Sneaker culture is being exploited and ruined by resellers

Over the last few years sneaker reselling has made its way into the public’s eye and become synonymous with modern sneaker culture. Resellers buy hyped-up shoes online for retail price on release day using sneaker bots, then resell them at a higher market-value price. The secondary sneaker market has grown from roughly $240 in 2014 to an estimated $6+ billion, and many people are picking up the practice as a way to earn a little extra money on the side. At first glance, it seems like an easy way to make some quick cash but after a deeper look it’s easy to see the exploitative nature of the industry and how it’s ruining sneaker culture as a whole.

So how are these resellers able to make so much profit, and why are people willing to pay up to thousands of dollars for a shoe that was released at a couple hundred? It all started with the release of the Air Jordans in 1985, which have become a staple of sneaker culture. Nike’s advertising campaign focused on linking the shoe both to the black idol Michael Jordan and to black youth culture. The ads often even featured famed director Spike Lee. This led to sneaker culture being linked to black youth culture, particularly in urban areas. To many consumers Jordans were more than just a regular basketball shoe, they had meaning behind them and represented Michael Jordan and black culture. This was quickly taken advantage of by resellers and manufacturers. Limited releases became the new norm, so that artificial hype would be placed around the shoe so that companies could make more money on the release of their next shoe, or even the re-release of their original shoe. This allowed for resellers to sell the shoes for hundreds of dollars above retail price because these shoes were so important to the thriving sneaker culture that had developed in primarily black rural areas. Because these shoes and everything they represent mean so much to people they are often willing to spend more money than they can reasonably afford to, and resellers are the ones profiting off the culture they created. This also means that less people are able to acquire the shoes and the elitism seen in much of modern fashion crept its way into modern sneaker culture.

Compare this with the predominantly white skater culture that emerged in the 80’s and 90’s and the contrast is clear. Skating shoes such as Vans or even Nike SB Blazers have much more reasonable pricing and are almost never resold. Local reseller Ekam Ghotra commented “I would say they [skate shoes] have [raised in price]. Any colorway of Nike Dunks, which is the most popular skate shoe ever released, are always selling for at least 1.5x what their retail price is.” But the Nike SB Dunk which was originally a basketball shoe and was adopted by a primarily black sneaker culture even after it was marketed as a skate shoe almost 10 years after its release. Even shoes such as the Chuck Taylor All Star, which was the most popular basketball shoe throughout the 60’s and 70’s and was named after white basketball star Chuck Taylor, are extremely cheap. Almost all shoes that are targeted by the artificial hype retailers and manufacturers create are those linked to black culture, and so members of the predominantly black sneaker culture have to pay more just to feel connected to their culture. Another local reseller Kevin Chen argues that “Resellers are kind of like the middleman that can help people get shoes that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get their hands on” but if you strip away all the resellers and their thousand-dollar sneaker bots, the same number of people [or more] would still be able to get those shoes. Resellers aren’t helping out specific people who they think deserve the shoes, it’s all about the highest bidder and so the only thing resellers are contributing to the sneaker community are higher prices.

Now let’s talk about how these high prices are affecting the sneaker community as a whole. In the last few years sneaker culture has become popular culture and the high prices has led to the gentrification of the community. Lower income consumers can no longer afford to buy the shoes that are meaningful to them because of these price changes and the correlated influx of new consumers who want the prestige of having one of the most expensive and popular shoes. The culture that was built by black communities and focused on these black idols is being replaced by one of elitism. Even more, a quick search on YouTube for reselling related content shows a predominantly non-black resell community, and many resellers are not a part of the sneaker community before they decide to profit off of it.

On top of the base exploitation of black sneaker culture, there have been many other examples of exploitation and unethicality within the business. Most recently, after the death of Kobe Bryant the price of most of his shoes went up drastically as resellers bought as many pairs as they could. As Ghotra puts it “They are essentially profiting off of the fact that Kobe died, which I don’t agree with.” But if we can mostly agree that profiting off of someone’s death is bad, why are we okay with profiting off of someone’s life and their accomplishments, and the community that was created around them?

It’s easy for someone who starts reselling to get carried away and see everything as an opportunity for profit, as exemplified by the Nike Go FlyEase, an auto-lacing shoe for disabled individuals that was bought out by resellers’ bots and marked up from $160 to $400. Yet, the government can’t/won’t do anything about the sneaker reselling business. The other most well-known resell business is that of ticket scalping, where resellers use bots to buy and resell tickets for higher prices for hyped up events. The BOTS Act of 2016 recognized the exploitative nature of ticket reselling and gave primary ticket sellers the right to revoke the right of secondary sellers to resell tickets on the basis of tickets being a non-transferable license. It’s clear a law like this should be passed for sneaker reselling, but since shoes are property and not licenses, it’s not possible at this time.

It’s likely sneaker reselling won’t stop anytime soon, but if more people educated themselves and those around them on sneaker culture and how it’s being harmed by resellers, it’s possible to make a difference. When you shop for your next pair of shoes, don’t just buy whatever’s the most popular or most expensive to look cooler. Buy a shoe that works well for you or is meaningful to you, so that you aren’t contributing to the exploitation and gentrification of black-created sneaker culture.