Shoe Production

Shoes are extremely complex products, formed by dozens of different parts and using a variety of materials, ranging from leather and textiles, to metal components, stilettos and buckles. They also come in a range of shapes and sizes to suit consumer tastes and meet the need for a perfect fit. All of this means that footwear production has never been as standardized and mechanized as that for other consumer goods, including garment manufacturing.

When entering a footwear factory today, one is amazed by the number of people employed;
by the relatively simplicity of the machines and tools they use; and by the great care taken
in the sourcing and cutting of the leather, in the making of heels and soles, in the process
of lasting (through which the upper is given a three-dimensional shape), the closing
of upper and sole, the meticulous addition of accessories such as buckles, tassels and
inserts, the polishing, control checks and the eventual packing of finished shoes into boxes.

Today, shoes – a bit like cars – are designed with computer-aided systems by specialist
designers, who test materials and produce prototypes. Both designing and production
are carried out in busy but immaculately clean environments, compared to the standards
of many other sectors of mass production.

The footwear industry is a multibillion-dollar business and an important
part of the global fashion system. Over the past 50 years, production has moved from Europe and
North America to areas with lower labour costs. In the 1950s and ’60s Japan was such an area,
and in the 1960s and ’70s, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Production then boomed in South Korea,
Indonesia and Thailand. In the 1980s, Taiwan and South Korea accounted for nearly half
of the world’s footwear production. Yet, by the mid-1990s, their share of global footwear
production had fallen to just 7 per cent, as a result of the liberalization of the Chinese
economy and a general restructuring of footwear manufacture. Whereas, in 1986, China produced just 8 per cent of the world’s footwear, today it is estimated that six out of ten
pairs of shoes in the world are made there. These changes have had profound consequences for Europe. In 2008, consumers in the UK bought 331 million pairs of shoes
for a total value of €7.9 billion, spending, on average, €129 per person; 50 per cent of all shoes bought were women’s wear 31 per cent men’s and 19 per cent children’s.
Only 11 million pairs (just over 3 per cent of the total) were produced in the United
Kingdom. The once-glorious British footwear industry today employs just 3,500 workers in 121 companies, with an annual turnover of as little as €217 million.14 In 2010, it was estimated that the global footwear industry produced more than 12 billion pairs of shoes for a total value.

Only 5 per cent of shoes are produced in Europe; the rest are produced in North Asia (60 per cent), India and Central Asia (10 per cent), South-East Asia (13 per cent) and North and South America (9 per cent). Today, more than ever, the shoe industry has become globalized, not just because of shifts in the production, commerce and consumption of footwear, but also thanks to worldwide marketing campaigns by major sports brands.