Look down at your feet. Are your athletic shoes making a political statement without you even realizing it? If you’re wearing Nike, Adidas, or Puma, no they’re not. But if you’ve got on a pair of New Balance, the answer is yes, they are.
Turns out that among the major sports shoe manufacturers, only New Balance still manufactures a significant percentage of their shoes here in the United States. The other big athletic footwear companies almost exclusively use cheap overseas labor and ship shoes here by the boatload—part of a decades-long shift in global manufacturing.
By continuing to make approximately 25 percent of its shoes—4 million annually—in the United States, New Balance has to compete in a market that’s not really a level playing field; they must pay their workers a far higher salary than the typical factory worker in Malaysia, Taiwan, Cambodia or Vietnam. Not surprisingly, when pro-domestic business candidate Donald Trump was elected as the next President of the United States, New Balance executives were pleased, hoping that his more conservative trade policies would prove a boon to their competitiveness in the multi-billion-dollar athletic shoe marketplace. The U.S. market for athletic footwear was estimated to be $17.2 billion, growing an impressive 8 percent in 2015. That’s a lot of shoes, and that’s a really big market.
And then New Balance’s VP of Public Affairs Matt LeBretton said that with Trump as president, “things are going to move in the right direction,” and that the Obama administration had “turned a deaf ear” to New Balance.
What LeBretton was talking about was the much reviled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would reduce tariffs and quotas on imported goods, adversely impacting the company’s ability to compete in the global marketplace. President-elect Trump has said he does not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Disappointed and frustrated Hillary supporters exploded. Many swore that they would begin a lifetime boycott of New Balance products. Some went so far as to set their New Balance shoes on fire and post photos, along with snarky comments. Others were more balanced in their remarks, like Instagram user inasentimentalmood: “I back your stance on the TPP but to support a hate monger like Donald Trump is disheartening. I believe I’ve bought my last pair.”
But not every citizen voted against Trump, and on the New Balance Facebook page, there were also comments like this one from Matty Hervey: “I am not a Trump supporter, I didn’t vote for him, and I don’t like him. Knowing that NB opposes the TPP is a reason to support them and I will buy my athletic shoes from them from now on.”
For its part, the company has already posted a clarification that it is Trump’s trade policy that they support, not his ostensibly racist, sexist and discriminatory views: “We believe in community. We believe in humanity. From the people who make our shoes to the people who wear them, we believe in acting with the utmost integrity and we welcome all walks of life.”
Is that enough? Can disappointed Democrats see beyond their rage and recognize that Trump’s anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership stance might benefit New Balance, help them manufacture more shoes in the United States, and help the economy? Will pundit Nick Grant at Complex.com be proven wrong in his claim that “New Balance’s Support for Donald Trump and Lack of Sympathy Will Cost It Dearly?”
Perhaps. But the sneaker-burners might also be surprised to realize just how many business executives support the trade policies that Trump is promoting. Rather than acting out childish, shoe-burning stunts on social media, they would do well to educate themselves a bit more about trade policy. Or go barefoot.