The Sustainability Shoe Dilemma

A beautiful pair of sandals caught my eyes. The beading design on top in red, white, and black reminded me of an African motif I had seen on Nat Geo years ago. The flat shoe had an elegant zipper in the back, adding it a touch of modern and chic. I decided to try them on.

The box was rather interesting; it looked like a beige paper-wrapped package that arrived from Kenya, with embossed fake postage, stamped, Nairobi. The sender’s address in the upper left hand corner was the information that it contained a pair of sandals shipped from Kenya via Spain. A brown map of the world showed the red route that the “authentic Maasai design” sandals had traveled to make it into this beige box.

Touting that “another world is possible,” these intricate sandals were “ornamented in Kenya” and made in Spain. The box also told me that each sandal was “embroidered by a Maasai woman from Kenya in the shade of an acacia tree.”

“Each bead, which reflects the essence Maasai culture tradition and craft skills, has been placed with the spirit of hope and enthusiasm for a prosperous, sustainable future. Thank you for supporting this initiative.” Didn’t Native Americans use beading as well?

I became intrigued when I saw the word “sustainable.” The price seemed rather steep, $200, but they were very comfortable and flexible. I ordered a pair in my favorite design color, teal, and waited.

When my box arrived, I opened the package with anticipation and was instantly disappointed when the content revealed a different pair with the exquisite beaded design of the American flag. I love and respect our flag. I believe that it is sacrilegious to wear the flag on your feet. The flag is made to be flown and draped over the caskets of heroes, not to be used as a door mat, bathing suit, swim trunks, or shoe ornaments.

But I found a glossy inside talking about the story of this brand. This was no ordinary shoe. It was a project developed by the non-governmental organization (NGO) called ADCAM (Association for Development, Alternative Trade and Microcredit) which “specializes in empowering women in developing countries and focuses on establishing stable trade channels with developed nations.”

I was getting warm and fuzzy when the brochure said that when we, the often maligned and “greedy” capitalists, buy these expensive shoes, we are supporting the NGOs vision of “Corporate Social Responsibility,” collaborating with communities that need corporate social responsibility most, and we are pioneering the NGOs quest for developing fair trade.

Here I was, supporting the initiative of integrating United Nation’s desire of Sustainability with comfortable shoes and fashionable bags. Bingo! The Maasai preserved their traditions and lifestyles and I got the light and color of Africa for $200. How clever!

The brochure said, “The Maasai tribe is one of the most threatened on the planet according to the UN” and the international sales revenue from the shoes and bags “pays fair wages to support 1,600 families with stable source of income that allows them to obtain basic needs items such as food and medicines.”

If the 1,600 women received income from just nine pairs of sandals, it is $1,800, exceeding Kenya’s per capita income of $1,700 a year. According to the International Monetary Fund, Kenya is at number 154 out of 183 countries in per capita income. By now, if the shoes sold well, the Maasai families in the project and their tribe should be quite well off. They kept accounting and orders straight even though they do not have computers or technological literacy.

There is even an Ambassador of the Maasai Project for the 2013 collection, who apparently visited the women in Kenya and Tanzania who make the beading by hand. “The women shared with Olivia, their hopes and dreams for taking this project forward in a sustainable way and for making the beautiful sandals and bags available throughout the world.”

I am not sure how the project is moved forward in a sustainable way, but I wondered how much these women were paid in fair wages, what is their definition of a fair wage, and why is the Maasai tribe the most endangered in the world.

According to one site, eco-tourism prompted big government to create parks and reserves without the input and consent of the indigenous people.

The Maasai and other pastoral groups squeezed off their lands created their own NGOs in order to go to court to defend their land rights. Isn’t the government ultimately responsible for the social welfare of their people? Why do United Nations and NGOs step in to demand social responsibility from corporations and citizens of other countries?

The dilemma is that part of me applauds the idea of helping employ women in dire living conditions and poverty, but part of me is repulsed by the “sustainable eco-chic” label, the NGOs demanding social responsibility, the United Nations forcing Agenda 21 policies on developed countries, and, most of all, by the blatant disrespect for the American flag.

How much of the profit is actually shared with the Maasai women who do such tedious and labor intensive bead work? One magazine claims that “all profits from the sales of the Maasai Project are put towards the creation and further development of these community projects that support the Maasai Mara National Reserve in both Kenya and Tanzania.”

Ultimately, I venture to say, the women’s lives in Kenya will probably be less enriched than the coffers of the NGO and the Spanish brand that sells the sandals world-wide.

It is glitz, glamor, and greed, carefully packaged in the brochure with tug-at-your-heart strings propaganda. A quote from Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, appears at the end of the glossy. “Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.” What does this have to do with selling expensive sandals? Regretfully, I returned the shoes.

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