The subject of Stephon Marbury’s new sneaker line has been raised here. Too often, perhaps. The Nation’s Dave Zirin, while acknowledging the self-proclaimed top point guard in the NBA “has a history of putting his money where his heart is,” wonders just how Marbury managed to put a shoe on the shelves for $14.98.
The Starbury One–because of both its price and the fact that it is being marketed as footwear for social justice–has also invited scrutiny. The athletic shoe industry is notorious for some of the most appalling of sweatshop conditions. Are the Starbury Ones, made in China, produced in such a manner?Steve & Barry’s Howard Schacter says no. “We are a member of the Fair Labor Association,” he says. “More importantly, firmly embedded in our history and culture is a deep commitment to legal compliance and ethical business practices. This commitment is a fundamental part of the philosophy upon which we were founded.”
Schacter says that costs are kept low because their business model “eliminates the middleman” by producing their own product and selling them in Steve and Barry’s stores. They also rely on word-of-mouth instead of national advertising campaigns.
But some leading antisweatshop activists doubt this claim precisely because the shoe is manufactured in China. Jim Keady is a former professional soccer player and coach at St. John’s University who is now co-director of the antisweatshop organization Educating for Justice. He is also a member of the City Council in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “One of the key ways to define a sweatshop is whether workers have the right to develop an independent, democratic voice in the workplace either by creating a worker-owned cooperative or an independent trade union,” he said to me. “In China both cooperatives and independent trade unions are illegal, and therefore I would bet my professional reputation that these shoes are produced in sweatshop conditions. That said, Asbury Park has a poverty rate of 30 percent. I see kids buying sneakers I know they can’t afford, so it is a good thing an affordable sneaker is available.”
Scott Nova, from the Worker Rights Consortium, an antisweatshop monitoring group, also disagreed with Schacter’s confidence in Steve and Barry’s labor practices. “We have found serious human rights violations in factories producing for Steve and Barry’s,” he told me. “The company’s response has been a mixed bag. In one case, the company did take action and progress was achieved. In another, we reported serious violations, including sexual abuse of women workers by managers. Steve and Barry’s response was slow and ineffective.
“It is laudable that Steve and Barry’s is offering affordable sneakers,” Nova continued. “But there is another side to the moral equation: the workers who make the shoes. What are they paid? And what are their conditions of work? Ignoring worker rights could transform a worthy endeavor into another case of sweatshop exploitation. If the low price of these shoes means sweatshop conditions and sub-poverty wages for the workers who make them, then the positive purpose of the enterprise is severely undermined. Stephon Marbury is obviously trying to do something positive and deserves to be applauded for it. Addressing the worker rights issues will enhance his effort.”