Belgium’s shoemakers, a dying breed

Ten years ago, there were 805 shoemakers in Belgium, but their number has since plunged by 22% to 630, Economic Affairs Department statistics show.

The profession is disappearing, according to the Syndicat Neutre pour Indépendants (SNI), the union that represents self-employed professionals like shoemakers. “We are living more and more in a discardable society,” says SNI President Christine Mattheeuws. “When you buy shoes on line for about 50 euros, you no longer bother to have them repaired.”

This is a lose-lose situation for everyone, she notes, from the shoemakers to the shoe stores – which sell shoes that are slightly more expensive but sturdier – and the environment.

As a result, the number of shoemakers has been melting like ice cream in the midday sun. In the 10 years between 2008 and 2018, it went from 252 to 192 in Wallonia, from 85 to 64 (down 25%) in Brussels, and from 468 to 374 in Flanders, according to the Economic Affairs Department.

There are a number of reasons for the drop. Firstly, the lack of training and the fact that making shoes is less attractive than it used to be. “The profession is scarcely taught and so no follow-up is provided by someone with the required knowledge,” according to the SNI.

Then again, adds the SNI, the prestige of shoemakers has declined; their profession is seen as ageing and not very trendy, by young people.

Finally, the shoemakers themselves have missed the boat a bit by neglecting sports shoes, whereas sneakers have been gaining in popularity.

For the union, corrective measures are need. “At the moment the climate debate is paramount and sustainability is important in this regard,” says Mattheeuws, “so instead of throwing shoes away, let’s repair them to cut down on the mountain of waste.”

The SNI advocates greater promotion of the profession through craft campaigns and new training programmes.

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