This Detroit Brand is Making the City’s First Sneaker — Sustainably

Detroit has a long, obvious history of manufacturing when it comes to the auto industry. But footwear? Not so much — unless you count the city’s years as the moccasin capital of the French and British colonies in the mid-1700s, when founding residents were largely made up of fur trappers and tanners.

So when Jarret Schlaf decided to launch Pingree, he was able to claim the prize of Detroit’s very first sneaker. “Footwear hadn’t been designed or manufactured in Detroit since 1956,” said Schlaf, 32, previously an organizer for climate justice organization 350.org.

With his background and a Millennial consumer target, Schlaf knew he wanted Pingree (named after former Detroit mayor and Michigan governor Hazen S. Pingree) to be sustainable. Starting with a crowdfunding campaign in 2015 that raised $10,000 for prototyping, he looked to the largest — and closest — source of up-cycling available: the auto industry. “[It] has an abundance of diverse and luxe materials that are otherwise destined for the landfill,” he said. Pingree uses leather from old car seats as the material for bags and the uppers of its sneakers.

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Pingree’s Mayor sneaker is made by hand by artisans in Detroit.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Pingree

To buy: Pingree Mayor sneaker, $350. 

The brand has also extended its sustainability goal to include zero carbon emissions, offering plant-based leather and plastic alternatives and sourcing most materials from the Great Lakes Region, all by 2023.

But equally essential to Pingree’s story is its employment of U.S. veterans. The brand employs a small team of 10 artisan-trained Detroit-based veterans who hand- make the shoes and bags (about 15 pairs of sneakers total each month). It has also become a worker-owned company, which has translated into sharing 77% of Pingree’s profits with its employees.

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Pingree artisan and co-owner Nathaniel Crawford II, an Air Force veteran.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Pingree

“Business is strongest when products are solutions and profit is valued equally to the well-being of the worker, neighborhood and the environment,” said Schlaf.

Pingree’s small, community-focused business model is starting to gain traction just as another Detroit brand is grappling with its own growing pains. In January, watch and accessories brand Shinola (whose headquarters are located just down the street from Pingree’s) announced layoffs, with the plan to outsource leather design and product development. It also donated some of its machinery to Pingree.

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Pingree artisan and co-owner Rayne sewing zippers for the brand’s bags.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Pingree

The layoffs highlight the challenges of disrupting traditional business models in the footwear, fashion and adjacent industries — but given the current situation of the coronavirus pandemic, disruption is the new normal. For now, Pingree’s workers are working from home making masks and personal protective equipment with the brand’s sewing machines, while orders have been delayed until summer.

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