My family was a shoe family. My father was an engineer for Bass shoe, founded by George Bass in 1876. He started out on the factory floor, before I was born, and worked his way up. His job, as I understood it, was to study the labor that went into each job required to make the shoes, and then to determine how much “per piece” a worker should be paid. This kind of work was called “piece work”, and allowed better, more experienced workers to earn more, because they produced more.
My brother’s first job was in the shoe shop. He was about 15. Dad brought home this piece of machinery along with buckets of leather pieces, and my brother would sit at the machine and use it to punch rivets into the leather. It was fun to do and when he would let me, I would take a turn. I now realize that I was often doing my brother’s work for him. When he got his license at 17, he was able to buy a brand new car. A yellow Plymouth Duster with pinstripes. I’m taking credit for the pinstripes.
My first job was also in the shoe shop the summer after I graduated from high school. I was what they called a “stitcher”. Do you know those little pieces of leather that hold the pennies in loafers? My job was to sew the ornamental stitching around the edges. When I had a case done they would be inspected and then passed on to the people who attached those pieces to the uppers. This was also a fun job and I liked it. Sadly, I wasn’t very good at it and was spoken to a couple of times about my uneven stitching. I’m sure my boss wasn’t all that sad when I left for college in the fall. Little did he know I’d be coming back in a year for another go at it. I was much more mature by then, though. Snicker.
But I digress. On with the history lesson.
Bass Shoe was sold to Chesebrough-Ponds in 1978. They were famous for Ponds Cold Creams and other beauty products. Why they wanted a shoe factory I couldn’t say, but things continued to roll along fairly smoothly. Then, in 1981, President Reagan lifted the quotas on imported shoes and cheaper shoes from overseas became available. American shoe companies, in order to compete, began moving their production overseas. The companies that maintained factories in the US cut jobs and payroll. My father lost his job in 1987 when Philips-Van Heusen purchased the company and again slashed jobs and payroll. Bass closed their last factory in 1998, letting go of its final 350 workers, one of whom was my brother. Over the course of 18 years, about 1,200 people employed by this one company lost their jobs. That number does not take into account Dexter Shoe, L.L. Bean or Eastland Shoes, all of which also employed large numbers of workers and also laid them off.
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this.
Yesterday, I came across a story about Tom’s Shoes. It caught my attention because I’ve been seeing the company name here and there and wondered…what’s so great about Tom’s Shoes? Do they make you fly? Or run faster? Do they never wear out?
None of the above. It turns out that Tom’s Shoes does nice things for other people and so lots of nice people buy his shoes. They’ve become quite trendy. This is the story: Tom’s CEO, Blake Mycoskie, was traveling in Argentina and in the process of helping out a local organization noticed that many children did not have shoes. Wanting to help, he ordered a bunch of shoes from a local manufacturer, took them home to America, and sold them with the idea of using the proceeds to buy shoes for the children back in Argentina. Flash forward, and now he has a booming business selling these fabric upper/rubber-soled shoes, and for every pair of shoes he sells, he gives one pair away to a child in a developing country. He goes by the title of Chief Shoe Giver and now spends much of his time on the lecture circuit. And giving away shoes. It is a nice story. He seems like a really nice guy.
But it made me think: None of his shoes are manufactured in the US. The pairs he gives away are not, with several exceptions, given away in the US. The shoes he sells here go for about $55. Developing countries are the main recipients. We are the target market. Tom’s Shoes marketing strategy works because we like the idea of buying something that helps someone else.
Can we stop being trendy for a minute? Can we stop and think about this? For just a minute? So many people have lost their jobs, and many, like those in my hometown, have lost them to overseas manufacturing. And it is not just them. It is also the generations following them-those kids saving to buy their first car, go to college, or to get married and support a young family. Those people that, given a choice, would prefer to stay in their hometowns, close to their roots, but can’t because the jobs do not exist. We are no longer a country that makes things. We are a country that buys things and we are targeted as such. We are a country of consumers and borrowers. Somewhere, a marketing director is saying, “Market it to the Americans. They’ll buy it. They’ll buy anything”. And his Bosses are saying, “But make it in Korea”.
How long can we keep this up? And, oh God, when do we start thinking like patriots? Are the desperately poor in our own country less deserving than the poor in developing countries?
I’m not putting down Tom’s Shoes. I think what they are doing is compassionate and executed with the very best intentions. What I’m saying is that I could buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes and feel good knowing that a kid in another country is getting a pair of badly needed shoes, or….
- I could buy shoes that are manufactured in the US (yes, there are still some companies manufacturing here-Soft Star Shoes is one) and know that I am helping to employ an American during a time of rampant unemployment. That would make me feel good.
- I could buy a pair of flip flops, possibly made in China, and donate the remaining $45 to my Community Foodbank. Or to my church. Or to the out-of-work, homeless veteran on the street corner. That would make me feel pretty good, too.
- I could forego the new shoes altogether and donate the entire equal sum to the National Relief Charities, a non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of poverty-stricken Native Americans. I don’t really need new shoes, anyway.