How Brands Should Sell Sustainability to Consumers

A year and a half ago, OrthoLite decided to examine the waste it produced in its factories. The company makes insoles for more than 500 million pairs of shoes per year, for brands like Adidas, Timberland and Danner, and it wanted to find a use for the excess first- and second-layer foam and trimmings that ended up on the production floor.

The company came up with what it now calls “Hybrid,” an insole formula that takes this scrap — ground up at a recycling center the company built in one of its factories — and adds it to the existing liquid mix, boosting the end product’s recycled content from 5% to 20% at no additional cost.

The reaction was immediate, according to Dan Legor, OrthoLite’s director of marketing. “Brands were just like, ‘Ok, where do we sign up?’ Because how often do you get a new innovation without it costing more money?”

The company has used recycled material since it was founded more than two decades ago, but now, it said, brands across the board are looking for ways to join that conversation.

“Today, companies want to talk about it, and they want consumers to be aware about it, but they don’t want to be boastful about it,” Legor said.

OrthoLite’s Eco insoles are made with bio-oil and the Hybrid line features recycled content.
CREDIT: Courtesy of OrthoLite

Shoppers are increasingly paying attention to sustainability in the marketplace: According to the market research giant Nielsen, 48% of U.S. consumers said they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits if it meant having a lower impact on the environment.

Sales of eco-friendly products are also growing at around four times the rate of conventional goods, the same study found.

It pays, then, to communicate about sustainability — so long as the messages are authentic, according to experts.

“We have been eco-minded for a long time, but [have been] reluctant to talk about it in our marketing,” said Magnus Wedhammar, VP and GM of Sanuk. “Our new approach is to share what we are doing versus being afraid of not being perfect.”

That involves striving to use more vegan and recycled materials, minimizing packaging waste with biodegradable plastics and recycled paper and pursuing partnerships with organizations that are relevant to its community of surfers and yogis. The company is in its third year of partnering with the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting oceans and beaches around the world.

Sanuk Chiba Journey Shoe
Sanuk’s new Chiba Journey shoe uses Yulex natural rubber.

For Vivobarefoot, its rule of thumb for environmental marketing is to stick with the most straightforward ideas.

“In general, the simple, material-orientated messages resonate more, which we will do more of going forward,” said Asher Clark, Vivobarefoot’s design director. “As it stands, recycled plastic is the most common conversation-driver in the shoe world, but natural and now bio (‘made from plants’) materials are becoming more prevalent and talked about by the consumer.”

For spring ’19, the company introduced a collection of shoes made from 30% plant-based polymers, such as algae and yellow field corn, and it plans to integrate the materials even further in the future. Its target, it said, is to be 90% sustainable by 2020, and fully sustainable by 2021.

But how do brands actually know where they stand? Outdoor shoe specialist Merrell uses the Higg Index, a suite of sustainability assessment tools that’s become increasingly popular throughout the global fashion industry. The brand is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, said Merrell chief marketing officer Strick Walker, and it uses the index “to help guide our overall strategy and product development decision-making, including which materials we use and how we’re thinking about end of use solutions.

“Consumers expect brands to be transparent and honest,” he said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re working hard to be better.”

Despite the widespread discussion around sustainability, there’s some indication that consumer interest is still more talk than action: A recent survey of 2,000 U.S. and U.K. consumers by e-commerce personalization firm Nosto found that while 52% said they want to see more sustainable practices from the fashion industry, less than a third (29%) would be willing to pay more for a sustainably-made version of the same item.

Until this needle starts to shift, then, it’s on brands to ensure their eco-friendly products are as appealing to customers as they are good for the environment.

Legor said this is a key part of OrthoLite’s discussions with its partners. “When you step into that shoe, whether it has 5% recycled content or 98%, the expectation is it delivers on that comfort and performance promise every time.”

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