Payless Introduces Eco-Friendly Shoes

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One of the country's biggest shoe companies is trying to bring eco-friendly fashion to the feet of the masses. Payless ShoeSource introduced its first line of "green" footwear this week.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In this country, one of the country's biggest shoe firms is trying to bring eco-friendly fashion to a foot near you. Payless rolled out its first line of green footwear this week. And NPR's Asma Khalid has this report.

Unidentified Saleswoman: That looks great on your feet. And we have the (unintelligible) half off.

Unidentified Woman #1: (unintelligible) another (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #2: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #3: That's the one I tried on.

ASMA KHALID: At a Payless store in Washington, D.C., a saleswoman is coaxing Robin Seals into buying a pair of ballet flats.

Ms. ROBIN SEALS (Customer): I like the pink ones better, though, I think. But this one fits better.

Unidentified Woman #4: But you want the comfort, you want the good look in the charcoal, you know the brown-gold, comfort baby.

KHALID: The flats don't look different than the other shoes in the store, but they are. These pink shoes are actually green, meaning they're made of organic cotton, recycled rubber and natural dyes. They're part of the company's new line of eco-friendly shoes.

Ms. SEALS: The look is definitely cute, and I love this color. And it's very comfortable.

KHALID: Seals doesn't have any environmental agenda. She didn't even know these shoes were eco-friendly until she was told.

Ms. SEALS: For some reason, I have in my mind that dyes and certain color dyes and things like that are less environmentally friendly in terms of like, when I see the muted colors that to me, says that it might be along those lines.

KHALID: In a way, Payless is trying to do what it's always done: making money by taking expensive shoe fashions and making cheaper versions of them. And until now, eco-friendly shoes have been quite pricey. Here's Matt Rubel. He is CEO of Payless's parent company, Collective Brands.

Mr. MATT RUBEL (CEO, Collective Brands): We're not the first person to think of doing eco-friendly fashion or footwear, but we are the first people to democratize it, and to make sure that it's not really not something that's also frumpy or just done in kind of a granola-like manner.

KHALID: But part of the reason Payless can afford to sell its shoes so cheaply is because the shoes are mass-manufactured in China. That makes Anna Griffin wary. She is editor-in-chief of a green fashion magazine.

Ms. ANNA GRIFFIN (Coco Eco): Where are the shoes being made, firstly, and by whom and under what conditions? I think, you know, at certain points, you could absolutely go in and break that down and you could come up with an answer that's like, actually, yes, it's eco-friendly product, but actually is it a fully sustainable shoe line? Possibly not.

KHALID: And here's another concern. Avital Binshtock of the Sierra Club says the company's plan to roll out new, eco-friendly styles every season defeats some of the purpose.

Ms. AVITAL BINSHTOCK (Sierra Club): The greenest fashion is just wearing out what you have, and not having that mentality that you always have to buy new things, that, you know, you always have to throw away things at the first sign of wear.

Unidentified Woman #5: That's great news. That's great news. All right.

Ms. SEALS: Thank you very much.

Unidentified Woman #5: All right, sweetie.

Ms. SEALS: Bye.

KHALID: In the end, Robin Seals buys the ballet flats, though primarily for the style. But she adds…

Ms. SEALS: If it was virtually the same shoe, I would definitely go with the green shoe.

KHALID: That's the kind of thinking that gives environmentalists hope. They figure most people won't actively change their buying choices to benefit the environment. But when offered two, equal choices, they'll opt for the greener one. They also know Payless is the largest family footwear retailer in the country. It has more than 4,000 stores across North America. So if its eco shoe line takes off, that alone could leave a large footprint on the industry.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

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