Seven billion pairs of shoes a year, and counting

The Chinese footwear industry: One more data point on the path to environmental destruction.

Published January 30, 2007 6:18PM (EST)

Another day, another mind-boggling statistic from China. In an article detailing the environmental devastation that economic growth has wrought upon China, the authors mention in passing that "The country manufactures seven billion pairs of shoes a year, more than the world can wear at one time."

The most recent support for this statistic I could find was a Xinhua news story reporting that China's exports of shoes in the first 11 months of 2006 totaled 6.97 billion, which was actually a decline from 2005 (due to European anti-dumping measures). And that's just exports, which would apparently not include the shoes manufactured for domestic consumption.

If we all exhibited the footware fetishism that Imelda Marcos is reputed to have wallowed in, there would clearly be a market for all those shoes and more. And hey, there are nine pairs of shoes in my own closet, so the "more than the world can wear at one time" phraseology is a little misleading.

But still, 7 billion pairs of shoes a year, from one country? It seems excessive.

China Digital Times provided the link to the two-part article, which was written by two Chinese environmentalists, Gaoming Jiang and Jixi Gao, and comes courtesy of a Web site called China Dialogue, which should be an immediate addition to the blogroll of anyone who wants to keep an eye on Chinese environmental issues. Founded by Scottish journalist Isabel Hilton and headquartered in London, with an additional office in Beijing, China Dialogue features articles that make for hard reading -- eyewitness accounts of environmental carnage that beggar description. In the West, some wonder whether it is fair to hold developing nations to the environmental standards of the developed world. As the Malaysian palm oil industry defensively pointed out last year, it takes some gall for the U.K. to criticize Malaysians for cutting down trees, long after chopping down nearly all of their own forest cover (thanks to the Oil Drum for the link). But as the articles at China Dialogue demonstrate, the question in China is not whether it should aspire to current Western standards, but whether the country can survive its own industrial expansion, period.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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