of footwear companies. Yet this success is founded partly on the chronic undervaluation of workers’ labour3. You may think we're just talking about the global South—surely shoes made in Europe are all good? Unfortunately, “Made in Italy” isn’t a guaranteed stamp of approval—low wages and other labour exploitation occur across popular shoe manufacturing countries like Italy, Poland, Spain and Turkey4.  

The elephant in the corporate boardroom is that even if a company has eco-conscious collections, climate neutrality and an array of give-back initiatives, it’s unclear whether the people who make their products can afford to put food on the table. For example, Allbirds has a reputation of being the crème de la crème of sustainable footwear, and while they communicate significant information about their best-practice environmental initiatives on their website, they have little to no transparency around the wages and working conditions in their factories across Asia.

Are they doing well behind closed doors? Maybe. But that’s kind of the point—with an estimated 98 per cent of fashion supply chain workers not earning enough to meet their basic needs5, transparency around factories and wages is the new standard. As the founder of the Fair Wage Network, Dr Whitehead-Vaughan aptly puts it,

“Sustainability is more than just climate change—it’s also about protecting the social fabric of society. And that means companies should go further than meeting a legal minimum wage and embrace the concept of fair wages”6.

Sustainability has to include sustainable livelihoods for the people who make our shoes.

Our research revealed only 12 per cent of companies were starting to address consistent problems of underpayment of wages in at least some factories. It also showed 80 per cent of companies couldn’t evidence any active collective bargaining or worker unions in their factories—a right that is crucial for workers to use their combined power to negotiate higher wages. “If a tannery has a union, they have to follow the rules, like paying a good salary, providing leave, bonuses, and allowances. But when workers tried to join a union, the company found out and sacked all the workers,” says Rana, a 32-year-old worker we interviewed,

“Even worse, unions are not like they used to be because the factories have the power and money to control them”. 

The low-wage trap

The footwear industry’s chronically low wages trap workers and their families in a cycle of poverty. This creates desperation, which increases vulnerability to exploitative conditions, such as forced labour, trafficking and modern slavery. It also means people have little choice but to stay in dangerous jobs, such as tanning leather, and work exceedingly long hours to make ends meet. 


Find out more


A toxic industry

We have all marvelled at the sight of a fresh pair of leather boots, but when you dig deeper, they start to lose their shine. Aside from its association with 80 per cent of Amazon deforestation,7 as the forests are cleared for cattle farms, the $200 billion leather industry is one of the most toxic industries in the world.  In 2020, 1.4 billion animal skins and hides were used for leather production—around one animal for every five people in the world8. To turn animal skin into leather and stop it from decomposing, workers tan the leather by submerging piles of cowhides into barrels of chromium, arsenic, formaldehyde, and other harsh chemicals.  

In the Bangladeshi leather industry, tannery workers are paid NZ$8 a day and 90 per cent of these workers die before the age of 50 due to the chemicals9,10. Yes, you read that right—90 per cent. It’s a common sight to see kids treating the leather with bare feet and hands, up to their ankles in the toxic slush covering factory floors. Speaking about the inadequate health and safety precautions, Helal says, “Mixing the chemicals is always risky. I have seen some accidents and I have seen people die. The company never buys anything for our safety, except they would give us a face mask if there was an inspection. If we want protection, we have to buy things like hand gloves, high boots, etc...”. Mohsin says, “I have seen a lot of people die from electrical shocks and falling into the tanning drums,” while Rana adds,

“If you have an accident while working, the company does nothing”. 

Bangladesh is home to over 200 leather tanneries and footwear factories that supply the US, Asia and Europe. Until 2017, many of these tanneries were in central Dhaka, but since their waste poisoned the city's main river and filled the air with the smell of rotting hides, tanneries have been slowly relocating 14 miles outside the city to Savar by order of the government.

Toxic wastewater from tanneries in Savar dumps into Dhaka's river.

“All the tanneries moved to save the environment and surrounding communities, but in practice you don’t see that. You see the water treatment plants and pipelines set up, but they don’t work,” says Rana. Alongside reports of toxic dumping in Savar wiping out the river ecosystem and causing medical issues for the local community, people are still feeling the effects of Dhaka’s poisoned river.

Families rely on these waterways for drinking, washing and fishing, causing many people to have chronic diarrhoea, fevers, cancer, skin ailments, acid burns, respiratory diseases and genetic disorders11,12. “The water is not good,” shares Mohsin, “I have lost all my body is not healthy”.

Rana says,

“When people reach 40-years-old, they’re so weak they don’t have strength to work and both hands are diseased from the chemicals”.

When a journalist asked young boys fishing in the river if they were scared of the toxic water, one replied, “It doesn’t matter if we are scared, we still need to work to survive”13.

This isn’t just in Bangladesh. China’s Yangtze River is heavily polluted from the leather industry and has been described as "a chemical graveyard”14 with “cancer villages’’ scattered along its banks. In Kanpur, the Leather Capitol of India, tanneries are responsible for polluting the Ganges River—a holy site where people bathe, swim and retrieve drinking water. Morocco's Chouara tannery—the oldest tannery in the world—leaches chromium into the city's water supply and emits aromas so pungent that tourists are given a sprig of mint to hold to their noses while spectating15,16. In all of these places, chromium poisoning means babies are born with birth defects, brown skin is bleached white, and people’s lives are cut short. In our research, only 40 per cent of companies had collected data on wastewater quality in at least half of their facilities and only 16 per cent of companies restrict the use of hazardous chemicals during manufacturing.

“If I could talk to the foreign buyer, I would say ‘please, please provide safety equipment and monitoring,”’

pleads Rana. Companies need to start taking responsibility for their impact on the planet and human health by treating wastewater properly and banning the use of chemicals like chromium. 

You’re probably feeling like you can never buy leather again—we get it. 

About 90 per cent of the world’s leather is chrome-tanned, and much of it is unregulated, but the good news is there are alternative options available, which we’ve compared below. Leather Working Group is a non-profit that provides different tiers of certification based on the performance of leather manufacturers. We’ve surveyed them directly, and while they’re piloting some initiatives around worker health and safety, their focus is mostly on environmental practices and enhancing traceability. There is also vegetable-tanned leather (an old method of tanning that doesn’t use toxic chemicals) as well as non-animal-based (faux) leather. The majority of faux leather is made from Polyurethane (PU), aka plastic, which is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. It is often marketed as “vegan leather”, but don’t be fooled; it’s vegan in the same way petrol is! In rarer cases, vegan leather is made from non-fossil-fuel-based alternatives, such as mushroom and pineapple leather—both are great choices.

Check out our leather guide to make better choices when buying leather products.

Footwear’s footprint

Both in what it takes from the natural world in terms of land, water, and biodiversity resources and in what it leaves behind in the form of wastewater, chemical pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, footwear has a significant planetary footprint17.


The footwear industry emits around 1.4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions18. A shoe’s carbon footprint includes its emissions and impact all the way from growing the raw materials to the end of its life. Each type of shoe has a different impact, depending on what it was made from and where it was made. For example, for synthetic shoes like running shoes or faux leather boots, most of the emissions come from manufacturing; the last step in the process of making a shoe. This is because in most cases shoes are manufactured in China where coal is the dominant source of electricity19. For leather, over half of the emissions come from much earlier in the process on cattle farms and in tanneries.

Pollution from tanneries in Hazaribagh, Bangladesh.

In our research, 56 per cent of companies have assessed the environmental impacts of their top three materials and 72 per cent have started to use more sustainable fibres, such as certified wool, plant-based leathers, organic cotton and recycled polyester. Companies making great progress in this area include: Allbirds, Adidas, Puma, Nike and Wittner. When looking at climate commitments, only 20 per cent have published an emissions reduction target and decarbonisation strategy in line with the current UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. On behalf of the planet and communities already affected by climate change, we urge all companies to commit to the Charter and make good on those promises. 

There is also a lot of waste when it comes to shoes.

An estimated 22 billion pairs of shoes are dumped into landfill each year and can take over 100 years to decompose20.

We buy too many shoes and fast-fashion companies make even more shoes than we can buy. This is called overproduction and is when a company makes more shoes than they can sell before trends or seasons change and the remainder is dumped. Our research showed that for most shoe companies, this waste issue is not even on their radar: 64 per cent of companies had not addressed any impacts of their shoes after they leave the store. Overland Footwear was the only company to have assessed the environmental impacts of overproduction and implemented a strategy to reduce it. Fashion’s reliance on sales growth in a system that encourages overproduction and overconsumption is at odds with broader goals to reduce industry emissions.

If the industry focused its efforts on minimising excess inventory by just 10 per cent, emissions could be reduced by an estimated 158 million tonnes by 203021

Recycling or having a circular approach to re-using materials is another solution to waste. Unfortunately, only a few companies we researched provided recycling solutions, with 16 per cent of companies able to evidence a recycling or donation programme. In fairness to our Kiwi companies, recycling technology is extremely limited in Aotearoa. This places shoe companies and shoe-wearers in a tricky position when it comes to worn out kicks. Our planet can’t sustain this much production, consumption and waste. It’s time for Kiwi shoe companies and government to collectively take action and create circular solutions.     

Living by the Five Rs:

Reduce, Re-wear, Repair, Re-Home, and Raise Your Voice

For some, footwear is a fun way to express identity and often serves as the final touch to a curated outfit. For others, it’s simply a practical tool for protection against the various surprises the ground might throw at us. Either way, every time we buy a pair of shoes, we become part of a story that begins with the humans who made them—people like Mohsin and Helal. Here are five tips for living out that story well. 


Buy less. We live in a world where “shoe addiction” and “retail therapy” are common phrases, but we know that this addiction is not without consequence. Buying less means that when you need new shoes, you might be able to afford to prioritise the quality of both the shoes and the lives of the people who made them. To ensure quality, focus on the materials used and how durable the shoe is.


We’ve said it before: the most sustainable shoes are the ones you already own. Make sure to take care of your shoes properly so they last longer. Check out our guide to learn how to best care for different types of shoes! Some shoe sites include their own care guides, so look out for those as well.  


Are the soles of your favourite boots worn out? Extending the life of a pair of shoes through repairing them yourself or visiting a cobbler is an essential part to maintaining a sustainable wardrobe (super glue has kept my slippers going strong for seven winters!). When buying new, look for companies that have designed their shoes to be easily disassembled and repaired. For example, Allbirds will replace the insoles of their trainers, and RM Williams’s have designed their boots to be disassembled and repaired with their boot repair service. Merchant 1948 has a shoe repair workshop in Newmarket for repairs and sole upgrades.


Less than five per cent of shoes are recycled, which means the majority end up in landfills. With textile recycling technology limited in Aotearoa, our best option is to re-home our unwanted shoes. If they’re in good condition, try to resell them on TradeMe or Facebook Marketplace. Donating can be a good option as well, but make sure your donation is in good condition so that it’s helping rather than hurting. Some companies like Merchant 1948 will repair shoes that need a little love before donating them to charity.

Raise Your Voice:

Email, comment and tag the change you want to see. Put constructive pressure on companies to better protect workers and the environment using our email and dm templates or comment on your favourite shoe brands social channels. Have conversations with your family and friends about why ethical fashion is important and speak out to government through supporting laws that mandate change for workers and the environment, such as the New Zealand Modern Slavery Act. A fashion industry that prioritises profit over people and our planet has to change now.

To learn more about the research, findings, and issues in the footwear and apparel industry, check out the 2022 Ethical Fashion Report.  

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i The research into apparel is now on a two-year cycle and this research period was an interim year. Apparel companies included in the 2021 research were given the option to carry over their scores or submit further information to increase their scores. Some apparel companies submitted additional information and all scores can be found in the Ethical Fashion Report. This figure of 25 brands consists of 15 footwear brands assessed for the first time this year and 10 apparel brands who are well-known for their footwear. 


  3. 2022 Ethical Fashion Report 
  7. Is vegetable tanned leather sustainable? Let’s do some leather myth-busting. — Collective Fashion Justice 
  8. Report_2021.pdf   
  9. S,ciELO - Public Health - Tannery pollution threatens health of half-million Bangladesh residents Tannery pollution threatens health of half-million Bangladesh residents ( 
  10. Tanneries in Bangladesh Are Spewing Toxic Waste and Making Workers Sick ( 
  11. Occupational cancers in leather tanning industries: A short review - PMC ( 
  13. Toxic Tanneries Poisoning Workers in Bangladesh:  
  17. 2022 Ethical Fashion Report 
  18. measuringfashion_globalimpactstudy_quantis_2018.pdf