Interest in sustainability has been on the rise in recent years, driven by young and very discerning consumers, who have demanded more transparency and accountability from brands about their business practices and products.
Then came 2020, when the cry for corporate responsibility — on multiple fronts — reached a fever pitch. And customers backed up their stated passion for sustainability with their wallets, increasingly seeking out environmentally friendly merchandise.
A report from fashion search platform Lyst found that in the first three months of 2020, searches for sustainability-related keywords grew 37%. Among all eco-friendly product categories, one of the most wanted was footwear, with a 142% year-over-year spike in searches.
For companies that are now contemplating adjusting their sourcing or operations to be more conscientious, the first question is often: How?
“The biggest challenge is that the scope of this can be overwhelming, and it can be hard to know where to start because not everything can be done with the flip of a switch,” said Sean McDowell, VP of design and product development at Sperry, which has in recent years introduced shoes made with recycled sailcloth and ocean plastics. This spring, Sperry will launch the SeaCycled collection, produced from plastic waste recovered from land and sea.
McDowell noted that the key is start with small changes and build from there. “We have adopted a philosophy of ‘Progress Not Perfection,'” he said. “We make decisions every day that help make our products more sustainable than they were yesterday. All of those decisions are starting to add up to create a serious and meaningful impact.”
Yetzalee Mazza, marketing director for Jambu & Co., agreed that achieving true product sustainability is a complicated process. “It takes into account the entire lifecycle, from design, sourcing, production, packaging and shipping,” she said. “The challenge has been to impact all of these sectors within our brand.”
So similarly, Jambu, a division of Vida Group International, is focused on incremental change. “While the long term goal is to penetrate every sustainability channel, we are tackling them one at a time starting with sourcing and packaging,” said Mazza.
The brand has set a goal to increase its sustainable materials by 10% to 15% each year. It currently is utilizing sustainably sourced hanji paper in a selection of footwear styles. Hanji, which is derived from the bark of the Mulberry tree, is organic and biodegradable and is considered renewable because the bark is harvested without cutting the tree.
Italian footwear brand Geox is somewhat farther along its environmental journey, according to founder and chairman Mario Moretti Polegato. “Our sustainability path started many years ago. We have focused on energy, supply chain monitoring and communities, including our primary stakeholders, employees and materials,” he said. “Today sustainability is fully integrated in our DNA and has become part of our identity.”
But he noted as well that a sustainable mission does bring significant challenges, particularly when it comes to balancing the desire for progress with the financial costs. “We overcome it by proceeding with a step-by-step approach,” said Polegato. “It means improving our ability in that field and focusing gradually on progressive and concrete achievements.”
The Geox founder also is thinking big-picture about the need to make a large-scale impact on the environment. In October 2019, his company signed on to the G7 Fashion Pact, created by French president Emmanuel Macron and Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault. The global coalition is made up fashion companies, suppliers and distributors, who have all pledged to aid in three key goals: stop global warming, restore biodiversity and protect the oceans.
“We understood that progress performed singularly is not comparable to progress generated by a community,” said Polegato.
And indeed, for sustainability to truly take hold in the fashion industry, there must be a commitment at all levels — both from those who make the merchandise and those who purchase it.
And so far, Sperry says it is seeing customers buy in to the concept.
“The excitement Sperry consumers have shown around what we are doing gives us the energy to keep pushing ourselves to be better every day for the sake of our planet,” said McDowell.