ethical consumers result in ethical corporations

I bought a pair of boots this week with a red “sweet spot” on the toes meant “for kicking corporate ass.

I bought a pair of boots this week with a red “sweet spot” on the toes meant “for kicking corporate ass.”

My 17-year-old nephew also bought some anti-establishment shoes — sneakers with a red “top tip” painted on the toes, also “for kicking corporate ass.”

We tittered like thieves as we selected from an internet website our respective corporate crime-fighting footwear.

For me, it was a devious act that made me feel half my age.

For him, it was a grown-up decision that came out of research and thoughtfulness, one that would see him part with a relatively obscene amount of money considering his income compared to mine.

This wasn’t the first time Josh had bought a pair of Blackspot shoes either.

He bought his first pair when he was 15 years old at a not-for-profit boutique in Frederiction, NB.

A project of Vancouver-based Adbusters Media Foundation, Blackspots are “made from organic hemp in a Portuguese union shop” and built to “kick megacorporate ass.”

After wearing nothing else for two years, Josh defends his Blackspots as “comfortable and durable” and only considered buying replacements after duct tape came to the rescue of a flapping sole several weeks ago.

Josh never realized his original pair of crime-fighting shoes were linked with Adbusters. He just appreciated the fact his hard-earned cash would be going to charity.

And it didn’t hurt that Blackspots look like Converse’s original basketball runners, Chuck Taylors — pretty cool.

When it came time for a new pair, he researched other companies.

Converse, it turned out, was offering a similar ethical shoe. None other than the timeless Chuck Taylors had linked up with “(red)” — the AIDS/Tuberculosis/Malaria charity brainchild of Bono. Between 10 and 15 per cent of every purchase is funneled to “(red).”

But it was hard to find the ethics behind Converse’s “(red)” shoes.

Blackspot puts it all out there — where the shoe factory is, who is making them, what their wages are, and what they are made of.

Blackspots use only 100 per cent organic hemp, processed using non-chemical methods such as water retting.

The sneaker version has a rubber sole and a toe cap that is 70 per cent biodegradable. The boot version, called The Unswoosher (a jab at Nike), has a sole made from old car tires!

The proceeds go into Adbusters’ non-profit campaigns, although Blackspot retailers (independent ones only) are free to benefit from the mark-ups.

The factory is located in a rural region of Portugal called Felgueiras, “an area steeped in 400 years of shoe-making tradition,” says Adbusters.

“The factory has been owned and operated by the same family for three generations. The owners have a reputation for being excellent employers.”

The work day of the shoemaker runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with 1.5 hours for lunch. Workers make 35 per cent above minimum wage.

Adbusters regularly interviews people at all levels of the factory and, so far, all have reported good things.

What other clothing or shoe company can boast this level of transparency?

The only other one I could think of was another Vancouver company, Mountain Equipment Co-op, a renegade in ethical apparel.

The co-op collects used garments so it can recycle them into new ones. And one per cent of everything it sells goes to Canadian environmental causes.

Mountain Equipment keeps an “ethical sourcing” blog with updates on the state of its factories.

Not all of the stories are rosey. In one instance, the co-op reports pulling out of a factory in Mexico after discovering children working there, a lack of fire exits, and financial penalties for workers who refused to work overtime or who used the bathroom at unscheduled times.

Being just one client among many in the factory, the co-op said the owners had no incentive to improve conditions because the other clients didn’t care.

Roots, based in Toronto, has also made the environment and labour important elements of its reputation.

It is attempting to “neutralize” the carbon dioxide emissions from its shipping activities by planting trees.

A new line of “green” clothing uses organic cotton on some items and some T-shirt proceeds will be donated to environmental causes.

The general impression from Roots, unfortunately, is that it has jumped aboard the environmental movement for profit’s sake — that “green” is merely a gimmick.

When it comes to labour, Roots asserts a stance against child labour and has partnered with Cal Safety Compliance Corporation, an independent internationally recognized organization that monitors labour and safety conditions worldwide.

But Roots stops short at being able to provide details on the overseas factories themselves, boasting only about its leather factory, which is in Toronto.

If there are any other major Canadian apparel companies that are doing anything remotely similar to what these three are doing, I have yet to find them.

Globalization is making competition fierce and that makes it tough for companies to compete and behave ethically at the same time.

But Josh and his friends — the next generation — are demanding it. And so, it is happening.

Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.

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