Tuesday, September 20, 2011

overthinking footwear

I'm afraid I've developed something of a shoe fetish. Don't get me wrong--I won't be the next Imelda Marcos or anything; my closet should fit me for years to come. But just as the Fathers warn that there are two types of gluttony--the kind where you eat everything in sight, and the kind where you eat only the best food money can buy--I'm pretty sure there are at least two types of obsession when it comes to shoes.

For quite some time, I've been thinking (more than doing anything) about buying more responsibly. I've tried to be realistic about it, which I guess is part of the reason that not much has happened. You see, my financial decisions affect more people than me, and while I would be willing to make a certain level of sacrifice to placate my own sense of moral responsibility, in general I've tried to avoid forcing that on others. So, once you subtract out the big-ticket items that affect the whole household and the routine purchases that Julie typically handles, there's really not much left. In fact, my primary means of buying responsibly is not to buy at all, or to muddle along with something until it's completely worthless. An example here would be my infamous first pair of Crocs, which I'm still wearing years later, even though they have rather large holes in the bottom.

A somewhat less well-known example is my trusty pair of boots. My real snow boots, which I'd had since I think 5th or 6th grade, wore out sometime after we moved to Maryland. Since Maryland winters never get very severe, I decided not to replace them and fell back on my hiking boots, which I'd got free from my father-in-law. They're probably around 15 years old now, and the past couple of winters I've had to hit them with Super Glue to keep them from falling apart. I realized last winter that this couldn't go on forever, so I started planning to buy new boots.

Now, at this point I should probably explain what I mean by "buying responsibly." (There's hardly an accepted definition.) The path of least resistance is to buy in accordance with the marketing we're subjected to every day. Being a world-class cheapskate and someone who doesn't exactly like to shop around, for me this would normally mean buying from Walmart or a similar discount department store. After all, who doesn't like everyday low prices? But when you stop and think about it, this is a very superficial way to do business.

Somewhere back in the dawn of time, someone needed food or clothing or shelter, and did what he could to find it or make it. Before too long, he figured out that, although he wasn't good at everything, he could trade for things that others did better. This created an opportunity to specialize and get even more skilled, and everyone benefited from the system. Money was introduced, because it's easier to carry than, say, a sheep; and merchants arose, whose business was getting stuff from remote places. But generally speaking, you were still not far removed from the actual producer. Values of things made sense and depended on factors like how much labor went into production, how far you had to go to get them, and how scarce the raw materials were. You pretty much knew what you were getting, where it came from, and whether it was a fair price. In those days, the effect that your purchases had on people in your own community was pretty obvious.

Today, the system is much more complex, and part of the outcome is that I can easily conduct a transaction without even thinking about the people involved. I'll never know anything about the Third-World sweatshop worker who assembled my sneakers. The guy in the store who helps me buy them doesn't know her either. He also doesn't know much of anything about the product and barely knows how to run a cash register. I'm pretty sure some kind of machine could do his job better, and if I buy my sneakers online, I assume it did. I'm not thinking about the small shop owner who can't make enough money to stay in business, or the laid-off factory worker who can't find a job for his skill set, or the absurd amount of fuel that it takes to move my cheap goods halfway around the world, or the living standard of the person who does make them. I'm just thinking about what I want and how cheap I can get it.

So, if I'm going to buy responsibly, I need to turn off the marketing, stop buying reflexively, and consider the most important priorities. For me, there are at least three:
  • Products made and sold as locally as possible. Some products can realistically be found in the local community; for other things, like shoes, this often means buying American. It's hard enough to find shoes manufactured in the USA, without worrying about whether they were made in the Pacific Northwest or the Deep South. I would love to buy a shoe made here in Maryland, but if I can't do that, I'd at least like to know that most of my money is helping to support American industry.
  • Products made to last. This means at least two things. They should be made well, so that they don't wear out quickly; and they should be constructed according to renewable methods, so that they can be easily repaired. Most shoes these days are made with glue-on soles. Repair shops have figured out ways to work with them--mostly by cutting off the soles and re-building them according to more traditional methods--but it seems more sensible to buy shoes made properly in the first place, if the intention is to use them as long as possible. I'd rather not chuck shoes in a landfill when they still have life in them. So repairability is big for me.
  • Products that can multitask. I don't want to have to buy a separate pair of shoes for every activity. So for instance, if I'm buying boots, I want them to work for walking, hiking, shoveling snow, and riding a bike in winter.
Following these priorities is not easy. It's not the kind of information that manufacturers or retailers want you to think about. So I've found myself spending a lot of time thinking about shoes. I tell myself that it's just for now--that once I've bought the shoes I hope to buy, I can go years and years without thinking about them again. But right now, it really does feel like an obsession. Case in point, this is already a long post, and I haven't got to the details of my purchases yet. There is more to come . . . .

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