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12 March, 2013

Sole-less Corporations

I'm pretty down-to-earth, and the most down and earthiest part of anyone is the soles of their feet, or the strip of rubber or leather or plastic that forms the soles of their shoes.

I've obsessed before about boots, from their importance to punk rock kids to their evolutionary diversification, to my propensity to buy cheap boots and leave their used-up husks as offerings in various places I worked. I've also ranted about the crappiness of corporations.

Now's the time to lay those threads together into a rope of righteous rage that I can use to flog the boot industry.

A year or so ago, having decided that not all my money is earmarked for food and housing and having run through my supply of hand-me-down boots from my dead dad, I decided to abandon my old policy of buying cheap-ass boots. I'd gotten some hand-me-down shoes from a cousin's boyfriend (who has better consumer awareness than I do, and apparently a larger clothing budget) that had held up pretty well, and there was a new REI store in town, so I went there instead of dropping the usual $35, and bought a pair that cost $130, the logic being that maybe they'd hold together 4 times longer than the cheap Hi-Techs (whose quality had diminished noticeably the last time I'd bought them), putting me ahead of the game. 

What I bought were Keens, famous for being able to handle large-caliber feet like mine (I have what Hawaiians call 'Luau feet,' and Americans generally refer to as 'duck feet,' wide if not clownishly long). The sole began to peel away the first time I wore them. To REI's credit, they allowed me to return them slightly used simply because they suck, no further explanation required.

Boots by Robber Soul, be sure to avoid this patent no.
Having returned my unintentional flip-flops, I turned around and chose a similarly priced pair of Merrills. I know that 130 bucks is not even halfway up the price scale, but I still held hope that they would not be utter crap. But they were. The first photo of this post shows what happens to the sides, which I suppose the corporate PR tools will try to spin as the result of my girthy feet, but I ain't buying that. Besides, the shot above shows what happened to the soles weeks after buying this pair: chunks of sole missing, red stuff wearing away to reveal sof grey foam less than a millimeter below. Besides which, the "waterproof" label is a lie, even before the sides split. 

I guess I could have taken this pair back to REI, but I was busy and the laces still worked, my feet still held within the boot more or less, and I had another newly acquired pair of boots that I could use in situations rougher than cubicle floors and long plastic hallways. Because the new pair were steel-toed, they were considered safety equipment, and therefore part of the $250 or so that they cost was reimbursed by my work. Hiking for miles in high-rise steel-toed boots sucks, though, and inevitably, the soles have started to do this:

"Hi, I'm Dick, spokesman for the Outsourced Sole Council of AmeriCo"
This most expensive pair, by the way, are Danners. I lack the funding to sample all of the boot manufacturers in America (by which, I mean China), but it seems like I will find nothing better without taking out a mortgage. This is a central commandment of life in 21st Century Americorp: Thou Shalt Pay Exhorbitant Prices for Premium Products. [The corollary to which is, All Non-Premium Products Are Shitty.]

Some would say that I should not blame Keen, or Merrill, or Danner, but the sole manufacturer, which happens to be Vibram. Long ago, that name was the gold standard of boot-soles. Rugged, oil-resistant, non-slip. The Danner's Vibrams may live up to that promise, but it won't do much good if they cannot stay attached to the midsole. The ones on the Merrills were slippery as hell even in light rain, and wore out after a few miles. I would not let Vibram off the hook, but neither will I blame them entirely.

Our system of manufacturing--by which I mean our system of contracting the lowest bidder somewhere across the globe and then slapping an American label on it--has lost its soul. If it were just boots, it would be bad enough, but this extends all the way up to the Boeing 787. If you are a middle class or lower consumer unwilling to mortgage your future, you are doomed to getting sub-par goods while the owners of the companies that 'make' them try to make par on some tropical golf course. Maybe it's time to re-aquaint these soul-less robber barons with the steel toe.

Or maybe, something less drastic, something less demanding of my tired and aching feet. Last week, finding myself in a far-flung place (the northwestermost portion of the lower 48, but not the contiguous 48), and done with fieldwork for the moment, that old urge to sacrifice a pair of spent boots struck again. And so somewhere in the 6 square miles or so of Point Roberts lies the pair of Merrills. As I placed them in a thorny thicket, I had no particular prayer--bunions for the 1% and bankruptcy for the offending companies, or even return of the soul of American industry--just a sense of relief, of ditching the silly dream that I could spend a middling amount and get a decent product. 

Back home again after the trip, I bought another pair of cheap boots. Let's see how long they last, and where they end up...


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