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The question

I can find fair-trade coffee and organic cotton T-shirts, but I'm having trouble finding ethical shoes. Where do I look?

The answer

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The quest for the perfect ethical purchase can make even the hardest-core of activists go bananas (organic, fair-trade bananas, of course).

Step one for any socially conscious buyer is to know your ethical priorities. Are you eager to avoid products made in abusive working conditions for sweatshop wages? Is the environmental impact of an item's materials, production and transport your major concern? What about the animals that are harmed (or not) in the making of your wardrobe? Is it important for a company to give back to the community?

These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves every time we see our socks through the soles of our shoes and have to hit the shoe store circuit. Luckily, the number of socially conscious shoe stores is growing across Canada, such as Montreal's Arterie Boutique and Vancouver's new Nice Shoes.

Just as each person's taste in shoe aesthetics is different, so is our taste in shoe ethics. Both of us try out different ethical brands – some fair-trade, some eco, some vegan – to "vote" with our dollars for as many socially conscious companies as we can. After all, the perfect ethical shoe may as yet be elusive, but we can all support those who are trying to get there by making more ethical shoes.

The best-known fair-trade shoe is Adbusters' Blackspot skate sneaker, made in a sweat-free factory in Pakistan and sold online only. Canada's Oliberté Shoes manufactures its wide selection of very cool fair-trade footwear in several African countries, from locally sourced leather, and they retail at 50 stores across Canada. Two online British brands have huge ranges of cruelty-free, fashionable footwear made in European factories: Vegetarian Shoes operates in England's oldest co-operative factory, and Beyond Skin even has a bridal line.

Herein lies your first dilemma in making an ethical shoe choice: Do you go with supporting rare living-wage jobs in poor countries where they are most needed, or workers in the Western world where labour standards are higher? Or do you consider the carbon footprint of your footwear travelling farther to get to you than you'll travel while wearing them?

There are a number of great made-in-Canada brands that are widely available, including Cottage hikers, Kamik boots, Mellow Walk casual safety boots and Montreal's La Canadienne for every women's style imaginable.

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If you're a runner, New Balance has a number of models made in their five New England factories – but be sure they say "Made in USA" (without the caveat "from domestic and imported materials," which means that less than 70 per cent of the shoe's value is made by North American workers).

On the environmental side, a number of sportswear giants are experimenting with high-performance "green" shoes using vegetable-based inks, recycled materials and low-toxicity adhesion. Nike will even take back your hole-filled sneakers and grind them up into material for their green shoes or basketball court flooring. And you can buy Simple Shoes made from recycled tires and carpet padding, organic cotton and hemp, or eco-certified leather and suede.

Then there are the shoe companies who give back. For each pair of TOMS shoes you buy, TOMS donates a pair of shoes to a child in need overseas, and some of the sportswear giants have charitable foundations focused on human rights or girls' empowerment. These are laudable initiatives, but wouldn't it be better to pay the workers who make the shoes more instead of putting that money elsewhere?

Remember, too, that the social impact of your shoes doesn't end when you leave the store. Get the most life out of your footwear by bringing them to the local cobbler. And once you're done with them, donate them to the local thrift store or a shoe drive like the one organized by Canadian footwear retailer Ron White, who has distributed more than 21,000 shoes and boots to the homeless and others in need.



Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter.

Send questions to livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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Editor's note: Readers were directed to look for ethically sourced shoes at Toronto's Green is Black in the original version of this article but it is no longer in operation.

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