Shoe Capital and Trash Vectors

It might appear patently obvious to identify the desire for a capitalist firm to reduce waste on the manufacturing shop floor, which allows for more efficient production that keeps costs down and ultimately yields increased profit margins. But this only considers the stage of production as a linear process that begins with product design, advances to work-in-process, and ends with finished inventories and order fulfillment. Increasingly, companies have become interested in the consumption and post-consumption phases of what we might refer to as a unit life cycle that emerges to complement the classic product life cycle of consumer marketing. The managerial interest in the phase of consumption primarily constitutes the field of customer relationship management (CRM) and is not very interesting on its own. But the latter phase, post-consumption, is also attracting concern and will be examined here in the case of Nike.

Nike Reuse-A-Shoe Sorting - Courtesy of Nike

Nike has a program that is an important component of its Let Me Play community initiative called Reuse-A-Shoe, which for the past fifteen years has collected and recycled old athletic shoes. Currently, the shoes that are accumulated through this program are broken down and reconstituted in a proprietary process to create a blend of tiny rubber pellets called Nike Grind. The compound is then used, for example, to surface or refurbish new and used basketball and tennis courts, an example of converting material excess or post-consumer waste into social capital.

Trash Talk - Courtesy of NikeBut what if these recycled shoes weren't just being used to refurbish sportscapes in acts of "charity"? What if these ground up shoes were being used to create new Nike shoes? This is exactly what has happened with the recent release of Nike's Trash Talk basketball shoe, a product designed to be "the first performance basketball shoe made from manufacturing waste" — scraps on the factory shop floor as well as a portion of Nike Grind.

The shoe is endorsed by Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, whose identity-vehicle or pseudonimage indicates a well-developed social conscience, though he does not talk trash on the basketball court (hence the irony of the endorsement). Given his environmental passion and the desired goals of the shoe, the potential semiotic synergies are significant. And of course, this is all about signs, for we have moved into the age of vectoralism.

That the vectoralist class has replaced capital as the dominant exploiting class can be seen in the form that the leading corporations take. These firms divest themselves of their productive capacity, as this is no longer a source of power. They rely on a competing mass of capitalist contractors for the manufacture of their products. Their power lies in monopolizing intellectual property — patents, copyrights and trademarks — and the means of reproducing their value — the vectors of communication. The privatization of information becomes the dominant, rather than a subsidiary, aspect of commodified life. [As Naomi Klein suggests in No Logo,] "there is a certain logic to this progression: first, a select group of manufacturers transcend their connection to earthbound products, then, with marketing elevated as pinnacle of their business, they attempt to alter marketing's social status as a commercial interruption and replace it with seamless integration." With the rise of the vectoral class, the vectoral world is complete (Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, #032).

This brings us back to the Reuse-A-Shoe program, which "collects worn-out athletic shoes of any brand from a variety of sources, including end of life shoes collected through a variety of recycling programs, special events at Nike or other stores, shoes that are returned to us from retailers due to a material flaw and even counterfeit shoes" (emphasis added). Why would Nike incur the cost of recycling used products for the companies it competes against or for criminal counterfeiters? This seems totally irrational.

Invert the analysis. Instead of recycling being a process at the end of a linear chain of events, post-consumption, consider the Reuse-A-Shoe program at the beginning, as part of its supply chain sourcing. The fact that competitor and counterfeit running shoes are accepted into the supply stream of raw goods underscores the material equivalence between virtually any athletic shoe product. Accepting competitor running shoes allows Nike to gain social or material benefits at a lower cost.

Additional gains may be illuminated, however, when viewed from the vectoral perspective. Though there may be a material equivalence between competing running shoes, their differentiation lies in the sign-value associated with any particular product design or, more importantly, with the logo emblazoned on the shoe as part of that design. So when Nike accepts the shoes of its competitors for the Reuse-A-Shoe program, it is not only acquiring a scarce supply of used running shoes, but is in effect removing the sign-value of its competitors from circulation in a semiotic economy.

Is this a mutation in the parameters of competition for the athletic footwear industry? Will adidas develop its own competencies in sourcing a supply of shoes, post-consumption? Does a demand for such sourcing create new barriers to the athletic footwear market for later entrants, such as Under Armour? And perhaps more importantly, given the intellectual property issues discussed above, do athletic footwear companies begin to introduce End User License Agreements (as seen, for example, with proprietary software products) that dictate and control precisely (in conjunction with embedded RFID tags and/or barcodes) what consumers may and may not do with their running shoes?

Taken one at a time, needs are nothing; there is only the system of needs; or rather, needs are nothing but the most advanced form of the rational systemization of productive forces at the individual level, one in which "consumption" takes up the logical and necessary relay from production (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society).

And this is where the mutation occurs. While production creates a system of needs for the worker class that is realized through individualized acts of consumption, it is no longer a linear process as Baudrillard suggests in this passage. Consumption likewise creates a system of needs for the vectoral-capital class interest that is realized through individual-corporate acts of production, an extended helix of production consumption prosumption that constitutes an entirely new project of domination for the vectoral ruling interest.

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