I’m old enough to remember when Toughskins jeans offered a promise any mother could get behind: They’re so tough your kids will grow out of them before the jeans wore out.
The brand was exclusive to Sears and the jeans were lab-tested creations of science, a cotton-poly-sumthin-sumthin blend that I was convinced could withstand everything but a launch into space. They even ran a commercial with kids jumping on a trampoline made of Toughskins material.
My first pair were green and I loved them. I was eleven, maybe twelve. They were among the first new things that my then still newly-single mother could afford after finally finding a good desk job. Until then, we had been, as the saying goes, on a very tight budget. A couple of paychecks in, she was able to rescue us from hand-me-downs and Salvation Army garb. Little by little, our tiny apartment became a home filled with nice, affordable things, mostly from Sears.
They were the best jeans I’ve ever owned.
I was thinking about my Toughskins jeans when I read this story from my colleagues Geoff Colvin and Phil Wahba, who documented the decline of the once indispensable brand in their recent story, painfully titled, “Sears’ Seven Decades of Self-Destruction.”
Sears’s slide from dominance into bankruptcy and irrelevance describes a series of missteps, bad calls, and worse luck that in some ways, helped make Amazon possible. (For proof, read Wahba’s companion piece, “Sears Could Have Been Amazon. Here’s How It Blew Its Chances” and weep.)
The origins of the company date back to the 1890s, but damn, it had legs: By 1969, its sales were 1% of the entire U.S. economy and two-thirds of Americans shopped there in any given quarter. According to Wahba and Colvin, it was still the world’s largest retailer by revenue in 1991.
I’m not the only one who remembers the retailer with a big helping of nostalgia.
When Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October, Louis Hyman, an economic historian, turned an epic Twitter thread into an opinion piece explaining how the once-famous catalog published by Sears was a lifeline for black shoppers during Jim Crow.
He begins with the not-so-slippery slope of legally sanctioned discrimination.
“In 1883, the Supreme Court voided the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had banned discrimination in public businesses like theaters, restaurants, trains and shops,” he writes. “The loss of political rights, then, followed the loss of consumer rights.” Black consumers had to endure threats, indignities, and violence to shop in person for life’s necessities. The Sears catalog, formally introduced in 1893, offered low prices and credit and did not discriminate. “All of a sudden, black families could buy whatever they wanted without asking permission.”
Sears brought more than durable jeans to the masses.
Here’s one fun example. If any of your forefamily bought a musical instrument, radio, or other electronic gizmos – like the first hand-cranked phonograph in 1915, they probably got it from the Silvertone line sold through Sears. The brand persisted for decades and made musicianship affordable – Chet Atkins, Jerry Garcia, Joan Jett, and Dave Grohl were among thousands of guitarists who first played Silvertones.
While the Sears story isn’t officially over, it certainly feels like it. (Even a recent partnership with the Kardashians didn’t do much.) But Sears’s long slow end-of-an-era tale starts of course, at the top, say Wahba and Colvin:
Almost every corporate demise can be traced to a blown CEO succession, and that was Sears’ first decisive error. Indeed, it could be regarded as five or six bad successions because the board perpetuated its error for 20 years. This error permitted a gradual accumulation of weaknesses that became almost insurmountable.
Food for thought, right? While there’s no way to prove that a more diverse talent pool might have produced the kind of leadership and course correction that could have helped Sears transition into the modern age, it’s nice to think that leaders who resembled the single moms, Jim Crow survivors, and other aspirational middle-incomers – people who understood Sears – would have had a real contribution to make.
It feels like the company wore itself out before we had the chance to outgrow it.
|The real cost of gender inequality|
|Turns out, it affects everyone. While we carefully track the number of female CEOs and board members in the Fortune 500, it’s worth noting that women are so are underrepresented in high income jobs and overrepresented in low income jobs, that this disparity is costing the US $2 trillion in lost GDP. Studies show that reaching parity in gender equity not only increased a company’s revenue but having women in senior management leads to a 19% higher return on equity. So, says Katie Roy in Fast Company, it’s important that there are more women in Congress now. “Let’s take the view of investing in our labor force–now and in the future–to ensure we expand the economic pie for all.”|
|The Tiger Woods non-effect|
|Many predicted that Tiger Woods would lead the pack of a new generation full of young minority golf players. Sadly, his singular greatness wasn’t enough to reconfigure an elite and expensive sport. Part of the reason is the lack of access to courses and training, and the all around high-cost of participation in the sport. It’s been 20 years since Woods entered the golf world; today, only three out of the 250 players on the PGA tour are black and only 6% of all NCAA golfers are black, Latinx, or Native American. Many organizations, like Wood’s own foundation which offers instruction and grants, have made a dent. Last year, 35% of golf newbies were women, 26% were people of color, and 70% were 34 or younger. But talented kids from low-income families are forced to rely on golf-related charitable programs to underwrite continued access to the sport by paying for tournament fees, travel costs, and equipment.|
|New York Times|
|Artist Molly Crabapple brings the history of lynching to life|
|This short, animated video marries the illustrations of artist Molly Crabapple with wrenching facts to tell the history of lynching in America. Bryan Stevenson narrates. It’s a terrible story, beautifully told.|
|Equal Justice Institute|
|When you walk in New York, the world is all around you|
|“Would you like to do a good deed?” So begins a gorgeous essay from Buzzfeed contributor Garnette Cadogan, about how a simple question turned a walk through his neighborhood into a series of experiences with people very different from himself. Every immigrant, every person, becomes connected to him within the shared experience of a few city blocks. “I answered yes, and he made a sharp turn and said, ‘Follow me.’”|
|The face of public art of Valparaiso, Chile|
|It’s still illegal to paint on walls in the coastal city of Valparaiso, and I suppose that’s part of what makes the need to tag so alluring. These powerful, yet unofficial murals, show a city that is fast becoming a cultural destination and has developed a curmudgeonly acceptance of its graffiti artists. Their passion is portraiture, the stories they tell are their own.|
|Gear Patrol|Aidan Taylor assisted in the preparation of today’s summaries.