“The Story of a Shoe” by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning, excerpted from Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things

Editor’s Introduction: Since the days when Nike Corporation co-founder Phil Knight sold shoes out of the trunk of his car at track meets, his high-flying sports-shoe company has developed a reputation as one of the United States’ more progressive corporations. But this reputation – based on the company’s strong leadership in supporting equal participation for women in sports, for example, or on the wooded running trails it provides for its U.S employees – contrasts sharply with reports of its operations in Asia, where growing scrutiny has revealed wide-spread labor abuses.

 

By employing subcontractors in Asia to assemble shoes, Nike has made big profits – $800 million on sales of $9.2 billion in 1996. But the company’s success, and the disparity between its profits and the wages it pays is subcontracted labor force, has made it a target for critics who say the company has a double standard. Last spring thousands of Indonesian workers, complaining that they were not receiving the required minimum wages of $2.50-a-day, “ransacked” their factory. In Vietnam, where workers churn out a million pairs of shoes every month for a minimum monthly wage of $42,800 workers recently walked off the job to protest poor working conditions, Wages are nearly as low in China and Indonesia, where 70 percent of all Nike shoes are made.

Last year, in response to growing criticism Nike hired noted civil rights activist Andrew Young to draft a report on the state of Nike’s labor practices – though Young admittedly has no labor expertise. Based on a two-week, whirlwind tour through 12 different factories in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam, Young concluded that there was no “widespread or systematic abuse or mistreatment of workers” at these operations. But the leak of one of Nike’s internal human rights and labor assessments – documenting many unsafe conditions at a plant in Vietnam – has seriously called Young’s findings into question. In a sobering refutation of Young’s report in the New Republic, Stephen Glass avers that in order to soothe labor critics, “the world’s largest sneaker company did what it did best: it purchased a celebrity endorsement.”

Nike’s ability to reconfigure its public image through advertising and celebrity endorsements points to another troubling aspect of the company’s success. Perhaps as much a matter of concern as Nike’s exploitation of its factory workers, is the shoe company’s efforts to manipulate its consumers, the people who purchase and wear the shoes. The human rights organization Christian Aid estimates that the labor component of athletic shoes manufactured in Asia is roughly equivalent to 6 percent of the price. Nike pays for them, or about 3 percent of the price they fetch in stores. Since Nike spent $978 million on advertising in 1997 – more than 10 percent of its earnings – it appears that the company spends significantly more marketing its shoes than it does paying its labor force to make them. Along with countless other businesses and advertising companies, Nike is working to create needs, rather than meet existing ones – the satisfaction of which exacts unnecessary social and environmental costs.

As John Ryan and Alan Thein Durning have documented in their book Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, consuming goods has come to play a different role in our lives than anyone, even economists, ever imagined it would. For many, the consumer culture has become an ideology, “where buying things is believed to provide the sort of existential satisfaction that, say, going to church did,” as Thomas Frank puts it in an essay in the book Commodify Your Dissent.

I put on my sneakers – “cross trainers.” I guess they’re called – and got ready to go to work. I don’t “cross-train”; I’m not sure I even know what it is. But I do wear the shoes a lot.

Eighty percent of athletic shoes in the United States are not used for their designed purpose. As an executive for L.A. Gear put it, “If you’re talking performance shoes, you need only one or two pair. If you’re talking fashion, you’re talking endless pairs of shoes.” According to surveys, U.S. women own between 15 and 25 pairs of shoes, men 6 to 10 pair. Americans spend twice as much on children’s athletic shoes as they do on children’s books.

My two shoes weighed about a pound and were composed of dozens of different, mostly synthetic, materials. Like almost all athletic shoes sold in the United States, they were manufactured overseas by an obscure firm contracting to the company whose name and logo actually appeared on the shoes. Mine were assembled in a Korean-owned factory in Tangerang, an industrial district outside of Jakarta, Indonesia. But almost all the component parts were made elsewhere.

The shoe company in Oregon specified the shoes’ high-tech design and materials and relayed the plans by satellite to a computer-aided-design firm in Taiwan. This firm faxed plans to engineers in South Korea.

In the 1980s, South Korea was a leading exporter of athletic shoes, but economic reforms, labor unrest, and economic development resulted in shoe workers’ wage more than doubling in the four years before 1990. Shoe companies moved to cheaper pastures in China and Southeast Asia. Over the next three years, employment in South Korea’s shoe industry fell by three-fourths; nearly 400,000 Koreans lost their jobs.

 

Leather: My shoes had three main parts: the logo-covered upper, the shock-absorbing midsole, and the waffle-treaded outsole. The upper had about 20 different parts. It was mostly cow leather. The cow was raised, slaughtered, and skinned in Texas. Most of the carcass became human and pet food. The hide was cured with salt and stacked with 750 others in a 20-foot container and carried by freight train from Amarillo to Los Angeles. From there it was shipped to Pusan, South Korea. Most U.S. hides are exported for tanning: labor costs and environmental standards are lower overseas.

Tanning makes leather soft and keeps it from decaying. For centuries, tanning meant soaking animal hides in tannin from bark and vegetable extracts. Today it usually entails a 20-step process with large spinning drums and solutions of chrome, calcium hydroxide, and other strong chemicals. Chrome tanning (including unhairing, deliming, pickling, tanning, retanning, dyeing and lubricating) can be done in a day; vegetable tanning can take weeks.

Workers in Pusan loaded the tanned leather onto an airplane headed to Jakarta, while the tanning plant discharged hair, epidermis, leather scraps, and processing chemicals into the Naktong River. Much of South Korea’s tap water is not fit for human consumption because it is tainted with metals and other pollutants from heavy industry.

 

Synthetics: Except for the leather, my shoes were made from petroleum-based chemicals. The midsole was a custom-designed EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) form; a composite of several substances, each with its own valued properties. Ethylene made the mix easy to mold, vinyl made it resilient, and acetate made it strong and stiff. One of the most important building blocks for making synthetic chemicals, ethylene is a colorless, slightly sweet-smelling yet toxic gas. It was distilled and “cracked” from Saudi petroleum shipped in a tanker to a Korean refinery.

More ethylene was heated with acetic acid (the main ingredient of vinegar) and a palladium catalyst to form vinyl acetate. The acetic acid didn’t come from vinegar; it was synthesized from natural gas and carbon monoxide.

The ethylene and vinyl acetate were mixed with pigments, antioxidants, and catalysts; poured into a mold; and baked. During the ensuing reactions, millions of tiny gas bubbles arose to make a foam. The foam gives my shoes that cushy feel and protects my foot from the impact (two to three times my body weight) each time my heel hits the ground when I run.

Below the heel was my shoes’s only component manufactured in the United States: a small amber-colored poly-urethane bag filled with (market notwithstanding) a pressurized gas of secret composition, not air. (I guess “Pressurized-Gas Jordans” just wouldn’t sell like “Air Jordans.”)

 

Rubber: My shoes outer soles were made of styrene-butadiene rubber. The rubber was synthesized from Saudi petroleum and local benzene (made from coal) in a factory in Taiwan. The Taiwanese factory got its electricity from one of the island’s three nuclear power plants. Though tree farmers in the tropics still grow natural rubber, about two-thirds of the world’s rubber in synthetic. The rubber was formed into large sheets and flown to Jakarta.

In the shoe factory, a machine cut up the sheets and molded the grooved tread that I see on the bottom of my shoe. Like too much batter in a waffle-iron, some of the rubber oozed out the edges. According to Nike, this excess rubber made up the largest volume of solid waste generated by its shoe factories; it used to be sent to landfills. Now it is ground into a powder and put back into the rubber “batter” for the next batch of shoes. Nike reports cutting its rubber waste by 40 percent with this “Regrind” system, saving 5 million pounds of rubber annually.

 

Assembly: The factory in Tangerang manufactured shoes for Adidas, Nike, and Reebok. Mine happened to be Nikes – not terribly different from the others except for the logo and which athlete was paid to endorse them.

Powerful machines used pressure and sharp blades to precisely cut the leather and other tough materials into shoe parts. A Japanese-made embroidery machine speed-sewed the corporate logo on the sides of my shoes.

Though high-tech equipment helps, putting shoes together remains the domain of hand labor. On the assembly line, several hundred young Javanese women with names like Suraya, Tri, and Yuli cut, sewed, and glued my uppers and soles together to make shoes. The air smelled of paint and glue, and the temperature neared 100 degrees F. Like most of the workers, Suraya wore cheap rubber flip-flops. She would have to pay more than a month’s salary to buy the $75.00 pair of shoes she helped make for me. She earned the Indonesia minimum wage – 650 rupiah (about 23 cents) an hour.

Under the discotheque-like glow of black lights, Saraya brushed a sparkling solvent-based glue across the bottom of my midsole to attach it to my rubber outsole. The glue contained luminous dyes; under the black lights, Suraya could easily see if she had spread it evenly across the entire surface for a tight seal. Other workers glued the sole to the upper (using nontoxic water-based glues as well as toxic solvent-based ones), trimmed and polished my shoe, and inserted the laces and insole.

Discipline was strict, sometimes abusive, in the factory, which was run by ex-military men from Korea. But Suraya knew not to complain about the pay or the illegal, compulsory overtime she sometimes worked. She was replaceable – Indonesia has a huge surplus of cheap labor – and speaking out could mean getting fired, or worse. The Indonesian military routinely intervenes in the country’s labor disputes through interrogations, threats, and even murder. The Indonesian government believes that even at $2 a day, workers’ wages are too high for the country to compete with lower-wage nations like Indian and Vietnam.

Though solvent fumes caused health problems to some workers, the shoe factory generated little pollution and required little energy compared with the refineries, chemical plants, and tanneries that produced its raw materials.

 

Shoe Box: My shoes were hand-stuffed with light-weight tissue paper (made from Sumatran rainforest trees) in a shoe box. The box had been made in a “closed-loop” paper mill in New Mexico that recycled all its sludge. The corrugated box used 10 percent less pulp than one made of corrugated cardboard. The box was much improved over other designs: tab and slots, not toxic petrochemical glue held it together; its outside was printed with inks that contained no heavy metals.

Folded stacks of empty boxes were shipped west across the Pacific from Los Angeles; boxed shoes were shipped east in a super container ship carrying 5,000 20-foot containers. Each journey took two weeks. Shoes were the third largest cargo shipped to the United States from eastern Asia in 1995, after toys and auto parts.

As I laced up my shoes, I noticed a small tear on my big toe. At this rate, the pair wouldn’t last a year. That’s much longer than throwaway items like newspaper, but still, maybe I could find my old needle and stitch up the hole before it grew. Maybe I would make my shoes last longer, walk more softly on the earth, and save 75 bucks, too.