Ethical Isn’t Always Best: The Case of the $15 Boots

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Ethical Isn’t Always Best

Three years ago, I had just discovered that I likely had Raynaud’s Syndrome, a chronic issue that affects circulation in the hands and feet, particularly in cold weather.

My boots were all too small to comfortably fit thick wool socks, so I embarked on that now familiar, ultimately futile quest to find the perfect pair of ethically sourced black combat boots with a large enough toe box to encourage proper circulation.

I searched high and low on the ethical market, and even stalked Ebay and Thredup for secondhand versions. But I had absolutely no luck (At the time, I could not have justified a $200 or $300 shoe purchase, so that limited my options).

Finally, I stopped into a Ross and found a pair of faux leather, Steve Madden boots. They were the last pair remaining and the only style that even remotely met my specifications. And, they were $14.99. Desperate from searching for several months with no luck, I slapped down my credit card and took them home.

Ethical is Relative Sometimes

Now, these boots didn’t appear to meet ANY of my ethical shopping standards. Fair trade? Nope. Eco-friendly? Nope. Timeless? Nope. High quality? Meh. 

But despite those early misgivings, these boots have lasted in my closet like no other pair of boots I’ve owned before.

The toe box is perfectly roomy without looking clunky. The quilting on the sides makes them feel special. They’re surprisingly comfortable, and have molded to my feet over time. And the fake, non-permeable leather means they hold up really well in rough weather, like rain and snow. If I’m traveling during a mild or cold season, they’re the only pair of shoes I need.

As much as I’d like to make this experience fit the narrative that ethical is always, unequivocally “better,” that just wouldn’t be honest. 

Intention Matters

What I’ve learned from wearing and loving my cheap pleather boots is that intention matters just as much as the final purchase. I did my work to find something better, but ultimately it was the cheap pair that did the trick. I’ve worn them consistently for over three years and they’re holding up really well. And, perhaps more importantly, I actually want to wear them. They feel like me.

If I were only concerned with labor standards, it would be hard to justify even an occasional “unethical” purchase. But the fact of the matter is that fast fashion culture does more than lead to human exploitation: its emphasis on more is more overburdens our resources, contributing to deforestation, water pollution, and climate change. There’s something to be said for buying things we actually like and making them last instead of restricting and further restricting our shopping options to the point of burnout.

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Buying Less Is Ethical

If I buy better but I’m still constantly buying, what am I hoping will happen? 

Because, sure, I want companies like H&M – or Steve Madden – to convert to ethical labor standards, but without reducing total production, this is only a short term fix. Not to mention that any attempts I make to buy better will feel utterly meaningless if I don’t like what I bought. I’ve always understood that buying fewer things is a sustainable option, but I’m beginning to think that it’s the option I should really be prioritizing above all else.

I’m also learning that things that look like mistakes can be reconciled when we understand that the end game is a total transformation of a multi-faceted web of issues in the fashion industry, not just a quick rebranding.

I’m not suggesting that we should all give up on finding the best alternatives. In fact, I wouldn’t be likely to buy this pair of boots today, simply because I’ve cultivated a habit of looking for fabrics and production standards that better respect people and planet.

But I don’t think it’s worth being embarrassed about. Shame plays a limited role in positive change. Instead, I will choose to celebrate the way these boots have served me, and the way they make me feel.

woman in a trench coat and black boots sitting on dirt ground - Ethical Isn't Always Best
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The problem of fast fashion is a problem of undervaluing what we have. The antidote is gratefulness. So I am grateful for the people who made this and other things I own, whether they work in a sweatshop or at a well regulated factory. Change must come, but never at the cost of forgetting that.

Update 3/26/18: Sadly, my beloved boots bit the dust a couple days ago when I realized that both soles were coming unglued and the faux leather had torn at the pressure points near the sole damage. I will be seeking out a much higher quality pair for the next cold season.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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