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From Docs to Crocs: 5 indie alternatives to big fashion brands


Photos of 5 independent shoe brands on a purple to green gradient background

What do the world’s most popular footwear brands have in common?

They are beholden to big finance.

BlackRock and Vanguard are top shareholders in most popular shoe brands, from Nike to UGGs, Converse, Hoka, Sketchers, Crocs, and many more.

Other forms of big finance dominating the industry are private equity (Doc Martens, Toms), venture capital (AllbirdsThursday Boots), and billionaires (AdidasNikeNew BalanceAldoVans, TimberlandsSketchers).

Corporate Power On The Rise

This concentration of ownership is not an anomaly. It is seen across industries around the world.

It’s the result of businesses being designed to do one thing – perpetually increase profits for shareholders.

They do this by pursuing growth relentlessly.

And here’s the rub, the bigger a company grows, the greater the power imbalance between themselves and the rest of society.

This means big business has the power and incentive to: send jobs overseas, squeeze suppliers, withhold wages, bust unions, dodge taxes, co-opt standards, capture governments, sue governments, undermine small business, greenwash sustainability claims, dump waste in ‘faraway’ places, and more.

“As long as businesses are set up to focus exclusively on maximizing financial income for the few, our economy will be locked into endless growth and widening inequality… there is no amount of rhetoric or external regulation that can turn companies away from their existing mandate.”

– Marjorie Kelly

What it means for you?

As a customer, you are not immune to corporate power – product quality is indeed going down while prices go up.

Read on to see how profit seeking is undermining your favourite footwear brands. And discover independent small and medium sized businesses that you can support instead.


Solovair brand derby boot in greasy black leather that looks similar to Doc Martens
Solovair brand derby boot in burgundy guacho leather that looks similar to Doc Martens
What are Solovairs?

Solovairs [Sole-of-Air] look like Docs Martens apart from the yellow stitching. They’re arguably more like Docs than Docs themselves. That’s because Solovairs are made by the historic NPS Shoes Ltd. company; one of the original maker of DM’s 1460 boots up until 1994.

Today’s Solovairs are still made in the same factory on the same machines that made those original boots in Northhampton, England.

A photo of the inside of Solovair's UK factory

Photo credit: Ben Lloyd

What happened to Docs?

Doc Martens has taken a much different path sending production overseas in 2003 to cut costs after overextending itself. Then selling out to private-equity firm Permira in 2013 (a milestone notably missing from their “About Us” page). Permira, which owns many companies, including Golden Goose and Hugo Boss, boosted revenues by 600% in six years.

In 2021, they cashed in selling a chunk of the company on the stock market at a value 10 times more than they paid. A great deal for shareholders, but at whose expense?

Long time Doc Martens fans have certainly noticed the side effects of this profits first strategy. Prices have gone up while quality has gone down. See for yourself how they have changed here.

The affordable, no-nonsense boot that once was, has been captured by the forces it was used to rebel against. Or as one YouTube commenter put it:

A screenshot of a YouTube comment that says: "Nothing less punk than buying stuff from a company owned by a private equity firm."
Quality Compairson

There are many comparisons online between Docs and Solovair from a quality standpoint. In summary, Solovairs are more durable and comfortable over the long term. Here’s a breakdown starting with the soles.

Solovair soles harder wearing. Both brands attach the soles with a heat sealed good year welt. It can technically be resoled, but few cobblers have the equipment to do it. Solovairs have a felt cushioning that does not compress over time like the foam cushioning used in DMs. Solovairs also have a wood shank that provides arch support, preventing foot fatigue when wearing the boots for extended periods.

When it comes to the uppers, Solovair again uses stronger materials. Their leathers are thicker, mostly full grain, which means they will take longer to break in but will last longer. 

This comparison doesn’t account for DMs heritage made in England line, which is closer in quality to Solovair. But then you’ll be paying more for something that’s still not very punk.


Docs:

Solovair:

❌ Big business

✅ Medium-sized business

❌ Majority-owned by private-equity company Permira

✅ Independently owned by local businessman Ivor Tilley and family

❌ Permira also owns 95 other companies

✅ The Tilley’s also own Tilley’s Wines

❌ Mass producing 14 million Docs per year

✅ Modest production volume estimated at ~50,000 pairs per year*

❌ Weaker heat-sealed welt (select cobblers can resole)

✅ Stronger heat-sealed welt (select cobblers can resole)

❌ No replacement soles

Replacement soles available

✅ Longer-lasting material

❌ Limited supply-chain transparency, sourcing locations unknown

❌ 98% made in Asia since 2003

✅ 100% made in England since 1881

💲170-180 USD

💲 219 USD

*Estimate based on £9.4M in sales at an avg. price £180 per sale.

‘Greasy’ and ‘Guacho’ models are more durable:

Not all Solovairs are created equal. Like Docs’ “patent leather”, Solovair’s high-shine models are coated in a layer of plastic. They may look nice out of the box, but they will crack over time, they won’t breathe as well, and the leather is thinner. Plus, when your boots wear out, this plastic-leather fusion has no where to go but the trash.

For the most durable Solovairs, look for fullgrain leathers like the Greasy or Guacho models. Keep the leather conditioned and they will offer plenty of water resistance. They also do a better job of absorbing and hiding scuff marks. If you want shiny boots, find a shoe shiner or try your hand at the art of shining yourself.

Don’t count on resoling:

Docs and Solovairs both have PVC soles attached with a “heat-seal” welt (aka melted on with super hot blade). This construction method can be resoled, but it requires a special machine. Unless you’re in the UK it might be hard to find a cobbler to do it.

Size down: 

Solovair boots are unisex and run a bit large. You can expect to size down 1/2 to 1 full size. To ensure you get the right fit, they offer half sizes and different last shapes for wider feet. They recommend measuring your foot length at home to get a perfect fit. See their last guide here and their size guide here.


A handful of black, green, and red converse style canvas sneakers from the indie brand Etiko.
Converse Today

Converse Chuck Taylors are a classic that keeps getting more popular. But, similar to Docs they have fallen into the hands of big fashion and all that goes with it. In 2020, thousands of Nike Inc. (Nike, Jordan, Converse) factory workers suffered an estimated $28M in wage theft. Yet, the company’s billionaire family owners had an extra $74M to pay themselves through dividends and $1,146M in cash to spend on buying back Nike stock to enrich all shareholders.

Origins of the Iconic Chuck Taylor All Star

Before Converse became part of Nike inc., a behemoth extracting excess profits on the backs of a global workforce of 1 million people, it was the Converse Rubber Company. Founded in 1908, it started with tennis shoes, galoshes, and tires. It introduced the All Star line – one of the world’s first basketball shoes – in 1917 and became an American made success known for local manufacturing. Although it changed hands during the Great Depression, it remained independent for six decades.

An old 1920's ad for Converse's "Non-skid" model of basketball sneakers.
An old 1920's ad for Converse branded car tires.
Nike’s Track Record

Eventually, it was sold to the Eltra Corporation in 1972. Then in the wake of financial trouble in the 90s it sent production overseas in 2001. Soon after Nike took over. A company that already had a dismal track record on human rights and labour standards continued business as usual. In 2011, labour abuse and poverty wages of 50 cents an hour were reported at factories making Converse shoes in Indonesia. And more recently, Nike has been linked to Uyghur forced labour camps in China.

Yet Nike continues to expand production in regions with the weakest labour and environmental standards. They rely on false security of auditing which has proven to be largely ineffective in the face of cost-cutting pressure. They even refused to have independent labour rights experts assess their suppliers in 2017. And their willful ignorance continues today. In 2023, Nike’s shareholders voted against reviewing their supply chain due diligence.

A Fairtrade Alternative

If you want the classic look of Chucks without supporting big fashion’s practices or funnelling your money to billionaires, Etiko is a small indie brand with an answer. The Australian-based social enterprise was founded by Nick Savaidis in 2005 after he couldn’t find clothing free from child labour and underpaid workers. He’s been building an organic, Fairtrade, and fairly priced brand ever since.

A pair of white high top canvas sneakers featuring the logo of indie shoe brand Etiko.
A pair of black low cut canvas sneakers from the indie brand Etiko.
How Is Etiko Different?

Etiko’s supply chain is transparent, they know where their materials come from and have Fairtrade certified suppliers from the farm to factory. This means they protect workers’ rights and guarantee a minimum commodity price for their organic cotton. On top of that they pay a 15% premium to their makers in Pakistan and farmers in India. This matters, especially for farmers in India where poverty and debt has been driving an epidemic of farmer suicides for decades. Their rubber soles come from plantations in Sri Lanka, which have FSC-certification — one of the more trustworthy certifications for ensuring traceability and preventing deforestation.

Four Fair Trade farmers from India posing with an armful of organic cotton.

Converse:

Etiko:

❌ Multi-billion dollar subsidiary of Nike

✅ Small business

❌ Owned by billionaire Phil Knight & Family and big finance

✅ Owned by founder Nick Savaidis

❌ Nike averages $800 million in stock buybacks per year

✅ Not traded or speculated on the stock market

✅ Modest production of ~3,500 pairs per year

➖ Drop-off recycling by donation (only in some locations)

Take-back recycling program provides $10 credit (800+ pairs recycled to date)

✅ 100% GOTS certified organic cotton from India and FSC certified rubber from Sri Lanka

❌ Nike owes factory workers millions in unpaid wages

✅ Fairtrade certified supply chain

❌ Made mostly in Asia since 2001

✅ Made in Sialkot, Pakistan

💲 60-100 USD

💲 90 USD


Two people standing in a garden wearing the Jim Green Stockman boot, a Blundstone alternative.
Family-Owned Does Not Mean Small

Blundstone Group (Blundstone & John Bull) was founded by John Blundstone, a carriage maker, in 1870. During the Great Depression, Sir Harold Cuthbertson took over and it’s remained in his family since. The company still touts itself as “proudly family owned”, but it is far from your typical mom and pop.

The company has grown into a giant corporation, mass-producing millions of boots and shoes. Along the way it has taken the shape of any other large corporation adopting the profits first model. In the 90s it began switching from traditional boot construction to cheaper cemented construction that is not made to be resoled. And in 2007 it closed its 137-year-old Hobart Factory, sending Australian jobs to Vietnam where wages are low and factories have little oversight. Reviews are mixed on how offshoring has affected quality. It seems they are still durable, but not quite what they used to be.

A pair of Jim Green Stockman boots, in dark brown leather, that make a great alternative to Blundstones.
A pair of Jim Green Stockman boots, in tan leather, that make a great alternative to Blundstones.
A Bootmaker True To Its Roots

If you want an all-round slip-on boot that is more durable, more affordable, and true to its roots, try Jim Green’s rugged “Stockman” or their more urban “Outback” model. Founded in 1992 JGs have been made the same way since day one in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Their strong, long-lasting boots have earned a reputation for their “never say die” attitude and are used by Game Rangers in Africa.

JG is also committed to traditional craftsmanship and their local economy. This is especially important in South Africa where the economy is struggling with the highest unemployment rate in the world. JG does its part to fight unemployment by keeping manufacturing and sourcing local.


Blundstone:

Jim Green:

❌ Big business owned by the heirs of Sir Harold Cuthbertson

✅ Small family-owned and partially worker-owned business

❌  Channels profits into diversified investment portfolio

✅ Donates thousands of boots to African game rangers (1 for every 10 sold)

❌ Mass-producing 3 million pairs of boots per year

✅ Modest production of about 60,000 pairs per year

❌ Cemented construction (not made to be resoled)

✅ Double stitch down construction (easy to resole)

❌ Lower-grade “genuine leather” upper with partial fabric liner

✅ Quality full grain leather upper (2mm) and leather lined (1.6mm)

✅ Water resistant

✅ Water resistant

✅ Steel shank for arch support

✅ Steel shank for arch support

✅ Softer under foot

❌ Stiffer sole

✅ Steel toe options available

✅ Steel toe options available

❌ Private company with minimal public info on production standards

✅ Transparently shares behind the scenes on Jim Green Footwear YouTube channel

❌ Materials sourced from network of 300 suppliers around the world

✅ Materials sourced locally in South Africa (e.g. Leather from the historic Hart tannery)

✅ Made in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa since founding in 1992’

💲 209-229 USD

💲 159-169 USD


4. Instead of Uggs >> Try Wild Wool Australia or Vesica Piscis

A tri-coloured ugg boot from an independent Australian brand.

Classic Mini by Wild Wool Australia

A vegan ugg style boot with black upper and organic cotton fleece liner.

Jiddu by Vesica Piscis

The Little Known Origins of Ugg

The infamous UGG brand boots have become a global fad thanks to Oprah, Tom Brady, and other celebrity endorsement deals. However, it is a little known fact that “ugg” is not just a brand. It is the generic name for a utilitarian fleece-lined boot originating in Australia in the 1930s. The style was popularised by Aussie surfers in the 60s long before UGG became a brand. The brand most of us are familiar with is actually corporate America’s successful effort to privatise this piece of Australian heritage.

Privatising Australian Heritage

In 1995 mega corp., Decker Brands (UGG, Hoka, Teva, Sanuk), bought a US-based importer of Australian uggs. They started mass producing in China and trademarked the name “ugg” in 120 countries, while suing anyone selling boots labelled “ugg or “ug outside Australia, even genuine Australian makers. Today, Decker Brands continues to use its trademarks to monopolise the global market for ugg style boots.

A Yahoo! News headline: "US footwear giant to fight Aussie business for monopoly on sale of 'ugg' boots."
Genuine Australian Ugg Makers

Although 96% of the world’s ugg boots are now made in China, you can still find genuine Australian-made uggs. Small businesses like “UGG since 1974” are bypassing Decker’s lawyers, selling internationally using a secondary website with an “ugg” free name, “Wild Wool Australia.” There are a number of other brands doing this. They are the traditional Australian makers that have been crafting long-lasting boots from local sheepskins for decades. It’s well worth giving your business to them rather than Decker Brands.

A pair of brown leather ugg boots from an independent Australian brand.
A Circular and Vegan Alternative

If you are interested in cosy boots without the sheepskin, Vesica Pisces’ Jiddu and Joyce models are great vegan ugg alternatives lined with organic cotton fleece. This small, independent Spanish company is a champion of the circular economy. From their design to material selection, they put recyclability first. They have developed a local network to source and recycle all components of their handmade footwear, mostly within 30km of their workshop. Check out the behind-the-scenes of how it works here.

A pair of black ugg style boots from an independent brand.
A pair of Khaki coloured ugg style boots from an independent brand.

UGG:

Wild Wool Australia:

Vesica Pisces:

❌ Subsidiary of Decker Brands conglomerate

✅ Small business

✅ Small business

❌ 99% owned by institutional investors like BlackRock

✅ 3rd generation family-owned business

✅ Owned by group of friend who founded it together in 2015

❌ CEO pay $11.4M in 2023 

✅ No excessive executive pay

✅ No excessive executive pay

❌ Mass-producing an estimated 10 million pairs of UGGs per year*

✅ Handmade to order in one factory

✅ Handmade to order in one workshop

❌ Non-removable insoles

✅ Removable wool insoles can replenish comfort

✅ Circular design is glue-free making it 100% recyclable

✅ Repairable via NuShoe

✅ In house repair service and via NuShoe

✅ In house recycling program

❌ Made with sheepskin sourced from around the world

✅ Made with regionally sourced sheepskin from Australia and New Zealand

✅ Made with undyed organic cotton fleece liner

❌ Requires suppliers to pay minimum wage (That’s ~$1 to $3.50 USD/hour or half of a living wage)

✅ Fair labour conditions (open factory tours)

✅ Fair labour conditions

❌ Made in China and Vietnam

✅ Made in Miami, Australia

✅ Made in Elche, Spain

💲 ~$150-250 USD

💲 ~$149-275 USD

💲 ~$100 USD

*Estimate based on $1.9B in sales at an avg. price of $200 per sale


A Pair of futuristic 3D printed black clogs.
Everyone Loves Crocs

Crocs may be one of Time Magazine’s 50 worst inventions, but who doesn’t love a gnomish utilitarian foam clog. The brand has been more popular than ever selling at a clip of more than 3 every second. And Crocs, Inc. (Crocs, HEYDUDE) has become one of the top 10 largest non-athletic footwear brands in the world.

Crocs Doesn’t Love You

With great size comes great responsibility. And for Crocs, that responsibility is to shareholders. The company has been following the big business playbook closely. Since 2006, they’ve used Dutch tax loopholes to avoid contributing tens, likely hundreds, of millions to public coffers. In 2008, they closed their Canadian factory in Quebec City where the shoe was invented and first produced. A cost cutting move for Crocs that sent the jobs of 669 people to Mexico, Brazil, China and Romania.

They are also big on boosting shareholder profits through stock buybacks and plan to keep the money flowing with an endless expansion plan. It’s a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ kind of plan that puts their sustainability team in a real bind. While the company aims to perpetually increases production, they are tasked with decreasing their environmental impacts– so far, not so good.

A new York Times headline stating: "As Crocs Departs, Quebec Turns Bitter."
Where Do Old Crocs Go?

We do have to give it to Crocs on one thing. They last a long time. But this is double-edged since there are about a hundred million pairs produced each year without an end-of-life plan in place. That is 50,000 metric tons of non-biodegradable EVA foam, a type of plastic. Even after Crocs’ well-intentioned efforts to donate old pairs and slowly incorporate bio-based material, the foam will eventually end up being incinerated, sitting in landfills, or worse, finding its way to the ocean.

Clogs From Future, For the Future

If you like the idea of a versatile aqueous clog, but prefer to support small businesses with a product end-of-life plan, try FUSED. Consisting of one man and his 3D printer, they are as small a business as you will find. The founder, Philippe Holthuizen, designs and prints futuristic kicks from his home office in Hong Kong. A process that takes around 12 hours depending on the model. They are printed with a Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE). A material with similar properties to the EVA foam that Crocs are made from. This means they are also flexible, durable, and water-friendly. And FUSED has a takeback program to recycle the valuable TPE material.

A black 3D printed clog with a flat sole.
A black 3D printed clog with a chunky spiked sole.

Crocs:

FUSED:

❌ Big business with >$3 billion in annual sales

✅ Micro-enterprise

❌ 92% owned by institutional investors like BlackRock, Vanguard, and Fidelity

✅ Owned by Founder, Philippe Holthuizen

❌ Excessive CEO pay $9.9M

✅ Free from investors interests

Tax avoidance since 2006 (incl. $52M avoided between 2016-2019)

❌ Mass producing 100 million pairs of Crocs per year

✅ Made to order (300th pair ever sold in 2024)

❌ No plan in place to recycle EVA foam

✅  Return for recycling program (20% discount for returns)

✅ Injection molded mono-material design

✅ 3D printed mono-material design

✅ Durable and water-friendly EVA

✅ Durable and water-friendly TPE

❌ Made in China, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Bosnia, Argentina, Romania

✅ Made in Hong Kong

💲 50-100USD

💲 95-125USD


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