A new pair of running shoes has come into my life. I phrase it like this, instead of “I bought a new pair of shoes,” because, as I am beginning to see, the shoes had a history before they came to me, and they’ll have a history after they leave my hands (my feet, that is.)
I had considered giving up running because of the ethical implications of buying shoes made in China in a Nike or Adidas factory by labourers doing repetitive motions all day long. However, I kept buying new shoes, at the rate of one pair a year, because I love to run and walk.
Being informed about the source of the goods I buy reminds me that I am implicated and I have a responsibility to dispose of the waste I create in an ethical fashion.
The staff member who helped me choose a new pair of shoes had actually traveled to China himself and had visited one of the shoe factories. He mimed for me the motion of one of the workers responsible for the stitching on the tongue of the shoe.
To sit all day long, surrounded by the cacophony of machines, swinging a shoe off a belt and passing it under the needle of the stitcher, is beyond my imagining. Yet I know factories and factory workers produce most of the goods I use and wear.
What happens to all this stuff? My well-informed shoe salesman told me how one shoe company has designed (but not patented) a kind of foam that is bio-degradable, and will only take forty years to break down in the land-fill, whereas most running shoes take a thousand years to decompose.
I had never thought of what happened to my shoes, those I have consigned to the garbage, and those I have given to thrift stores because they were still usable.
Eventually, all the shoes I have worn over the years have ended up in one landfill or another. Thirty years of running makes thirty pairs of shoes, at least. All of them are still in the process of breaking down and returning to the earth.
Giving shoes to children and adults in developing countries can certainly alleviate some guilt at over-consumption of the earth’s resources, but again, the full implications of this kind of gift are often not considered. My shoe salesman described how in one case, a visitor to a village in Africa measured the feet of all the school-children, sent the information to a store that was collecting used shoes and was able to match every child and adult with a pair of shoes. What usually happens, however, when a well-meaning gift of used shoes arrives in a village, is competition, even fighting, over who will get the much-desired footwear.
This afternoon I am going back to the shoe-store to take in my old running shoes, which I’ve been running on for a year, but which are still good for walking. I already have a pair of walking shoes (running shoes from the year before) and I don’t have room for any extra. My shoes will go to a homeless person. This, of course, helps me feel better about my running habit, but it still begs the question about the anonymity of all these exchanges, mediated as they are by large companies and the whole culture of consumption. In the Buddhist tradition, there is said to be great merit in giving a gift directly to the recipient, something we in the West tend to reserve for gifts to family members and friends. But what if I shifted my view of ownership, and the power I presume that gives me to bestow gifts on others? If I could see the objects (and resources) that come into my life as mine only temporarily, then perhaps it would become easier and more natural to pass them along.