Building A Sustainable Footwear Business Is Really Challenging — Here’s How Some Firms Are Doing It

Running a sustainable business is one thing. Scaling a business with sustainability initiatives for the mass market is quite another.

Several footwear industry executives said that sustainability is more complex today than in prior years, thanks to long product lead times, varying materials and a millennial consumer that wants to feel connected to a brand’s mission.

“It’s not easy to democratize sustainability,” Matt Priest, president and CEO of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, said today at a seminar at FN Platform. “The supply chain is robust and it takes a long time to get shoes into the market. But we need to figure out ways to shorten the supply timeline and to reduce our collective carbon footprint.”

There are a number of ways to do that, according to Sara Irvani, CEO of Okabashi, which has a factory in Buford, Georgia.

For starters, she suggested integrating the idea into the company’s business model. Companies should also make sure the “details of sustainability matches your brand story,” said Irvani, whose firm has been manufacturing in the U.S. since 1984.

Nancy Youssef, a former Genesco Inc. executive and founder of new plus-size fashion label Curves With Purpose, added that startups are not likely to be fully sustainable from the launch date. But they can, however, take small steps right away like going paperless, using solar power or rethinking materials being used during the design process.

“We can all create an environment within our companies. We can start small and then work out,” said Youssef, a current board member of Soles4Souls. “Find what’s core to your brand. And know your audience and who exactly you are targeting.”

With a more targeted message, organizations are more likely to have greater success with one of the consumer demographics demanding sustainability: millennials.

One group that honed its outreach is the Nashville-based Soles4Souls.

“We had to get better at talking about our environmental impact,” said the nonprofit’s CEO, Buddy Teaster. “Rather than shoes deconstructing in a landfill somewhere, we wanted people to know that we can give shoes a longer life.”

According to Teaster, that industry and public campaign led to a partnership with retail giant DSW Inc. The executive said that since launching the program this year, nearly 160,000 pounds of shoes were donated and redistributed.

“Bringing the story back is a key part of sustaiability,” he said.

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