Regarding shoes and the kind of world I want to live in

Could Those Who Make Your Shoes Afford Them?” asks Miguel De La Torre at Ethics Daily.

I get to buy hiking shoes because the poor of the earth make them for me at slave wages. My riches are directly connected to their poverty.

That will get some people’s hackles up. They’ll respond defensively, as though De La Torre is suggesting that this connection must be simple and causal — as though he is saying that their poverty must be a direct consequence of our riches.

Set that aside for the moment. Don’t worry here about cause and effect, just appreciate that the connection is undeniable. They make the shoes. We wear the shoes. From their hands to our feet.

That’s a connection. It’s almost an intimate connection.

And it means we can’t disconnect ourselves from the haunting question in the title of De La Torre’s essay: “Can those who make our shoes afford to buy them?” Or our jeans, our shirts, ties, socks, suits, sweaters or underwear? What about our cars? Our appliances? Our coffee?

Please don’t hear these questions as an accusation. If we think of it that way, we’ll wind up with the defensive distractions of abstractions, or with the resentment that comes from inescapable guilt.

So let’s consider this not as an accusation but as an aspiration.

Think of it this way: I want those who make my shoes to be able to afford shoes. Don’t you want that, too?

Of course, this isn’t just a selfless, warm-fuzzy bit of Kumbaya generosity or altruism. There’s self-interest here as well. We should want the people who make the things we buy to be able to afford those same things because if they can afford that, then they can also afford to buy the goods or services we provide. When the poor of the earth are only paid, as De La Torre says, “slave wages,” then we’re all missing out on people who might otherwise have been our customers.

This is part of what I imagine a better world looks like. The people who make the things I buy can afford to buy the things I make. Those who make my shoes can afford to buy them.

That’s the world I want to live in.

"Their feminism is thin and weak and mostly based on theories discarded by the rest ..."

Intra ecclesiam nulla salus
"He's failed as a Christian, then. Because that's the antithesis of what Jesus was teaching."

Intra ecclesiam nulla salus
"A Pence coin would be pure white gold surrounding a plutonium core.A Trump coin would ..."

If it’s good enough for Andre ..."
"These are the same people who want their sect's views enshrined in law, who don't ..."

Intra ecclesiam nulla salus

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • etv13

    I don’t think enslavement and war are acceptable costs to pay for our comforts, but I also don’t think they’re necessary costs.  Japan went from being a poor, war-ravaged, occupied country after WWII to being a pretty rich country to a large degree by producing goods for export.  At first,”Made in Japan” was synonymous with “Cheap and shoddy.”  Now they are known for the quality and sophistication of their products.  South Korea has moved in the same direction.  India has a long way to go, but it has made great strides in the last couple of decades.

    And there are lots of luxuries that don’t put a big strain on the planet:  high-quality haircuts, massages, facials, psychotherapy, live entertainment, well-prepared food served by skilled, pleasant servers.  We don’t need $200 sneakers and overflowing closets to live lives of luxury.

  • heckblazer

    Tomato pickers are generally paid by the weight harvested and not by the hour; the pay estimate I’ve seen for Florida tomato pickers is in the ballpark of $50 for a seven-hour day of picking, or about $7.14 an hour.  If we decided that these workers deserved more pay (and they do!) and generously doubled the piece rate, the labor cost of harvesting tomatoes would skyrocket to… around $0.03 a pound.  I think we could pretty easily pay more for those at the bottom by taking a bit off the top, e.g. with the 2011 compensation given to the highest paid American CEO you could instead have given every Wal-Mart employee a $250 bonus.

  • When did I say I didn’t think anyone should go to restaurants or buy hiking boots? I didn’t. I said they were luxuries. And I know I never said I thought no one should have luxuries.

  •  I didn’t say pretty things. I said jewels. And by that, I did not mean a simple crucifix, a wedding band, a pendant made by a local artist or anything like that. You can be quite pretty without wearing $20,000 worth of gold and diamonds dug out of the ground for you by an African peasant struggling to survive in a conflict zone.

  • Okay, I probably should have phrased that better, but I stand by the statement that  jewelry (other than costume jewelry) is generally considered a luxury item. And while you may derive both pleasure and profit from designing jewelry, the people who purchase it from you are purchasing your creations as luxury items, not as necessities of living.

  • Clothing is a necessity, but generally jewelry is a luxury because you get nothing from adorning yourself with jewels except the satisfaction of flaunting your wealth.


    When I wear my favourite earrings, I’m flaunting my wealth of six whole dollars!

    When I wear my favourite bracelet, I’m flaunting my wealth of not being raised in an orphanage, and thereby having relatives give me stuff they don’t want anymore!

    When I wear my favourite necklace – not costume jewellery, but actual jewels – I’m flaunting my wealth of having twenty uni friends decide to chip in on a present of a cross, so that they could show me they valued me and my ridiculous faith, even if they did think it was ridiculous!


    While jewellery is not a “necessity”, it is in no way something I wear to “flaunt my wealth”. Not even the piece that is the second-most expensive thing I’ve ever owned.

  • Alger

     I think that we are confusing cost with value.

    Economists to the contrary, the real worth of a commodity is usually not equal to its market price. If it were then we would pay more for food when we were hungry, and there would be no point in comparison shopping because the more expensive item would always be the better buy.

    Maybe I made a mistake when I used the word “luxury”. What I meant to suggest is the virtue of thrift. Thrift is the careful considered consumption of items of lasting value.  In this casting, luxury is selfish consumption.

    Jewelery that brings joy to the wearer and has real personal worth independent and beyond its material value is not a luxury for the same reasons that a good $0.50 used paperback has far more worth than a badly written $50 first edition hardcover.

    To return to the topic of the original posting; the thrifty person adds the cost of war and enslavement in their evaluation of a potential purchase. Anything that costs more in suffering than its value is a luxury.

  • Ross Thompson

    See, DDT is REALLY good at killing mosquitoes

    No, it’s really not. DDT resistance is now near-universal in mosquitoes, and when it does kill them, it also kills all the things that feed on mosquitoes, so the next season they come back in far, far greater numbers.

    The world-wide cases of malaria have dropped precipitously since we stopped using pesticides as the main method of control (The one exception is India, whose malaria problem is as bad as ever, and they use four-fifths of the world’s supply of DDT). America, Italy, Panama and a dozen other countries eradicated malaria without ever using DDT, in many cases before DDT was ever used as a pesticide.

    The trick is to treat malaria in humans, so that the mosquitoes can’t become infected and spread it to others; and to stop mosquitoes from biting people, for which bed nets work far better than pesticides.

  • Alger

     Two responses.

    1; my point is that the enslavement of others and endless war are currently an acceptable price to the majority of Americans to pay for our standard of living. Do I think that’s acceptable? I hope I have made it clear that I don’t. Do I think the general public cares? I do, but that doesn’t seem to translate into change very easily. Knowing people suffer for your comforts and not changing your consumption habits is accepting that enslavement and war are acceptable costs.

    2; About Japan; I am extremely wary of this argument. I feel it has two basic flaws.
    The first is that it ignores that there isn’t room for everyone at the top. I mean that observation as a matter of economic structure, of resource availability, and of plain cussed reality.  In the same way that encouraging everyone to maximize their income potential by becoming investment bankers is foolish, not every country can work its way up to the third largest global economy by producing cheap consumer goods. Too many countries tried this and failed to vault into the  top tier for this to be a valid argument. As my grandma used to say “The world needs ditchdiggers too”, and the global majority will always be assigned trench duty because someone needs to do it.
    The second objection is that this is, inherently, a meritocratic argument, and meritocratic arguments always seem to end up blaming the loser for their failure to succeed. Also the criteria for success are biased in predictable ways. A thought experiment: against what criteria are you measuring when you say India has made great strides, but Cuba hasn’t? The only one that can be consistently applied is that India has refashioned its economy more open to the USA while Cuba hasn’t. Cuba for all of its other failures and abuses does still offer a higher universal standard of living than that of India. India succeeds because we like them and Cuba fails because we don’t.

  • Tonio


    As my grandma used to say “The world needs ditchdiggers too”, and the
    global majority will always be assigned trench duty because someone
    needs to do it.

    While I don’t disagree in principle, what you describe is not the issue here. James Loewen points out in Lies Across America that the extravagant lifestyles of antebellum slaveowners was made possible only by the privations and brutalities of slavery. Any change that would have benefited the slaves, even a small improvement instead of full freedom, would have meant less luxury for the slaveowners. That massive inequality of wealth and power was an artificial condition and had nothing to do with whether the work done by the slaves needed doing. The only people who benefited from the system were the slaveowners.

    Ideally an economy should benefit everyone in it instead of benefiting a few at the top at the expense of everything else. As I mentioned earlier, I think reducing the inequalities of power would have the effect of reducing inequality of wealth, instead of addressing the latter directly. There’s a very strong argument that in oligarchical societies, everything ends up geared to supporting the tiny minority, with stagnation of scientific and intellectual pursuits that might otherwise benefit the societies.

  • The obvious solution to the need for social stratification is to have machines do all the boring dirty work. The challenge is to shift social expectations to the notion that we don’t need jobs to survive.

  • heckblazer

    Absolutely true.  I would submit that minimum wage laws being unenforced due to corruption is superior to them being unenforced because no-one has jobs.  It’s a lot easier to go on strike to protest the former, for a start.  

  • Alger

     Have you even read Vonnegut’s ‘Player Piano’?

  • Citrines and garnets and amethysts are jewels. There are conflict-free diamonds and gold in the world, they are easy to find on the internet, and most jewels are not diamonds and most jewels are not set in gold.

    Yeah, you could have said it better. Better yet, you could have not said it at all. Maybe you should just stop with the mansplaining. You did, in fact, insult me and most other women in the world and lots of other men as well. I doubt you will admit it, so just. Stop.

  • Divide it by 7 billion.  It works out, roughly, to 10,000 per capita.   Do you make more that 10 grand?  I make sandwiches at a sub shop, and I make more than 10 grand a year. On a global scale, every person that makes 10,030 is taking 30 bucks a year away from someone, somewhere else.  Because there’s only 63 trillion to go around in the first place.  

    Only not really. Money isn’t gold. There’s no such thing as “all the money” as an independent concept. The total amount of money in the world is *by definition* exactly the amount it would cost to buy all the goods and services in the word. 

    So the real question is not “is there enough money in the world to pay everyone a living wage,” but “is there enough *stuff* in the world to give everyone a livable share.” And if not, *why* not? The world is full of arable land that isn’t being efficiently farmed, it’s full of factories that have been closed down because it’s “cheaper to outsource”. It’s full of people who don’t have jobs. 

    If putting all the people in the world to work at making stuff and providing services still produced fewer goods and services than were necessary to support all the people in the world, then that would be one thing. But we’ve got people out of work and closed factories and fruit rotting on the vines. 

    And that means that we *could* raise everyone’s standard of living. That shortage of money you describe, where there isn’t enough money to give everyone enough to live off of ? That’s an *artificial* shortage. The only thing stopping us from quite literally just *declaring by fiat* that there’s now enough money to pay everyone a living wage is that *the people with the power to make that happen are the same people who stand to benefit from artifically creating vast disparities of wealth.*

  • etv13

    That’s how I read your statement about not wanting everyone to have hiking boots.  As it was a misreading, we’re not actually that far apart.

  • etv13

    I don’t think that people actually do suffer for my comforts, or that enslavement  and war in the developing word are what it takes to feed and clothe Americans.  Rather, I think the developing world is a very poor place that is gradually growing richer as Americans and others in the developed world purchase their products.  If by “changing your consumption habits” you mean simply refusing to buy those products because their makers’ wages and working conditions are not up to our standards, then I think such a change would harm rather than benefit people in poor countries.  Are there other things one can do to help people in developing countries?  Sure there are; we can fund vaccination and education, pressure U.S. companies to improve the working conditions of the people who make their products, etc.    Simply saying I won’t buy those sneakers or that t-shirt or whatever is not beneficial.

    Who cares if there is room for everyone at “the top”?   Why should we conceptualize the world economy as a hierarchical structure?  Of course not every country can flourish by producing cheap consumer goods.  But for many countries, as for Japan, the production of cheap consumer goods can be a step on the way to something else.  Japan is no longer in that business.  China is.  India exports services, such as computer programming and call-center operations.

    I said nothing about Cuba — or Mexico, or Vietnam, or Costa Rica, or dozens of other countries.  I am not saying that India is succeeding while Cuba is failing.  You are arguing with a phantom of your own invention.

  • And there are lots of luxuries that don’t put a big strain on the
    planet:  high-quality haircuts, massages, facials, psychotherapy

    Psychotherapy is a luxury like high-quality haircuts? Check your privilege.

  • etv13

    Kiddo, I pay for psychotherapy at rates that mean I haven’t had a haircut for over a year.  But for the millions of people who would have to give up meals instead of haircuts, yes, psychotherapy is a luxury.

  •  Millions of people do not have access to, or cannot afford, healthy food, clean drinking water, vaccinations, or birth control. Does that make them luxuries?

    My psychotherapy and psychiatric medications  are paid for by the same socialized health care that paid for my dialysis, my kidney transplant, and that now pays for my anti-rejection medications. Are those luxuries?

    And “Kiddo” someone whose psychotherapy is not the reason they are still alive.

  • etv13

    Arguing about what is or is not a “luxury” is kind of like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  At one extreme,yes, there are things we can all agree are luxuries:  season tickets to the opera, private jets, etc.  But then we have Liira saying a dinner cooked by someone else is a luxury.  Hiking boots are a luxury.  By that definition, many forms of psychotherapy are a luxury. I say that as someone whose teenage daughter, absent the efforts of both a psyychologist and a psychiatrist, was completely unable to get through a day of school.   And for some people, who can’t get by putting their long hair in a bun, as I do, but need to have their hair off their collars and not looking amateurishly chopped off for a job interview, professional haircuts aren’t a luxury either.

  •  Without psychotherapy, I would be dead. So would my sister.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Wow. Jewelry is certainly a luxury, but to say that the only thing people get from wearing jewelry is the satisfaction of flaunting wealth is incredibly  narrow-minded and, like all narrow-minded things, completely wrong. Jewelry is pretty. People like to wear pretty things. I like to wear pretty things. And that’s not even taking into account liking to wear something that has sentimental value, or that you’re proud of creating, or that you think makes you look nice, or that even shows your religious or political affiliation, which a lot of jewelry does.

    Yet, an education or professionally cooked food are intolerable frivoloties.

    The earth has a sustainable population with minimal technological usage. That population is not seven billion.

    A non-moron would note the first part of the sentence.

    Divide it by 7 billion.  It works out, roughly, to 10,000 per capita.   Do you make more that 10 grand?  I make sandwiches at a sub shop, and I make more than 10 grand a year. On a global scale, every person that makes 10,030 is taking 30 bucks a year away from someone, somewhere else.  Because there’s only 63 trillion to go around in the first place.  

    You’re making the assumption that that 63 trillion is an absolute.  It isn’t.  It can be increased by efficiency and increased production.

    Producing…what, exactly?  If you mechanized sewing shoes, then the shoe-sewers go to college and….what?  The US is currently a service economy- we shuffle papers to make orders for stuff made in other countries.  Everyone can’t be a service economy.  Nor can everyone be an artist, or a scientist, or a doctor.

    Not necessarily college as technical school.  They then go to work producing… goods for the other 85% of the world that currently can’t afford anything but the 15%’s scraps.  Alternatively, they… do nothing (well, not ‘nothing’ but no formal job…).  Because your productivity has now reached a level best summarized as ‘lol’, and when you reach the point at which ‘you can afford to provide the whole world with goods using a small percentage of the world’s labor pool, the correct answer is ‘Leisure Society Party Time!’ not ‘FUCK THE BROWN PEOPLE’.  If you’re that worried people will become lazy and slovenly, you can have everyone work in shifts – say, Group A takes over working for 3 months, then they can faff off to do whatever it is they’re going to do while Group B takes their turn…

    Have you even read Vonnegut’s ‘Player Piano’?

    Because Kurt Vonnegut is omniscient, and his opinions on society should be taken as gospel.  Also, there is no such thing as artistic or intellectual jobs that you really can’t replace with a computer, without that computer also qualifying as a citizen… and it’s not like anyone actually likes doing work…

    Besides, we already know from Star Trek that involuntary work has been eliminated in the future, and we all act out solely out of desire for self-improvement.  (And green skined babes?)