The ethical sneaker?

Unless you spent the last decade on the moon, you’re undoubtedly aware of the politics of Nike shoes. As activists have ably documented, the company — whose empire is built on whipping up and then servicing the transcendental urges of teenagers — has, bad pun intended, feet of clay. Their shoes are made in developing-world sweatshops with dubious health, safety, and worker’s rights records. Indeed, an Ernst & Young audit of a Vietnamese factory in 1997 found inadequate water supplies and general disregard of safety equipment (the leaked document is available online).

Now the culturejamming magazine Adbusters has hit upon an interesting way to take on Nike: To make their own “ethical” sneakers. They’ve launched their own brand — Black Spot Sneakers. At the web site, you can pre-order your own $60 pair of sneakers, and when they get $5,000 orders, they’ll commission a unionized shop in South Korea to produce the shoes. As Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn said in an interview at the Eyeteeth blog:

Sure we’re selling a shoe, but what we’re really selling is an idea. The idea that you can whine against Nike, you can bite at their heels, you can try to boycott them and all the rest of it, but it’s possible also to develop an anti-brand that uses their multibillion-dollar cool and subverts it in some way and actually reduces their market share—and then uses that money to fuel the sort of ideas and campaigns that we believe in. I know it’s a very controversial idea, but I like the idea. I like the idea of going head-to-head with Philly Boy [Nike CEO Phil Knight]. I’ve already got hundreds of people who preordered the shoe, just in the three days the website’s been up—it’s not even properly up yet.

In a way, it’s not much different from the excellent work that Global Exchange has done in setting up ethical-trade co-ops, and getting Starbucks to buy some of its coffee directly from South American farmers, instead of from exploitative middlemen. And I kind of like this idea of using pre-ordering to limit their financial exposure. That economic trick has been around for years. In fact, it’s the same way a lot of literary publishing used to happen: Ezra Pound’s publisher would take out a couple of ads touting his next book of poetry, and ask for preorders; when they got enough to afford printing it, they would.

As for the idea of Adbusters using a sweatshop? Lasn makes an interesting point:

I traveled around the poorest countries of the world for three years when I was young, and I know that some of these factories aren’t sweatshops, and some of them are the best factories in those countries. I know that we can find a factory that we can be absolutely proud of in Indonesia or in China or god knows wherever we decide to go. I don’t like the idea that every factory in China is dubbed a sweatshop. That’s not right. This is a big mistake the activist community has made. It’s more driven by the trade union people than it is by the activists. The activists are making a big mistake.

(ERROR REPORT: In my original posting, I mistakenly listed it as “North Korea” instead of “South Korea”. This caused some confusion in the message boards; my apologies! Thanks to Marc for pointing out my mistake.)

(Thanks to William Blaze’s Abstract Dynamics for finding this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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