irregular times logoThe No Sweat Sneaker and the Town of Decent

Why did the sneaker cross the road? To get to the other side.

On one side of this road, the people who make your shoes work double or triple-overtime, are exposed to carcinogens, endure frequent harassment, are not paid enough to live on, and labor under the ever-present threat of job loss. On the other side of the road, workers earn a living wage, are able to organize to represent themselves in negotiations with management, have health care and workplace benefits most of us take for granted.

How do we get from here to there?

Blackspot SneakerIn December of 2003, it came to our attention that Adbusters was planning to sell a Blackspot sneaker that would be made ethically and would feature the anti-brand of a simple black spot rather than a swoosh. Intruiged both by the possibility of a return to ethical shoe manufacture and by the uncanny resemblance between the Blackpost sneaker prototype and the Chuck Taylor All-Star sneaker, we arranged for an interview with Kalle Lasn, who assured us that the Blackspot sneaker was not some kind of cute post-modern joke but an actual product to be coming out in the Spring. Read the interview for an engaging discussion not only about shoe branding, but also about Phil Knight's ass, "corporate mindfucks," and weakness within the ranks of the Left.

In the wake of that interview, it was a great surprise to come upon yet another sneaker, looking exactly like the Blackspot sneaker (which looks exactly like the Chuck Taylor). This shoe also went by a catchy name, the No Sweat Sneaker. And yes, this sneaker too was collecting pre-orders and promising to be produced under fair trade conditions.

We just had to ask what was going on here. And so we did. Below is a transcript of our interview with Adam Neiman, acting CEO of No Sweat. The story told by Neiman and the story told by Lasn reflect some important differences on a number of levels, and it turns out that the two stories and the two sneakers are intertwined in some unexpected ways. We encourage you to read the two interviews and judge for yourself.

No Sweat Sneaker Irregular Times: We recently noticed that a No Sweat Sneaker is being offered for pre-sales on the No Sweat webpage. What inspired your group to go out and get this sneaker produced? And what kind of schedule do you have for getting the sneaker sold?

Adam Neiman: The No Sweat shoe is produced in a union shop in Jakarta, which has a great benefits and wages package, well above the minimum wage for a 40-hour week.

We expect it to be in the stores and on people's feet no later than May Day of 2004. We've placed the order, we'll be travelling over there to take delivery probably on the Ides of March.

But what inspired us? Well, back when we saw in the Globe and Mail that Kalle Lasn was going to roll out the Blackspot sneaker, we were very excited about it. We called him right up because we could tell from the interviews with him that he was very unclear about how to source the thing. He was talking about sourcing it in China, which has no workers' rights whatsoever. There are no trade unions there, in one of the largest manufacturing countries in the world. That would have caused an awful lot of problems within the movement.

So we got right in touch with him and offered our assistance in identifying sources, because we're in touch with NGOs and unions around the world. We got into this business in 2001 as the first company to develop the union brand, and we have always wanted to develop sources overseas.

We thought that a very important point could be made with the Blackspot Sneaker. We all know that Nike is big and bad. They relish that image. They're the biggest brand out there; you see more swooshes than you see crucifixes. They relish that fact.

What people don't know about Nike is that they're cowards! If you look at their track record in Asia, whenever the generals have gone out and whenever democracy and labor rights have gone in, Nike sprints for the door. In South Korea, Nike pulled all their production out as soon as the generals fell out of power. They did the same thing in Taiwan, and they're doing that in Indonesia now; they've pulled about 20,000 jobs out of Indonesia since the Suharto regime fell.

We thought that a "What Makes Nike Run?" approach would have a maximum impact on their brand because the last thing in the world Nike wants to be thought of as is a chicken. That's what we were hoping to project, and Kalle seemed to like the concept. He retained us for sourcing. We could not find a shop in South Korea, which was unfortunate. All of the union sneaker shops in South Korea shut down; they have a little bit of sneaker production, but it's all migrant workers, primarily from the Philippines. So our backup shop was the shop in Jakarta, which has been in production for almost 30 years, and they've been doing it right all that time. I find that incredibly cool.

IT: What are your standards for "doing it right?" What made this shop look good when other shops wouldn't be acceptable?

AN: For starters, there's the wage package, which is well in excess of the minimum wage. With the shift allowances and such, it's somewhere in the vicinity of $100 per month, which is 20-30% over the Indonesian minimum wage.

IT: But when I looked at your website, which is inspiringly transparent, the wages seemed to sum up to about 15 dollars a week...

AN: Well, you've got to factor into that the shift allowance, over on the benefits side. Also add in the vacation ["Lebaran"] pay and some of the gratuities there, and you're well up to $100. $75 is the minimum wage in Indonesia, and that is not linked to an hourly wage, so that could be a 60-hour week. In this factory, it's a 40-hour week. Then there's 100% medical coverage for employees, 80% for family members, there's maternity coverage. And then there's a 30 liter per month rice allowance, which is incredibly important in a country like Indonesia where there are huge swings in the value of currency that can put basic staples like rice temporarily out of reach of workers no matter what they're getting paid. So this guarantees that these families will never go hungry, they will never go without medical care, no matter what happens with the currency. And that's important.

So we were very enthused about the shop, and we were particularly excited that these guys were doing the right thing before it was cool to do the right thing, which to me is the definition of cool.

And then we sent the Blackspot people our sample. I believe that's our sample on the website. It looks like our sample on the website.

IT: That sample is from Indonesia? Kalle Lasn said that sample is from China; that he got it independently.

AN: I'd like to see what's on the heel of that sneaker, which is not clear from the photo. I do know that their image went up on their website about a week to two weeks after we sent our sample over. Yeah.

In any case, we provided them with all the information, all the benefits. Everything except the name of the shop, because we support Fair Trade, not Free Trade, as I told Kalle. From the beginning, we were going to provide our expertise in sourcing in exchange for his expertise in promotion. We were willing to have an article, or some advertising in Adbusters in exchange. That would have been fine with us. But it would not have been fine with us to do this for nothing. We don't believe in workers doing stuff for nothing; we don't believe in the management of our company doing stuff for nothing. Certainly not for a guy who is going to make an awful lot of money off of our expertise. Really kind of inexplicably Kalle decided he didn't want to source from the union shop. He gave no reason for it. I'm still to this day mystified.

When we heard that he was going to be sourcing from a shop in China, and that was in the papers in the UK in late December, and in the process was just trashing the Left? I mean, these are the people who were working very hard to identify the problem, without any thought of accumulating fame or fortune, just because it was the right thing to do.

IT: Well, we saw Kalle Lasn disparaging certain aspects of the Left, but those were aspects more involved in the cultural side of things. But we haven't run across him disparaging activists who are working on material conditions of labor, who are actually engaging in "no-sweat" activities. In fact, he's praised groups like American Apparel, and told people they actually have to get out and do something. Have you found Kalle Lasn actually disparaging the Fair Trade/Global Exchange side of the Left?

AN: He has not disparaged the entrepreneurial attempts to deal with the problem. But the entrepreneur's job is to find solutions to the problem. The activist's job is to identify the problem and to make people aware of it. In my view, these are utterly compatible approaches. It's the coordination between identifying the problem and solving it. The right way to coordinate is not to go bashing people who have identified the problem.

As far as American Apparel goes, American Apparel is not a union shop either. I think the union shop is so critical here. What we're doing is what I'd call next-wave social enterprise. The first wave of social enterprise is really like the American Apparel model, or the Ben and Jerry's model, or the Whole Foods model -- this whole, "Oh, we're so righteous we don't need union contracts. Can't you tell? We have pony tails!" What we've found about first-wave social enterprise is that things change. As companies get bigger and the owners and founders get older, it's not uncommon for them to sell out or get bought out or change the fundamental conditions. Our point is, if you're so righteous and giving the workers a fair shake, put it writing and give them a contract!

IT: So that's what you've been able to do with the No Sweat Sneaker, and only for a purchase price of $30.

AN: That's correct.

IT: When I compare that to what Kalle Lasn is talking about charging for his Blackspot Sneaker, which has ranged from $40 to $60 dollars, and I compare that to what Nike sells a shoe for, I've got to ask: How are you going to accomplish that? How do you sell a shoe for $30 and treat workers right?

AN: There are a couple of answers. First of all, Nike sells the Converse brand in the $30 range. The higher-end Nikes, yes, go for much more, but the higher-end Nikes involve a lot more material and a lot more labor. Second, they involve a lot more advertising. That is really where an enormous amount of money goes: into high-priced advertising, carpet-bombing the airwaves with overpaid celebrities pitching these products. If consumers are willing to do without that, one can have perfectly competitive products at a competitive price. Let me be upfront: this sneaker costs us $4.50 in Jakarta, plus shipping and duties. When we sell it online, that's quite an acceptable markup. That $30 price is an introductory price; eventually we are going to mark that up to $35.

IT: When you increase the price to $35, where's the extra money going to go? When I hear Kalle Lasn talking about a $60 or $70 shoe, it seems to me there must be a market out there with people willing to pay that much for an ethically-made shoe. What would be the harm in charging $2 more, actually paying a worker $2 more per shoe, and telling consumers that's what you intend to do? That would mean an incredible change in the life of that worker, but not a huge burden for a typical American consumer.

AN: Well, I'm not certain about that. I know that when we mark our products down for January clearance, our international consumers who do care about working conditions give us a lot more sales. The fact is that consumers are squeezed, and there's been a real massive shift in income from the middle to the upper tiers, and as much as our consumers do care, they also have limited resources.

As far as direct payment to workers through the union goes, that could cause problems. It's something we could explore at some stage, but it's certainly not something I think we could do in the short term.

IT: What problems would that approach raise? What problem would it raise to go to that factory and say, well, let's pay you 10 cents more a day, let's pay you 25 cents more a day?

AN: Well, I'm not sure, actually. I think we certainly could explore it when we go over there. But this is our first purchase from this factory. We have not yet met the principals in person. I would prefer to do something like that after going there and making our first purchase and talking to everyone.

IT: And you're planning to take that trip around March 15?

AN: Yep.

IT: I'd like to ask you a question I also asked Kalle Lasn. People following the anti-sweatshop movement will have seen your name, and Jeffrey Ballinger's name, all over the place as anti-sweatshop activists. How does it feel to be on the other side? Are you ready to receive the same barrage of questions that you've in the past asked yourself about working conditions in factories? Are you ready to have factories associated with your products inspected?

AN: We were ready for that when we got into it. I accept the fact that we are not going to make some great leap forward from bad working conditions to great working conditions. We're looking to get from bad to good. We accept the fact that in some shops, we're going to have to pass through the Town of Decent before we get to good. But when you're working poor, and I've been working poor at certain times of my life, you know just how much of a difference there is between bad and decent. It's huge.

IT: When it comes to getting inspected, there are at least two inspecting groups out there: the FLA (Fair Labor Association), the standards of which have been argued to be a bit looser, and the WRC (Worker Rights Consortium). There may be other groups that want to inspect those factories. Just to absolutely clear, No Sweat is open to that and will allow these inspectors to come in to associated factories?

AN: Absolutely! Absolutely. This factory is already a monitored factory.

But there's no monitor like the workers themselves. If you have a union contract, then you have a grievance process, then you have a means by which workers can monitor their own conditions. If there isn't a contract, then the worker is under all kinds of pressure from the boss on the floor: even if it's a good factory, if it's a great factory, if the pay is good. There's nothing that protects a woman's job in that factory. What is to prevent her supervisors from sexually abusing her, and what is to prevent her from complying to keep that job? That's what you run into if you have a country that's desperately poor with no protections for workers in terms of a written contract. Anything, anything can happen, and it will. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

IT: Social scientists refer to the power of alternatives. If individuals have the choice to go elsewhere when confronted with an abusive situation, then it's much easier to refuse to participate in an unfair relationship, economic or otherwise.

AN: That's absolutely right. The other great thing about a union shop is that it can spread to the neighboring shop. If you have a great shop in which the management is great, and it's surrounded by sub-standard shops, all the workers in those sub-standard shops can do is pray that a job opens up at the good shop. If there's a union, they can join the union, and turn their sub-standard shop into a good shop.

IT: Is this union [the Confederation of Indonesian Employees Unions, Textile, Clothing & Leather] showing any signs of spreading beyond the shop with which you've contracted?

AN: The labor movement has grown enormously since Suharto stopped chucking people like Dita Sari in jail. Another thing we're seeing is that in countries outside of China, it's starting to dawn on the manufacturers that perhaps their last competitive advantage is that they do have the right to collective bargaining. If there is a significant market in the United States and Europe that will support union factories, that could mean their lifeline to survival.

IT: Well, this converation has had a very different flavor than the one I had with Kalle Lasn.

AN: How so?

IT: Mr. Lasn strikes me as someone who speaks with big concepts in mind, but who is a bit hesitant to speak in terms of details. You've been hesitant to embrace sweeping visions of change in labor, but seem very conversant in the details of arranging ethical shoe production.

AN: Well, he doesn't have a factory yet.

IT: Yes, and so this interview has been much more grounded. To get even more particular, where can those people who are interested in finding out more about the No Sweat Sneaker, or who would be interested in purchasing a pair of the sneakers, go?

No SweatAN: Well, they can go to Blackspotsneak... whoops, no! [laugh] They can go to and get the sneaker there. You know, while they're there they can also check out our other No Sweat offerings: our denim is made the United States, we have Oxfords made in Canada, and Yoga pants made in Los Angeles among other things. We're adding more products all the time.

I hope this interview wasn't too damned prosaic! Was it?

IT: No! Well, something prosaic may be preferable to a promise of the Moon that isn't delivered. If you had to guess, do you think we're going to have a Blackspot sneaker and a No Sweat Sneaker side-by-side in the American market?

AN: Well, they've certainly raised enough money for it. My hunch is that there probably will be a Blackspot sneaker, but the important thing about the Blackspot sneaker will always be the fact that it's got a black spot on it instead of a swoosh, and the key part of our sneaker will be that the workers have a union contract and good working conditions. To me, that's the difference between branding and what we're doing. It's not about the style, it's about the substance.

IT: Adam Neiman, thanks very much for your time.

-- End interview, February 3 2004 --

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