Sunday, May 26, 2013

Decisions in Footwear Ethics, Part II: New Balance

When I was particularly young, I was more grossed-out by the thought of wearing something else’s skin than with sticky geopolitical issues. Converse and most things Payless sufficed for my anti-leather phase. However, as I began to learn about the grisly world of globalization, sweatshops and child labor, I wanted the kicks I picked to match my politics. Thus, New Balance, with its lovely range of non-leather, Made-in-America footwear, seemed a happy option for my ambling needs. Without having researched the company, I bought a pair and sported them throughout my high school days.

In college, in Boston, with my New Balance sneaks all roughed-up and losing their inner-padding, I gave No Sweat a try. No Sweat's mock-Converse shoes ticked all of my ethics boxes. Lamentably, in addition to providing no arch support, they fell apart within just two months of (daily) wear. I then bought used, Made-in-America Danner boots (my first leather footwear since age eight – second-hand leather doesn’t directly support the industry... or so I had reasoned). I clunked around in those heavy things for two years. They weighed a ton; I might as well have strapped the rest of the cow to my feet.

In the summer of my final year in Boston, in desperate need of something more lightweight, I dragged my Danner-clad feet over to the New Balance factory and bought a pair of Made-in-America sneakers. These lasted me until just recently, with the inner-padding once more rubbing away. I bought yet another pair – again, “Made-in-America,” vegan-friendly – and, finally, albeit retroactively, did the ethics research.

Run Run Run...

As it turns-out, New Balance is a company of ambiguous ethical character, with various websites lending contrasting opinions. From what I can gather, there was a labor dispute in 1999, during which New Balance’s American workforce accused the company of employing extreme low-wage, no-benefit temp workers in China. The following year, these accusations were exposed as valid in Business Week.

We must also mention the strange relationship between New Balance and the Li Kai Shoe Manufacturing Company – a giant Chinese sweatshop rife with child labor, unsafe food, and women being forced to shower in the same facilities as men. This partnership is elaborated in an online report by the National Labor Committee and China Labor Watch: 

Granted, these scandals are a bit old, back when every company was getting hit by similar or worse accusations. Plus, to their credit, New Balance remains the only major manufacturer of athletic footwear that still employs an American workforce, even if this accounts only for a symbolic 15% of their product line, and even if the material components for the shoes themselves are imported. Whether these idiomatic grains of salt changes New Balance's ethical flavor is your decision alone, but personally, I'll need a lot more sodium chloride before I buy another pair.

Expect a sequel entry about Macbeths shortly. In the meantime, here’s a link to the prequel entry about Dr Martens (or, as a work colleague called them when I donned them for casual Friday, “shit-kickers”).

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