Of shoes and envelopes: Thoughts on reuse and reduce

9860e572-7a19-489f-9843-2a3a7bc37d19Recently someone I follow on the Internets got sponsored by a shoe company. Since this someone was now a “Brand Ambassador”, they were terminating their regular account and would just be posting on this shoe company’s account. This pissed off a few folks. Don’t bother for looking for those comments, they’ve been scrubbed.

I’ve owned a set of shoes from this shoe company in the past, and may buy another set sometime in the future. I like their look, and can get behind their philosophy. But only to a certain extent. They talk the good talk about simplifying. But like most modern shoes, they are not repairable. Sole starts to come loose? Well, chuck ’em in a landfill and get a new set. And nowhere on their website do they talk about where these shoes are made. If I’d hazard a guess, it’d be Southeast Asia. Definitely not the US.

But why should I be surprised?

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking more about our stuff, namely where and how it’s made, and what can be done with it when the product goes south. I’ve thought about this especially when it comes to shoes: Most shoes these days are made overseas, and in a way that they cannot be easily repaired. I’ve tried to be thoughtful in my new shoe purchases, but I’m not perfect.

For example, I bought a few pairs of Clarks shoes a few years back. I like their classic design and their comfort. But they are no longer made in England, and they can’t be easily resoled. Tempting as it may be, I’m resisting the urge to buy another pair.

Instead, I’ve been looking elsewhere. I’ve owned many a pair of Keens over the years. The company is based here in Portland, which in itself isn’t a big deal as many shoe companies have either their main or North American HQ in the metro area. (Nike, Adidas, Doc Martens, Danner, etc.) And they do the typical “glue-on” soles of modern sport shoes. But the important thing is that they’ve reversed the trend and started producing some (not all) shoes here, in Portland. I’ve made sure my current Keen selection of shoes are produced on Swan Island, a hop and a skip from my house.

And why look for shoes made here? Well, it means American jobs for one. Also, the environmental footprint is lowered as the shoes don’t need to be shipped from halfway across the globe. At the very least I look for shoes produced in the Developed World, where wages and labor standards are higher.

But I’ve been really on the lookout for repairable shoes. These are typically made with what’s called a Goodyear welt, where the leather upper is stitched to the sole. This means the sole can be replaced when it wears out, and it’s usually the first part of the shoe to go. My hiking boots are Alico from Italy and I have a couple pairs of shoes from Chippewa in the US. All of them are resolable, which means they don’t have to end up in the landfill.

I know this line of thinking isn’t in line with The Modern World, with more and more clothing produced cheaply, meant to be disposable. But it’s a trend worth bucking. I try to look for good used stuff first, and if I have to buy new clothes I try to look for stuff that will last. It’s not easy, and it can’t always be done. But I’m going to try.

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And I love reusing things. I’m big on saving padded mailers and boxes from things shipped to me, because I can use them again for mailing stuff out. It’s thrifty and also keeps it out of a landfill. So it’s a bit unsettling when a company like REI, with its supposedly high environmental standards, chooses to ship some stuff out in what’s basically a plastic bag.

I was so put off by this that I wrote REI about it. The response I got was not exactly uplifting, basically saying these bags were recyclable, and that’s good enough. Seriously? I thought that whole adage was “reduce, reuse, recycle”. And on should reduce first, reuse second, and recycle last.

I get it: sending my shirt in a padded mailer instead of a bag costs more. But I thought REI was about more than just the bottom line. It would be much more environmentally responsible to ship items in a container the customer can reuse than one that will get placed into a bin after it’s opened. For a company with such high morals, it may show more about its values than promoting a hashtag like #optoutside. It’ll be more subtle, and won’t get as much press and publicity. But maybe it’ll be better off to the state of the world in the long run?

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I’m not perfect, and I’m not trying to judge anyone here if they aren’t trying to do the same things I am. Buying shoes that are made in the Developed World and/or are repairable come at a price. I know that my purchases are just a drop in the bucket and aren’t going to change the world. But I’ll still keep on tilting at windmills as long as I can.

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