In a while, Crocs-adile

The environmental implications of Crocs-mania.

Published August 25, 2006 8:18PM (EDT)

Berkeley, Calif., has yet to be overwhelmed by Crocs, but the ugly-as-sin, comfortable-as-hell plastic shoes are impossible to miss on the East Coast. And given that the company is rumored to be selling 3 million pairs a month, no doubt Northern California will soon succumb en masse. Today, however, asks the question that all comfort-loving footwear consumers in my neck of the woods will soon be asking too: Is it environmentally responsible to wear Crocs?

Treehugger concludes that even though Crocs are petroleum-based products, made from a mixture of proprietary elastomer resins trademarked as "croslite," a "verdant tinge" still clings to the footwear, because a: Crocs are made entirely of one material, so nothing wears out before anything else, and b: they are extremely light. Treehugger's readers, by and large, are suspicious of this reasoning. Petroleum based is petroleum based, and so far as anyone can tell, Crocs are not easily recyclable.

But having started down the path of Croc awareness, what more can we learn? Crocs Inc. went public in February and just released a prospectus preparing for the issuance of additional shares. From the prospectus, we learn that Crocs Inc. offers an interesting model in state-of-the-art globalization.

The company that cooked up the formula for the proprietary resins is Foam Creations, in Canada, which Crocs Inc. purchased in June 2004. Until 2005, the resins were compounded -- mixed together -- in Italy, but Crocs Inc. has since geared up additional compounding facilities. Crocs Inc. owns its own manufacturing facilities for the finished product in Canada and Mexico, but about 50 percent of all Crocs are made in China, and there are also third-party manufacturers in Florida, Italy and Romania. The prospectus offers an interesting rationale for the eggs-in-multiple-manufacturing-baskets strategy. Speed to market is critical for Crocs -- gotta get those lime-colored Kids Cayman Crocs into the local retail outlet NOW, before fickle 5-year-olds move on to the next model. Crocs Inc. waits for no slow boat from China!

But nothing breeds imitation like success in the clothing industry. In March 2006, Crocs filed a complaint with the International Trading Commission alleging patent infringement against 11 shoe companies. Every single one of those 11 companies manufactured their look-alikes in China.

So, plug that info into your green meter. A plastic shoe gets popular, breeding mass imitation, leading to scores of Chinese factories pumping out millions of cheap plastic copies. No matter how many lawsuits Crocs Inc. files, there's no stopping the imminent arrival of a dozen pairs of pseudo Crocs for every man, woman, child and golden retriever on the globe. If by "green" we mean recyclable, sustainable and locally produced, well, that ain't it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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