Footwear’s Soles Take Flight

Kindred brands and retailers in search of greater meaning behind their missions can look no further than Soles4Souls, a non-profit focused on making measurable impact on people and the planet. The organization turns unwanted shoes and clothing into opportunities that empower others – and of late, its partnerships are reaching new heights with timely programs rooted in providing relief, fighting poverty, protecting the planet, and supporting women.

To date, the outcomes are impressive: Soles4Souls distributed over 73 million pairs of shoes and pieces of clothing to 129 countries and all 50 U.S. states, since 2006; and its work has kept more than 71 million pounds of textiles out of landfills.

Its efforts come at a critical time for brands and retailers as they collectively embrace a consumer demand to operate more ethically, from sustainability and ESG initiatives to turning their attention toward social impact programs that give back, which, in turn, increases brand loyalty.

A recent study by McKinsey & Co. found that consumers, particularly the Gen Z and Millennial cohorts, increasingly “anchor their retailer and brand choices on sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion,” specifically with 90 percent of Gen Z shoppers believing that companies should, in some way, address racial inequality.

More than half of Gen Z and Millennial consumers are aware of brands’ sustainability commitments, with over 40 percent considering sustainable practices in their purchases, all according to the same report. What it boils down to is a much-needed and welcomed emphasis on values – and brands that give back are now the proverbial cool kids on campus.

Partnerships with Soles4Souls includes customized programs for round up, POS and reward dollars; volunteer engagement; employee and company match; take back programs; buy one give one; and social impacts for current and foreign affairs.

And its recent initiatives and campaigns that have made a global impact include the war in Ukraine. Buddy Teaster, President and Chief Executive Officer at Soles4Souls, told Fairchild Studio that the organization had a tremendous response from companies and brands wanting to help Ukrainian refugees. “By the time we have moved all of the donated product, more than $20 million (in retail) will be helping thousands of people displaced by the Russian invasion,” Teaster said.

Feet are washed before they are sized for new shoes on a Soles4Souls Global Experience trip in Honduras.

Purpose into Practice

The organization’s focus on unwanted footwear and apparel allows brands and retailers to partake in programs that support social welfare and sustainability in tandem. Teaster told Fairchild Studio that its 4EveryKid program, which is committed to putting a new pair of branded athletic shoes on the feet of the 1.5 mm students in U.S. public schools experiencing homelessness, will distribute more than 35,000 pairs this year – and said they expect to double that number in the 12 months to come.

Collection partnerships are another worthy pursuit, as Soles4Soul’s collaborations with footwear retailers DSW, in-store, and with Zappos, through the mail, continue to gather strength in numbers.

“DSW customers have now donated nearly six million pairs of used shoes in the last four years, and Zappos customers have donated more than one million pairs/pounds of apparel. So, we’re helping to drive traffic, engage customers, create opportunity for entrepreneurs and extend the life of shoes and clothes that might otherwise go into landfills,” Teaster said.

DSW is a prime example of how brands work with Soles4Souls to integrate social issues and positive impact initiatives into their everyday operations. “When DSW customers donate used shoes, they earn VIP loyalty reward points. DSW talks about the impact of this in strengthening customer connectivity and increasing store traffic. We also give DSW customers and employees a chance to travel with us to experience their impact firsthand.”

And Foot Locker’s commitment to giving back takes form in supporting its communities, Teaster told Fairchild Studio. “They contributed 20,000 pairs of brand-new sneakers from leading brands, as well as $250,000 to launch 4EveryKid – and they are looking at ways to expand that partnership. Being able to provide shoes to vulnerable kids in places like New York City, Nashville, St. Louis, and more, means a lot to Foot Locker employees and leadership. And it has brought joy and confidence to many students when they need it most.”

On pace with the rest of retail, more and more brands are embracing sustainability and integrating ESG programs into company policies, Teaster said. “How Soles4Souls can help brands, retailers and their customers be more sustainable is now at the top of the list for almost every conversation. Specifically, brands are working hard on upstream issues like water usage, chemicals, waste, materials, etc., and those efforts are beginning to bear fruit.”

Teaster explained that it’s a challenge to continue that work once the shoes are in the hands of customers. “That’s where Soles4Souls can help by developing take back programs and other channels to make it convenient and emotionally rewarding to extend the life of their shoes,” he noted.

A young boy receives new shoes at a distribution in the United States.

Getting on the Bus

Brands seeking philanthropic initiatives or involvement with Soles4Souls can expect flexibility and a more intimate relationship that extends beyond philanthropy. “We are open to all kinds of possibilities! We work hard to be a business partner, not just a philanthropic partner. Just like companies are working hard to be sustainable, our experience is that taking a business approach to philanthropy, not transactional, but one with a business rationale, is the best way to be authentic,” Teaster said.

“I think we’ve gotten better at saying no to initiatives that are “campaign of the month” approaches. Working to make these programs meaningful for the business, customers, and those we serve takes time. Things like homelessness and poverty don’t have quick fixes, so we must take a long-term view to how we work on them as well.”

Teaster re-emphasized that its 4EveryKid initiative is a landmark program for the organization, and an ideal way for brands to begin philanthropic endeavors. “It’s exciting because we are having such a powerful impact on kids right here at home. I think it’s a perfect complement to our micro-enterprise work that repurposes new and used footwear and apparel to create opportunity for thousands of people in places where there is almost none.”

“With these two approaches working together, we believe that by working with our extraordinary brand and retail partners, we can give people a hand up.”

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