As you pack for your holidays, don’t forget to pack your flip-flops – and treat them with respect, they may have travelled more than you and witnessed things you cannot see. Flip flops may look simple and cheap, but they are part of a bigger and more complicated story.
Flip-flops are the world’s highest selling shoe – outselling even trainers. Uncounted billions of them are made every year, often in small factories in China. Flip-flop sales rise with world population. As one billion people globally still walk barefoot, they are a first step into the world of shoes across the global south.
Many of us may regard them as beachwear, but in some places they are a prized pair of shoes for everyday use. They also tell stories of how globalisation actually works on the ground, as I discovered in following them along what I call the flip-flop trail.
Flip-flops are made from plastics, and so their story begins in the hydrocarbon economy – in the oilfields of the Middle East. The raw material from which they are made is drilled by migrant workers from Syria and southern India, who live in desert camps and work on drilling rigs for 12-hour shifts in searing heat.
Some of the petrochemicals extracted from crude oil are made into little plastic pellets in giant unpeopled plants in the South Korean city of Daesan, an important centre globally producing the building blocks that make all kinds of plastics. These pellets are made by teams of petrochemical workers who prowl the plant checking on the machinery they operate at a distance from computer screens.
The plastic pellets are bought by millions of small and medium-sized flip-flop factories throughout the world in production clusters where labour is cheap – places like Vietnam and various parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Rural migrants still make them in southeast China, in small factories in industrial villages that sprout up on farmland. Plastic waste is heaped around the countryside like small colourful mountains of acid pink and blue. As China crept up the value chain, so production moved to other places and shaped the lives of other workers who live in equally precarious ways.