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    Birkenstock, the German sandal company once associated with Steve Jobs, people who make their own yogurt and the guys in my high school who played hacky sack in the hallways, raised $1.48 billion in an initial public offering this week. “Somehow one feels that a person in Birkenstocks is less likely to trample Nature than someone wearing clunky wing tips,” The Times wrote in 1992. Will the wing tips of Wall Street prove benevolent custodians of a company whose C.E.O. once told Michael Lewis, “If the company were compelled to answer to shareholders, it would destroy us”?

    That was in 2004, after some Berkeley business school students visited Birkenstock’s headquarters and advised them on how to optimize their corporate social responsibility initiatives to increase their profits. The company was skeptical, seeing publicizing good works as antithetical to the brand’s ethos of inconspicuous philanthropy. Since then, Birkenstock has nevertheless moved ever more decisively into the mainstream. In 2022, thanks in part to partnerships with fashion designers like Dior and Valentino, the company reported over a billion dollars in sales, up from around $300 million in 2014.

    I came to Birkenstock acceptance recently, less for reasons of fashion or principle than for expediency: I could no longer ignore the alarm bells of impending mechanical breakdown coming from my own feet. Where once I might have suffered the rolled ankles, blisters, cramping and toenail mangling wrought by a pair of uncomfortable but aesthetically gratifying shoes, now I have more literally pedestrian concerns. I want to be able to walk. Not just now, but for the rest of my life, on the one pair of feet I’ve been issued. The fact that fashion has decreed cool a sandal with a cork-latex footbed that molds to the specific contours of one’s own barking dogs seems a massive stroke of luck for the ingrown-toenailed and the bunion-afflicted, for those of us with what I’ve increasingly taken to calling simply “bad feet.”

    I’ve written before about trying to be an ethical consumer, to buy less, and only from companies whose principles align with my own. Reading about Birkenstock’s history of doing good works without much fanfare, about how they resisted the Berkeley students’ counsel to be more public about their philanthropy, I wondered about how answering to investors would change the company. “For a footwear name long associated with family ownership and social movements linked with critiques of capitalist systems,” my colleague Elizabeth Paton wrote this week, “going public at a time of global economic volatility could create reputational blowback. Especially if pleasing investors means compromising on quality or shifting production away from Germany, where 95 percent of products are assembled, then hand-checked in factories owned by the brand.”

    Trying to unbraid a company’s ethics from its profit motive is tricky for a consumer. I have been trying to get around this by buying things already used, but this isn’t simple either. There’s something very intimate (and, depending on the shoe, a little gross) about buying used shoes, of walking, as the poet Galway Kinnell put it, “on the steppingstones / of someone else’s wandering.”

    Scrolling through images of vintage Lady Red Wings, an aggressively plain oxford that is no longer manufactured, but to whose jolie-laide orthopedic qualities, like Birkenstocks’, I’m magnetically drawn, I try to imagine the person who originally owned these shoes. What led that person to buy them? Were they attracted by the brand’s professed ethics? Were their “bad feet” eased by the soft foam soles? And what, ultimately, led them to part with them?


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