More Good Than Harm?

(Pull Quote 1: Being able to detail how your product is socially responsible is just good marketing.)

I just got back from skating with a couple of young Dutch guys, a Dutch girl, a Japanese guy, and a couple of New Yorkers. I’m in San Francisco right now, but I spent the summer in Barcelona.

On any given day this summer I could have said that I skated with a bunch of people from Spain, Sweden, France, Italy, the U.S., England, Germany, Brazil, or Argentina.

There was a young Gitano (Gypsy) kid who skated the MACBA every day, and who I eventually got to know. I was definitely the older, more experienced guy in the friendship, but we were more or less equals otherwise. Because of my friendship with this kid, I now have an idea about what it’s like to grow up in an economically depressed minority neighborhood in a major Spanish city-and I really feel like I’m a better person for that knowledge. I can’t think of any other scenario in which a full-grown white middle-class American guy and a working-class Spanish Gitano kid can become friends. In the “developed” world, at least, skating is truly unique in its ability to bridge national, class, and race barriers.

You could make the case that traditional sports bring people together in some ways, but they seem just as likely to breed animosity between people. Picture English soccer fans rioting in France. I don’t get it. If sports fans have so much in common with each other, why do they want to beat the crap out of each other in the streets? Sports fans don’t open up to each other the way skaters do; rather sports seem to provide arbitrary excuses to hate people from other places-they may bring people together geographically, but they’re just as good at fostering intolerance. It’s pretty hilarious to watch how high school football brings a town together, but then it teaches kids to absolutely despise the kids from the neighboring town-a town that’s exactly the same as theirs, full of people who are exactly the same as they are.

I suppose you could make the case that music is a global youth culture in the same way that skating is, but we all know that serious indie rockers and serious hip-hop kids have little to say to one another. And, as far as I can tell, music scenes aren’t really united across borders: Spanish and American skaters have a lot more in common than Spanish and American rock bands.

An urban-studies professor in England estimates that there are 40-million skaters around the world. All these people have little in common other than skating, but skating brings them together in meaningful ways. I’m a 30-year-old American graduate student. There’s a guy in my neighborhood who’s a 31-year-old graduate student studying the same thing, at the same school, in the same department as me. But I have more in common with that Gitano kid. And I know that there’re a ton of sixteen-year-old Slovenian kids living in Ljubliana who I’ll have a lot more in common with-I don’t speak Slovene and they might not speak English, but we can teach each other tricks and name spots and skaters, and nod at each other. It seems like pretty superficial communication, but I bet that I’d know what those kids think, who they are, better than I know what the guy who lives in my neighborhood thinks, even though I appear to have everything in common with this guy. It’s not just that it’s fun to meet people from other places. The world is a better place when people understand other cultures. Mutual understanding keeps people from doing idiotic stuff that they later regret.

That’s the good part of the story, and I think skaters and skate companies are perfectly justified in bragging about how well skating connects people from Osaka and São Paolo to San Francisco. Unfortunately, it’s not all so simple and celebratory, because the internationalization of skating is inseparable from the internationalization of the business of skating. And on this latter suect, things are far from black and white.

The first indication that this might be true is the way people react when they talk about where their boards are manufactured-unless all of their boards are still manufactured in the U.S., in which case they announce the fact with pride. But try asking someone if their boards are manufactured in China, for example, and if the answer is yes, you’ll see them become a little cagey. Of course, all people have different reasons for reacting how they do, and you can’t ever know exactly what someone else’s motivation is. But I do think the following three things often play a role in explaining why people get a little weird about the international biz of skating, particularly manufacturing.

1) They’re afraid that people will think their products are of inferior quality. The case of shoes might be the exception here, because people are pretty well accustomed to shoes manufactured in Korea, but stories about Chinese boards that break if you ollie up a curb are notorious, and who wants stories like that associated with their product?

2) People like the idea of supporting American industry and American workers. Think about it-people are proud when they say their boards are American. Given that skaters are not typically big on nationalism and American flags (9/11 notwithstanding), what else could it be? Maybe it’s just that they want people to think their boards are higher quality, but I think they also like the idea of supporting American business and American jobs.

3) Like everyone else, skate-company owners have heard horror stories about the exploitation of cheap labor (usually poor women) in places like China, Korea, Indonesia, and all over the Pacific Islands. No one wants anything to do with exploiting people-even the manufacturers who are most gung-ho about this kind of outsourcing go out of their way to argue that their operations are actually helping poor workers. It’s hard to know what’s really going on in these places, and you have to do research if you want to find out, because no one makes unbiased information readily available. There’s no shortage of business literature singing the praises of free trade, how it brings democracy to the world, but on the other hand, there’s also no shortage of anti-globalization literature, which exposes unethical practices, and also seems to have a deep-seated hatred of the very idea of business.

I don’t know enough about labor markets and trade agreements, and how they affect skate biz, to pass any judgment here, or even to have any well-developed opinions about what skate companies should do. But I do know that skateboard companies are now big enough that their decisions have serious impact in the world. It’s no longer just a matter of a few jobs for your buddies in Costa Mesa. The skateboard industry now marshals a significant amount of natural resources and accounts for thousands of untold jobs all over the world. Bigger business also means bigger ethical responsibilities.

Skate companies are also still small enough that they can’t single-handedly reform the way business is conducted. And it’s clear that if a company owner decided to engage in some quixotic battle against broad business trends, before long they won’t have to worry about how they’re impacting labor markets in China, and the only American job they’ll have to worry about is their own.

So the trick here is to find the balance between making your profit and making sure that you’re not contributing to downright evil business practices. There’s a good nonprofit organization called Business for Social Responsibility that helps companies to “achieve commercial success in ways that honor ethical values and respect people, communities, and the natural environment.” (I haven’t priced their consulting services, but maybe this is something skate manufacturers could look into.) One encouraging trend here is general consumer consciousness about ethical business practice-being able to detail how your product is socially responsible is just good marketing.

We always hear stories like the one I opened this article with: skating connects people all over the world! This is true, of course, but you have to add that it connects people all over the “developed” world. It’s pretty rare that you hear someone point out that this happy global-village story is inseparable from the story of “Third World” labor. After all, we need boards to ride and shoes to ride them in, and it seems like these products just magically appear in the streets of wealthy countries.

But the truth is that the happy global-village story is inseparable from the story of natural resources (wood, cotton, leather), it’s inseparable from the story of American industrial jobs, and it’s inseparable from the story of international trade agreements and international labor markets. There’s less scrutiny given to these parts of the story, so it’s easy for skaters and skate companies to think of themselves as some sort of drunken diplomats, fun-loving young ambassadors to other cultures. This is partly accurate, but we’re also consumers and producers.

I think we should celebrate the way we connect people throughout the developed world, but we should also be sure that we’re not fucking people in the hidden margins of the world. Like any other company, skate companies need to do everything they can to ensure that they’re behaving ethically. They need to do the best they can, considering the real conditions of the business world, to make their profits without exploiting people, even (or especially) in hard economic times. Skate companies do a lot of good, but they need to do their best to be sure that they’re doing more good than harm.

t ethical business practice-being able to detail how your product is socially responsible is just good marketing.

We always hear stories like the one I opened this article with: skating connects people all over the world! This is true, of course, but you have to add that it connects people all over the “developed” world. It’s pretty rare that you hear someone point out that this happy global-village story is inseparable from the story of “Third World” labor. After all, we need boards to ride and shoes to ride them in, and it seems like these products just magically appear in the streets of wealthy countries.

But the truth is that the happy global-village story is inseparable from the story of natural resources (wood, cotton, leather), it’s inseparable from the story of American industrial jobs, and it’s inseparable from the story of international trade agreements and international labor markets. There’s less scrutiny given to these parts of the story, so it’s easy for skaters and skate companies to think of themselves as some sort of drunken diplomats, fun-loving young ambassadors to other cultures. This is partly accurate, but we’re also consumers and producers.

I think we should celebrate the way we connect people throughout the developed world, but we should also be sure that we’re not fucking people in the hidden margins of the world. Like any other company, skate companies need to do everything they can to ensure that they’re behaving ethically. They need to do the best they can, considering the real conditions of the business world, to make their profits without exploiting people, even (or especially) in hard economic times. Skate companies do a lot of good, but they need to do their best to be sure that they’re doing more good than harm.