We all thought we were moving the industry forward. Demand in the mid-range market is higher than ever. Prices have become competitive and our locally made footwear can now be compared to imported ones. Micro brands have started popping up all over the Internet offering variety and a great price. “Mura at Matibay“, the old Marikina slogan, became something that stuck to consumers’ heads. The older generation started reminiscing about how they used to go to Marikina to have shoes made and how they appreciate it coming back. Economic activity in the industry is on the rise again and the noise being created online is louder and clearer than ever – “We are Marikina and we are back!“
But our industry is still dying. Despite all this movement and despite the “revival”, shoemaking is still dying in the Shoe Capital of the Philippines.
You are probably thinking “what is this crazy man talking about? Marikina is everywhere right now.” True, Marikina is very visible now. It has been since the late 2000s thanks to the popularity of bazaars, tiangge markets, and now social media. With all the sales channels, brands, hype that we are getting, this is sure to stimulate the local economy right? Conventional logic might assume so. But we live in an illogical world. And I made an “illogical” choice for our brand. I have stopped taking in clients and decided to revamp the whole brand to test another business model that can make more of an impact in our industry.
I mentioned before that sustainability is a word that gets thrown around by businesses and brands. And normally, when we hear this it is almost always about the environment. I used to have that notion but one of the most basic requirements of any business/brand/undertaking is actually sustainability. Wait what? Yes, sustainability is a key component of any stable modern brand/business. You do not have at least a 3 year plan? Bahala na si Batman? (It’s up to Batman now) Just do it? Sustainability as a strategy is key if you want to build and grow lasting brands which can hopefully thrive across different generations. Many successful brands most likely do not have this in mind and is focused on the short term gains of their business activity. Why is that? Because sustainability is not part of their strategy; human sustainability, to be exact.
Human sustainability, in a nutshell, is a strategy which meets the needs of the present without compromising the future and is greatly reliant to socio-economic and resource based factors. This plays a integral role in any trade industry as a vital component in the mode of production is the human component. The artisan-worker is vital to any trade based brand/business so human sustainability should be considered in order to achieve long-term financial sustainability. We live in an ecosystem that we develop and propagate, the problem with our current capitalist system is that it has become predatory and the predators have become too powerful, upsetting the Circle of Life. Just imagine our current local economic landscape being run by a pack of hyenas. Remember Pride Rock. (I am comfortable using this as an analogy because of the Lion King remake and am sure teens can relate to this)
What do I mean? Don’t the brands and small businesses contribute to the economic activity which will create jobs and stir up the local economy? My answer is yes, and yes. So what is the problem? The problem lies in the system. While it is natural to have a business which profits, hires it’s staff, produces something of value and sells it, if the business starts to prey on it’s own people to increase profits then it throws the whole balance out of whack. For example with the shoemaking industry, your artisan-workers are paid piece rate where if one computes for their output based on time-motion, they would have to work an extra hour or two just to meet minimum daily wage requirements. This gets much worse with sandal makers in the provinces since they have to put in an average of 14 hours just to hit minimum. To be honest, based on what I have gotten from asking around, the piece rate per pair hasn’t improved much in the last 10 years. So who’d want to become a shoemaker now?
How can there be a business based on shoemaking when there are no shoemakers left? How can you go to a tailoring shop when there are no longer master cutters? It is more vital, now more than ever, to look into human sustainability in trade sectors as our local environment has an aging artisan-worker population. With so much demand, brands and manufacturers are calling in retired workers to go back to the workshop floor again. In the interest of economic activity, retired people have started to earn once again. But isn’t this good? Yes and no. Yes because this creates interest and adds to the local economic activity and gives senior citizens a purpose and makes them productive again. NO because the old wage system is still in place and that because it is piece rate, it makes no sense for the artisan-worker to take time to train new artisan-workers as this will eat into their earnings. With no new artisan-workers being trained and created, how long until our older workers cannot fulfill their tasks anymore? How long until they can no longer produce the quantities required to sustain economic activity? How long before a brand needs to scale up but because of a limited and aging population, it is forced to stunt it’s growth? In the end, everybody suffers. Even the consumers suffer as the quality of the products and services wane as older artisan-workers produce less and the very few new artisan-workers which have been trained lack the experience and knowledge to implement the craft.
Aren’t brands looking into this? Some maybe, but most do not. Even as consumers, you do not ask what the human cost of your purchase is. “It’s cheap!” The extent of responsibility of most brands and sellers is to the manufacturer and the extent of responsibility that most consumers is willing to take ends at the cashier. Once they haggle down the price and have made their payments, their conscience is clear. In a perfect world this would have been fine. But we cannot account for everyone’s empathy towards their fellow man. History has taught us that much at least. What history has taught us is that people, left to their own devices, tend to be selfish and greedy. The assumption of the invisible hand will guide us to economic balance presupposes that everybody understands that it is in their best interest to keep it fair; but what happens if people become irresponsible and only care about profits rather than sustainability?
Brands and consumers now have to be more responsible and have to consider the human cost. When microbrands start behaving like big business, it creates an imbalance as costings are inherently different. It would seem that we have gotten to the point wherein everything is about making the sale that even the kitchen sink is thrown into the narrative just to sell more while the responsibility of giving back was forgotten. I remember the argument made against mining firms who would promise to turn a community into heaven before entering then leave it as a barren hell after they have taken everything. The root of our problem now is that if brands and consumers do not act responsibly, our pool for talent will dry out and then cause the local cost to produce to rise up tremendously driving our products to the ultra niche territory. Isn’t that good? Yes for the brand, no for the artisan-workers (because they’re gone) and the consumers. It’s bad overall because the market will then be forced again to look into cheaper alternatives (there is a price threshold that majority of the market is willing to pay for) which would lead to importation and thus be bad for the overall economy. We fail in human sustainability when the workforce dies out because there in no human enrichment plan and strategy which will ensure that there will always be a talent pool that we can tap into for our production while ensuring that the community is being developed to allow for vertical economic movement opportunities.
So What Now?
Microbrands are in a very special position to make a real difference by creating the proper impact to the communities of artisan workers that fuel most businesses. Artisan workers usually belong to gray economy. While they aren’t in most statistical data, they are part of the grassroots which support our formal economy. I cannot stress this enough that grassroots and informal sector play a huge part in our local economy and just because transactions happen under the government radar, doesn’t mean that they are less vital to the overall formal economy. Because the community is in the gray, abuses go unchecked because our artisan workers, who are often under educated, are taken advantage of and underrepresented.
So microbrands and entrepreneurs have to be educated to represent the community that they are working with. The social aspect of conducting business should now be hardwired into the core business strategy in order for it to be effective and sustainable. It is easier for microbrands to achieve this since our scale is very much smaller and we are more freely able to implement changes that might not sit well with investors especially if it eats into corporate profits. But then again I make this argument, what will you sell if there are no more people to make your product for you? See most local microbrands bank on the #supportlocal #supportlocalph sentimentality hence your core business actually relies more on the source of production more than the product itself. Working with the #supportlocalph niche and angle makes you reliant on local producers thus it is in your best interest to make sure that you will have a steady supply of artisan workers to keep working on your products.
Each artisan based industry is different but we all share the same fundamental problem which is an aging artisan population. Young people are no longer being drawn in to learn local crafts because it is not as financially rewarding anymore. Purpose trumps passion after all and if a young person’s purpose is to make money, then learning an artisanal craft may not be they’re primary option. This is why we, as responsible entrepreneurs, must adapt to the situation and come up with localized solutions to address each individual industry. I know I have been saying this over and over again in my previous posts but one of the key strategies which we can implement is the professionalization of the industry by treating artisans as professionals instead of just labor. Increasing their technical know-how coupled with experience and tradition is key to creating professional artisans who can command a premium not because they are local artisans (our local artisans are not charity cases please) but because they are experts in their own respective fields.
Another approach would be to create specialized business models which will play on the strengths of the artisans while employing other professionals to become support and reinforce their weaknesses. Like I always say, let shoemakers be shoemakers and let businessmen run the businesses. A shoemaker’s expertise is to make shoes, not to do marketing or learn SEO or Facebook ads. Those tasks are for the marketing and admin support to give to the shoemakers whose primary task is to make shoes, learn how to improve their methods, and discover new ways to make use of locally available materials through various combinations and experimentation. What if I were to tell you that it is possible for a mom and pop operation with a staff of 4 can earn a combined income of roughly Php60,000.00 as labor whilst having additional income which can reach up to Php40,000.00 per month. This might be small for most of you reading this, but for our local shoemakers who typically get at most Php50.00 per pair in those mass production outfits, this is a great jump and one while will definitely impact their lives and greatly improve the local economy at the community level. I will discuss this model in future articles but this is something that am testing out right now.
Empowering the grassroots while guiding them accordingly is key for the survival and continuation of local heritage craft industries. Best of all, it is not capital intensive, manages waste products (because all items made are already technically sold), flexible and, of course, sustainable.
What’s Happening Now
So what is all this press release about Marikina moving forward and going strong, fighting imports with our workmanship and quality? One word: marketing. I know this is not going to be a popular statement, but it is the truth. While businesses might have the potential to survive and thrive, it will do so while still treating shoemakers and other artisans like production units when we should already have mechanized for that mode of production. While it seems romantic that your item is “handcrafted with passion”, the truth is far from it as most people who “craft it with passion” hardly get by with what they are being payed because of the piece rate system. Right now it’s a lot of image boosting for the industry and the big players meeting with DTI and the LGU but they are poised to take shoemaking to the manufacturing route, creating cheap shoes to compete with even cheaper imports while under the guise of helping the local communities. How can it be considered help when they pay per piece, no benefits, contractual work, in sweatshop conditions? This is what supporting local has become. A buzzword promising great value but only for the brand and the consumer (mostly you guys get shortchanged too with the leather that cheap brands use) but is of no real help for the real backbone which are your grassroots. When brands devalue the craft by making it cheap and mass production; when the craft is dehumanized by turning it into a production line rather than elevating it into an art so we can celebrate the beauty of the work; when we, as consumers and producers allow this to happen… we have sold the soul of the craft for pennies worth of profit per pair. We have sold the dignity of our fellow man in the name of better profits.
I guess the value of the craft, our heritage, our pride as the shoemaking capital of the Philippines was lost in the whirlwind of marketing and profits. No one else cares about the man in the box, only the man in the box cares about the man in the box. So put yourselves in another man’s shoes because the dehumanization of the craft and lack of concern for the human cost have led us to ruin before and now we are poised to repeat the same mistakes all over again but this time it will be done in the name of feel good marketing and better profits.
I’d also like to point out that online articles from established media brands have apparently not been doing their research properly and have been using words loosely. Anyare? Writers, please stop using the word “bespoke” if you mean customized especially for shoes. Especially also if the brand does not even offer proper made-to-measure services. They don’t even have their own workshops. So please stop using bespoke to describe their products. Stop diminishing the power of words. This is a bad habit of modern society now, it exalts things that look good on the outside but are either empty or rotten inside while cheapening the real deal by ignoring the real value of it just because it doesn’t show up in the first page of the search results or isn’t included in the “success story” of that inspiring rising brand that everyone is talking about. See past the marketing and facade and get to the truth. The human cost is all too real, and often gets swept under the rug. It has created a culture where we devalue the hard work of our artisans because if the value of the work diminishes, it strips the artisan-workers of their power to demand for better wages and proper and just compensation. So #supportlocal #supportlocalph by buying from “social enterprises” which employ piece rate compensation, buy products made from local fabrics because it “supports” the communities making them, buy cheap local shoes made from local leather because their tanneries do not comply with environmental standards for treating their industrial wastes. Support the brand because the influencers and online articles said so. For a generally educated society, we have been played by trends, viral posts, buzzwords into even questioning what the truth is behind what is shown. We are better than this, we should work to become better than this. So, anyare na?