By: Harrison Nelson
January 24th, 2022
Many people do not know about shoe repair. There are not as many of these establishments as there once were; instead, big department stores full of mass produced shoes are a much more common sight. In fact, it is much more common to throw shoes away than to walk inside a repair shop. While throwing away shoes seems like a logical decision now, it was not a common practice in the past. But now, the sales strategy businesses use to gain repeat sales is not a new idea.
Companies producing inferior quality products is not a new concept. The history of purposely replaceable products goes back to the boom of the light bulb industry. Dr. Derek Muller of the YouTube channel Veritasium summarized in his video that light bulb technology advanced very quickly in the early 20th century. As manufacturers competed to create the best, longest lasting light bulb, a problem arose: sales plummeted. The bulbs were too good—they lasted too long, which meant people did not have to keep buying replacements.
The Phoebus Cartel was created to solve this problem. The cartel was made up of lightbulb manufacturers that joined together to limit the life of the bulbs being produced so that consumers would have to buy replacements, keeping the demand for light bulbs high. Kem-Laurin Kramer from Science Direct describes this process of planned obsolescence as “a business strategy in which the obsolescence (the process of becoming obsolete, that is, unfashionable or no longer usable) of a product is planned and built into it from its conception, by the manufacturer.” Planned obsolescence is not limited to just light bulbs. Many consumer goods are made to be replaced after an engineered amount of time.
In an article by the BBC, they reported that Apple is being fined for installing updates that make their phones slower, less capable and more obsolete. As one comes to understand planned obsolescence, they look at the things that are thrown away and why they are in the trash. Did this item break? Did it fall out of fashion? What was the price tag? All of these questions are important to ask because better purchasing habits can help not only one’s wallet but also the environment.
Planned obsolescence was not a part of the plan for shoes made in the past. Men’s and women’s shoes made in the early to mid 20th century mainly featured high quality, strong leather throughout and were made to be repaired. The thought behind this strong construction was that many people could not afford multiple pairs of shoes and the materials had to hold up to everyday use.
The same quality and durability cannot be said for some modern day shoes. Brands that claim to have traditional building techniques often cut corners. With modern manufacturing technology, shouldn’t shoes be better quality? Today, it is very possible to build high quality shoes that last decades. There are brands, usually made in America, that make well made shoes; however, the cost can be high. That isn’t to say all expensive shoes are well made. There are countless examples of designer brands making poor quality products, with some designer brands producing shoes at a calculated cost.
In today’s market for men’s dress shoes, it is easy to find oneself in a Men’s Warehouse, Joseph A. Bank and so on. Here, brands like Steve Madden, Calvin Klein and Cole Haan are the main offerings. These shoes are priced around the $60 to $100 range, which to many will seem enticing; however, these items, just like lightbulbs, are meant to be thrown away. Societal norms tell us that once shoes are worn out, you have to buy new ones.
Instead, men’s dress shoes should be made to be resoled. Resoling is the process of replacing the bottom material of a shoe and the job can cost anywhere from $60 to $100 depending on which materials you buy and which shop you go to. Shoe makers like the ones listed above make money from people who throw away saveable shoes because they cost the same as a resole.
For cobblers like Dave, Steve and Maggie at John’s Shoe Repair in Lansing, Michigan, these designer shoes hurt business. Since 1955, John’s has repaired not only shoes but many other goods including purses, horse saddles, orthopedic shoes and boat sails. Dave, who has been a cobbler for over 40 years, said, “Not much that comes through the door surprises me… we fix just about everything but the kitchen sink.” John’s Shoe Repair will also fix the poor quality designer shoes mentioned previously.
In conversation with Dave, he said, “Shoes that may seem not worth fixing may have a sentimental value to the owner. It may be a challenge for us and an expense for the owner, but we want to fix these shoes.” However, consumers can help out repair shops like John’s by buying shoes that are easier to fix.
The whole team at John’s does great work for their customers, but when asked about trends in today’s shoes, Steve pulled out a pair of dilapidated motorcycle boots. The boots featured their original soles and were probably only a few months old. Already, the heel of the boot had come unglued. Steve pointed out that “these boots have a plastic midsole. The plastic they use does not allow the glue to adhere to the rubber sole.” The customer in this case just wanted the sole to be reglued. Steve noted that if the materials and building method was better, this would not have happened. In the re-gluing process, he can only do so much to make the boot last longer. Most likely, the customer will have to come in to get them reglued in a couple months or buy new boots.
In researching this specific boot on the Harley Davidson website, there were many reviews that mentioned the soles simply falling off of the boots, just like the ones at John’s. For a motorcyclist, having a good boot serves important purposes: stopping and shifting the bike. These are very important tasks that these faulty boots would not be able to perform, and they could cause accidents.
Research any shoe before buying it. Find reviews outside of the company’s website because many times one and two star reviews are hidden. Check to see if the company lists the shoe’s construction method. A welted shoe or boot is a good sign that it can be resoled easily. Look for the quality of materials. Leather is usually a good sign but also check the quality of the leather. Veg-tanned leather is durable and lasts very long. And lastly, talk to a local shoe cobbler. They have seen several different brands and understand what good shoe quality is.
As mentioned previously, people’s wallets are not the only thing that will take a hit if they purchase poor quality clothes and shoes. The environmental impact of cheap designer clothes has been prominent in the past few decades. As fashion designer Angel Changsaid in her TedEd video, “Fashion is the second largest polluter behind oil.” The process of making clothes is very wasteful, which is why people should look for more sustainable sources for our clothes and shoes. Chang continues by explaining that it takes 2700 liters of water to produce the average t-shirt. This, in combination with harmful pesticides and factory waste, contributes to a large negative environmental impact.
Buying second hand clothes helps reduce the demand and production processes that pollute the environment. Many shoes that are in thrift stores can still have a long life if repaired and taken care of. This also keeps businesses like John’s Shoe Repair open while not giving any more money to big corporations making inferior products. Also remember that shoe repair shops often fix more than just shoes.
It is important for people to ask questions about the products they buy because as consumers, they should get the most out of the things they buy. Clothes, shoes, phones, cars and most consumer products should be repairable. Fixing helps one’s wallet, small businesses and the environment.
Harrison Nelson is a fourth year undergraduate student with a major in professional and public writing and a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation. He has been playing guitar for twelve years and enjoys classic cars.