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The Inconvenient Truth About Running Shoes – People Suffer So We Can Excercise

The inconvenient truth about our running shoes is that they are manufactured in sweatshops. What are we going to do about it?

I used to wear Nike shoes and it was because I found more comfort in ASICS that I became loyal to that brand. I have always liked Nike and love its marketing campaign. But then I became aware of stories surrounding human rights violations and was happy I was not supporting the company anymore.

Sadly however, Nike is not the only shoemaker to make news about their labor practices. According to Oxfam Australia, workers producing some of our favorite shoe brands, including Nike, FILA, Adidas, Puma, New Balance and ASICS work in abysmal and dangerous working conditions.  Many workers face low wages, long hours, verbal abuse, and denial of trade union rights.  Worse, it has been reported that there are high levels of sexual harassment and other abuses toward women.

In the 1970s, Nike, ASICS, and others manufactured a lot of their shoes in South Korea. According to the web site,, Nike and the other manufacturers “paid workers very low wages, set up sweatshops with horrible working conditions and counted on the South Korean government to suppress any protests by the workers. Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Nike and its subcontractors began shutting down factories in South Korean and moved to China, Indonesia, and Thailand. Here they could pay women workers even less. And other athletic shoe companies also now have factories in these countries.”

While the Oxfam reports of human rights issues are current only to 2006, the Green Guide featured an optimistic article this year on the environmental impact of running shoes but did not report any improvements on the sweatshop front. While ASICS and Reebok have removed toxic chemicals such as PVC plastic and other harmful substances from their entire range of footwear there was no real proof that ASICS, or any company has really done anything to improve conditions at shoe manufacturing plants in Asia or anywhere else in the world.

I became slightly more encouraged that there was progress on human rights violations at ASICS after visiting the Business & Human Rights Resource Center web site,, a site that tracks the positive and negative impacts of over 4000 companies worldwide.  On their site, they quote Oxfam, who reported that “Reebok has done the most to uphold sportswear workers’ rights in Asia while other big brands such as Nike, Adidas, Puma and ASICS had made some improvements.”

Still desperate to find some positive news about my running shoe, I visited the Responsible Shopper profile for ASICS on Co-op America’s web site. I learned that ASICS is indeed guilty of human rights violations and issues of sexual harassment for women but maybe not in all of its manufacturing sites.  ASICS, a Japanese brand, also has a profile on the Clean Clothes Campaign’s web site. ASICS has its shoes made in a slew of other countries, including China and Mexico. The company became a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) a non-profit organization dedicated to ending sweatshop conditions in factories worldwide and building innovative and sustainable solutions to abusive labor conditions.

According to a FLA monitoring report prepared in 2007, ASICS’ Mexican facility has made some very positive changes. As part of the terms of employment issues of sexual harrassment, health and safety, and discrimination are addressed.  Also, children under 15 cannot be employed there.  At least in this facility, legal benefits are paid, employees earn the minimum wage, and while the company is looking into the issues of forced overtime, employees are paid for that overtime (if I am reading the report correctly).

Making a Difference

There is a lot going on around the world right now, but while devastating acts of nature are causing a lot of mayhem and dispair, there are people who have been literally slaving over making our shoes.  Who are we to wear the clothing made by the hands of others and not think about what their lives must be like?  At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to understand that the person making our sneakers may not make enough to feed her children.

So what do we do?  We educate ourselves and write our shoe companies. Maybe we start organizing races to raise money for the organizations who are fighting human rights violations around the globe.  This has given running a new meaning for me.  How dare I take those shoes for granted.

Run Strong, Stay Involved.



17 thoughts on “The Inconvenient Truth About Running Shoes – People Suffer So We Can Excercise

  1. Thanks for this post – I came across it when I googled “asics shoes labor”. Every time I get to buying new clothes or running shoes it’s the same quandary – I’d much rather buy shoes from from manufacturers that pay a living wage and enforce high labor standards, than line the pockets of people who exploit workers in such hideous ways. Not to mention the environmental impacts. You’ve encouraged me to write to these companies. Keep up the good blogging!

    Posted by Ann | July 27, 2008, 3:27 pm
  2. What Brands would be a good choice to buy if I did not want to buy from a company that expoits its’ workers

    Posted by Ryan Mlynski | December 6, 2008, 4:00 am
  3. Ryan, look at the links.

    The Green Guide is listed above. No running shoes per se. But the brands listed are all the brands I can think of:

    “…including Nike, FILA, adidas, Puma, New Balance and ASICS…”

    Posted by cassie | June 6, 2009, 6:00 pm
  4. Thank you for this detailed post. I’ve been looking for a while, and this is the most comprehensive resource relevant to shoe-shoppers with ethical concerns that I’ve found so far! Good work! 🙂

    Posted by Cai | July 29, 2009, 10:06 am
  5. Thanks for this post. I just wish it was better news for ASICS

    Posted by Jo | October 12, 2009, 1:33 am
  6. I just came across your site, because I love asics AND new balance and am sad to hear that they have had labor issues in the past.. this is the most recent news I can find, but you never know when it’s the company’s statements. the FLA sounds good, but it’s actually kind of a front, the members of the board are all people who work for companies that they are supposed to be watching.

    Posted by allie | March 2, 2010, 2:53 am
  7. I was not overly impressed with the posting.

    Although the author brings to light the suffering of the people making our shoes, I don’t think the end of the article is appropriate. Surely, if these people are slaving over our running shoes, then we owe it to them to boycott ALL the brands who have unethical labour practices. If that means that no running shoes can be worn, then so be it. Run bare foot or go swimming.

    Posted by Tom | May 17, 2010, 11:36 pm
    • Hi Tom:

      Thank you for your comments. Now this is what I want to see. I am glad that my article stimulated such a comment; for you are right. We are all hypocrites and probably should not be wearing shoes at all ever. I found another blog out in WordPress whose philosophy was that we should be grateful for child labor so that we have cheap shoes. I of course, had to step away from the computer and count to ten. I decided not to comment on that one!

      Certainly, my goal here was not to impress but to inform. But I truly appreciate your comments.

      Thanks again!


      Posted by tighthams | May 18, 2010, 12:11 pm
  8. I had no idea that Ascics had aspurgions cast against them over how their business was run? Perhaps there is a gap in the market for ethically designed shoes – dare i say it – shoes that are made in the West?

    Posted by running-shoes | June 11, 2010, 2:32 pm
  9. Hello, I am trying to buy running shoes to complete a half marathon. What shoe company has made the most major improvements in their working conditions?

    Or is my pursuit futile, since ALL shoes companies use sweatshops.

    Posted by Shakera Ali | December 11, 2011, 9:13 pm
  10. Thanks for the article, I had been buying ASICS/Onitsuka shoes for the past couple of years under the impression that they had better ethical practices to the other large trainer manufacturers. I currently boycott the majority of them and have slowly shut myself out of most of the market. I’d love to know of a single reliable company – my main concern is the labour practices. It’s phenomenal how few people seem to care about what is basically slavery.

    Posted by Zinc | January 4, 2012, 6:12 pm
  11. Old article but if it helps anyone, New Balance has a factory in the UK, so some of their shoes are made in the UK – so not in sweatshops. I have a pair, and actually they have lasted years – very good quality. And no, i do not work for New Balance, just a consumer who wants to be more ethical in a market that rarely allows it…

    Posted by AC | May 30, 2012, 12:14 pm
  12. Worker exploitation is horrible

    Posted by Soph | June 17, 2012, 10:56 pm
  13. Lunge produces real good running shoes, all made in Germany:
    Not a big brand (yet), but some professional runners use them already. They are not “better” shoes than other, but 100% not made in Asia and no worker exploitation.

    Posted by James | August 20, 2012, 1:58 pm
  14. Really like your post, i also boycott companies who violate human rights. As consumers we have a lot of power to make these companies change their ways, but so many of us dont’ thnk past our own needs. I think some of htese athletes need to be more conscious of the companies they endorse also,but that would just be asking too much…

    Posted by KM | August 31, 2012, 8:59 pm


  1. Pingback: 2010 in review: Runner’s Illustrated is Moving Forward « Runners Illustrated Blog - January 3, 2011

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