Shoe and Tell

The Quest for American-Made Sneakers

white high top chuck on top of levis

From 1918 to 2000, Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars were manufactured in the United States.

I live in Portland, Oregon, where Nike has its corporate headquarters and where the first Niketown store was built, but for the last several years I've worn Reeboks. This winter my Reeboks began to give out. It was time to look for new shoes. I started browsing, picking up one spanking clean, aerodynamically designed sneaker after the other and reading the small labels hidden inside: "Made in China", "Made in Korea", Made in Indonesia", "Made in Thailand." A few years ago Nike's overseas labor practices were publicized, and the small scandal that followed made it clear that the foreign operations of a number of U.S. shoe companies left a lot to be desired. My Reeboks were made in Korea, and I promised myself that my next pair of athletic shoes would be made in America.

I asked clerks about American-made shoes. The ones who weren't bewildered by my request told me there's no such thing as an American-made court shoe, unless you count Chuck Taylors. So I called Nike, and made my way through voice-mail until I reached a customer service representative. When I told him my problem, he replied that the company was "still manufacturing in Indonesia and a lot of other countries in that area."

"Do you know if any of these factories are unionized?" I asked. There was a short silence.

"I don't know if they have unions in Indonesia," he finally said.

"Well, are Nike's domestic employees unionized?"

But he'd grown impatient by then. "We're all management here," he answered. "We don't need unions."

I called that headquarters for L.A. Gear in Santa Monica. "I want to talk to someone about how your shoes are manufactured," I told the young woman in customer service. "Are they made in the United States?"

"Made in the U.S.?" She seemed taken aback. Their shoes are made in Brazil and Asia, she said.

When I called Reebok, I identified myself as a journalist, and this time I was transferred to Corporate Public Relations. "All of our shoes are manufactured outside of the United States," a woman told me. I asked her which countries and she didn't know. She did, however, send my Reebok's Human Rights Standards brochure. Artfully designed, done up in red, white, and blue, it uses phrases like "appropriate in light of national practices and conditions" to define acceptable wages and working schedules. It took me several more calls to find out the countries in which Reebok manufactures appropriately -- China, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, and the Philippines.

Bill Krenn, a public relations manager for K-Swiss shoes, returned my call but stopped me before I could finish my questions. "We do not talk about our manufacturing," he said. "All I can tell you is that we manufacture offshore."

Saucony does manufacture some shoes domestically; the company was, in fact, frequently suggested to me by shoe clerks. But when I called Saucony and identified myself as a journalist, no one would answer questions unless they were submitted in writing.

I went back to stores and looked at label -- in Filas, Adidas, Avias, Etonics. China, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines. By now, my Reeboks had a hole in them.

Most shoe workers in Southeast Asia are teenagers and young women. They work fifteen- to sixteen-hour days doing endless piece work. (Even Reebok's space-age brochure mentions sixty-hour work weeks as normal.) Many of these women live away from their families in barracks; in some cases, they are virtual prisoners, forbidden to leave the factory compound without a pass. The minimum wage in Indonesia is now $1.80 per day. And it's not always enforced.

Jeff Ballinger, a labor lawyer specializing in Asian issues, told me that even Indonesia's minimum wage at sixty hours a week fails to meet the local poverty level. He pointed out that Bata, which makes a variety of cheap shoes largely for the Asian market, pays its workers $3.90 per day -- quite a bit more than companies producing for the American market.

The woman I spoke with at Reebok hadn't known how much Asian workers making Reeboks were paid. "We don't own the manufacturing plants," she said -- a common practice. According to Jeff Fielder of the AFL-CIO, much of this kind of manufacturing is now done through third parties. American companies contract with Asian entrepreneurs, often South Korean, who buy and run the factories producing shoes for the American market. Fielder calls this "exploitation by proxy."

And then I called Nike one more time, as a journalist. I spoke with Keith Peters, the director of public relations. Our conversation was peppered with Peters' long silences. He told me that it wasn't "economically viable" for Nike to make its shoes in the United States. (This is the same company that considered a serious cash bid for Madison Square Garden, the Knicks and Rangers included.) Why was Asia a better choice? "Some of it clearly has to do with the cost of labor," Peters said. Then he brightened, remembering the South Koreans. "Nike owns no factories," he noted. "We contract with people," adding that the company demanded workers be paid "at least the minimum wage mandated by law in the country we manufacture in."

"I would like to know how I, as a consumer, can feel good about buying shoes made under conditions that don't meet American human rights standards," I said. "I would like to buy a homegrown product. Can you help me with that?"

"I might point out that there are 2,500 people who work for Nike right here."

"How many people work for Nike overseas?" I asked. Peters didn't know. Nike has only a few hundred actual employees in Asia, he said, many of them in quality control. But on the other side of the middlemen, about 75,000 people make Nike shoes and clothing.

So I called New Balance and talked to Catherine Shepard in the press relations department. She told me that 70 percent of their shoes are made in the United States, at four plants in Massachusetts and Maine; the rest are made in Europe and Asia. New Balance's plants aren't unionized, but all are run on a modular manufacturing plan -- meaning no assembly-line piece work. Employees are paid between $10 and $12 per hour, plus bonuses and benefits. "We're working toward being 100 percent U.S. made, she said. Then Shepard told me the bad news. The women's court shoe that would best meet my needs is one of the few made in China. But a men's court shoe might work, she added, since New Balance shoes come in several different widths.

Every time I turn on the television, I see Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, Nancy Kerrigan and Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley -- ducking and running and skating for shoe companies. When I spoke with Keith Peters of Nike, I asked how much money Nike spends on endorsement contracts.

"That number," he insisted, "is not divulged." It was widely reported that Nike signed Alonzo Mourning to a $16 million contract just last year.

How much does it matter, I wondered, squeaking around the volleyball court in my frayed Reeboks? How easily do principles give way to the pressing need for ankle support? For brand loyalty? For fashion?

Manufacturing in the United States is not economically viable. Can't be done. But New Balance manages to survive, albeit on a scale smaller than Nike. How much would Nike, which had profits of $360 million in 1993, earn if it manufactured shoes here, or simply paid its overseas workers a living? Somewhat less, perhaps. But the company would probably stay afloat.

Last week I bought a pair of New Balance 665s with a little label inside reading "USA". The plain white shoes cost $59.95, and I like the fit. They're comfortable in several different ways.

Sallie Tisdale
From the New Republic, September 12, 1994

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