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The Clothing Season: The shoes that God gave me

October 25, 2011

It’s safe to say that I’m not really a shoe person. I went barefoot for enough of my African childhood to feel more at home with a breeze between my toes. Living where I do now, barefoot is not really an option, but I’m fussy about my footwear. Once I find a pair of comfortable shoes, I’m loathe to give them up. But they keep changing the fashions, and generally speaking you can’t just walk into a shop and say ‘same again please’.

Consequently, and to the consternation of my wife, I tend to wear my shoes into the ground. Literally, this time around – you could see daylight through the heel of my trainers. When I found myself walking on tiptoes on rainy days, I knew it was time for them to go.

I could have just gone to the shoe shop and bought something, but I’ve read too many reports on sweatshop labour. I know what goes on in the factories where trainers are made, the low wages and the long hours. There is no fair-trade mark for shoes, but I wanted an ethical pair of trainers.

To complicate matters further, I had just read a report on waste that mentioned that the sole of a discarded trainer will take a thousand years to decompose. That’s our best guess. They weren’t wearing sneakers during the Norman Conquest, so we don’t have a thousand year old trainer to test the theory. Either way, I have a large enough pile of shoes to outlive me already, festering on in landfill long after I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. So I looked into shoes that were both biodegradeable and ethically made.

It rather narrows your options. In fact, it narrowed it down to about three: 1) Eco-shoes with embedded sole-eating microbes that activate under the specific conditions of a compost heap. 2) Limited edition fluorescent hi-tops that should only really be worn in North London by people who wear sunglasses indoors.  Or 3) Felt clogs with cork soles, hand-stitched by a 300 year old man in Austria.

To find any of these, I would need to venture to the shoe-shopping Mecca of Covent Garden, to the one shop that accommodates this particular combination of niches. This I did, one evening after work, and needless to say, there was nothing within my price range.

I could given up at this point, but you know what it’s like when you’ve looked into something? When you’ve lifted the rock of some aspect of consumer culture and seen the wriggling underside? You can’t really carry on and pretend you didn’t see. It’s hard to explain, but I’m sure you know the feeling. It had become matter of discipleship. So on my way home on the train, I made a deal with God. It went a little something like this:

“I know that sweatshop labour makes you angry –me too. And littering your planet with worn out shoes doesn’t strike me as good Christian stewardship. I cannot afford to do the right thing that both you and I want me to do. But I also believe that I’m your son and you don’t want to see your child going barefoot. Not in Luton. So this is pretty much your problem – you will need to find me some shoes.”

I left it at that, and carried on wearing my worn out shoes, the hole in the bottom slowly getting worse. Several weeks went by. Then one day as I was walking around the office the whole sole of my right trainer finally gave up the ghost and parted company from the rest of the shoe. I kind of hopped around for the rest of the day, and in the process decided that this was a sign – my new shoes must be ready, and I should go and pick them up.

After work, shoe held together with a strategically placed paperclip and walking in a somewhat lopsided fashion, I went back to the shop in Covent Garden. At the back there was one shelf of sale items. On the shelf was one pair of biodegradeable, ethical shoes, half price. It had a little label attached, reading “last pair, US size 11”. That was my size, and those were my shoes. I was delighted, and not at all surprised.

I bought them of course, and I wear them with great satisfaction, because they’re the shoes that God gave me.

Now, I hesitate to recommend appointing God as one’s personal shopper, and I’m not trying to set a new standard in shoe buying either – buying your favourite brand and writing to them to suggest they upgrade their ethics is probably more useful than boycotting them altogether. I probably won’t even attempt to repeat the exercise myself. I share the story simply to celebrate the fact that every once in a while, like Peter catching the fish with his tax money in it, God aligns the world just right for one of his children.

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