Jun 15, 2024
by Karl Smith
The Ugly Truth Behind Building a Sustainable Sneaker Brand
by Karl Smith
Jun 15, 2024

From our position, it can often seem like sustainability is the new normal. Every day it feels like there’s some kind of newsworthy progress – some material or process which could well change the world, or at least the fashion and footwear industries, markedly for the better. And it’s not that this isn’t true, per se, so much as it’s a somewhat biased version of the truth. The whole point of FUTUREVVORLD, after all, is that we’re actively looking for these needle-moving moments. When it comes to the everyday consumer or casual observer, though, that focus is understandably not quite as laser-focused.

And, when it comes to the industry, the same unfortunately holds true. Sustainability remains a tangent for most brands – a diversion; at best either something fun to experiment with and a way to pat themselves on the back by doing the least and dressing it up as the most, or at worst a genuine roadblock to the kinds of progress they’re actually looking to make – the financial kind.

So, where it might seem like every new sneaker brand is a sustainable brand or that every legacy label is pivoting to sustainability as a core concept, that’s a somewhat skewed view of the situation – a rose-tinted look at the footwear landscape. The truth is, genuinely sustainable brands – or brands that were born from an Earth-friendlier vision above any other element of their DNA – remain outliers in the world at large. Because, regardless of what the marketing will tell you, genuine change isn’t easy – it isn’t just something you can decide upon one day and implement the next; it takes a level of commitment – of time, of creativity, of capital – that most brands simply aren’t willing to actually, well, commit to.

But “most” doesn’t mean “all.” There are, thankfully, brands and people out there dedicated not just to riding the wave, but to creating those waves in the first place; to putting Earth-friendlier ideas into action as a first principle in everything that they do and not as an afterthought; to establishing that New Normal for real.

And so, in an effort to facilitate that forward motion in some small way, we reached out to three leaders in the field: to Solene Roure, Co-Founder and Creative Director of the circularity-focused Circle Sportswear, to Will Verona – Founder and Design Director of the game-changing, zero-plastic brand PURIFIED Footwear – and to Brett Golliff, Creative Director of Langston Galloway’s Ethics brand and a multi-hyphenate designer with unparalleled experience in challenging the status quo when it comes to materials, aesthetics, and their many points of convergence.

Knowing that real, lasting change can’t happen without a willingness to share knowledge, we dug deep on the how, the what, and the why of building a sustainable brand and came back with the good, the bad, and the ugly truth – the reality of what it takes to make it work and what that means for a new generation of forward-thinking footwear brands.

What’s the hardest thing about creating a sustainable sneaker brand?

Brett Golliff: The hardest part is aligning goals with all involved. To be sustainable you have to be willing to make sacrifices; which often times come at a cost. You also have to be very persistent in finding the materials and making sure the sourcing is true. That brings about its own set of challenges within itself; often times scale of the material.

Will Verona: The challenge of relying on science, perhaps away from standard industry suppliers, blending creativity in design to create something not only with purpose, but which is also desirable and profitable.

It was a whole new way of working, and we had to be patient (it took almost four years to get to market). It was also a case of knowing what we wanted – working with the best possible plant based innovations – but not necessarily know how to define it or what that meant; was it a biodegradable shoe? Was it low carbon? Should we recycle it? It was a case of always asking questions and finding our stance along the way.

Solene Roure: I mean, starting a regular sneaker brand is very hard, so a sustainable brand is taking it a few levels up in difficulty. And if you really want to make life difficult, then start a performance footwear brand.

The hardest part, I think, is managing product price point and managing business capital. Making sustainable products is more expensive, whilst pushing and supporting sustainable innovations takes time and investment. We are competing in a system that does not favour our approach.

How is starting with sustainability at the core different from retrofitting it into an existing brand?BG: It is always easier to start with the vision first as opposed to retroactively adding in materials. Which usually is only customer facing. Being able to plan from the beginning allows for all decisions to be made consciously for sustainability.

WV: To some extent it makes it easier. It took us four years to develop our sneakers because there was no compromise. At all challenges relating to the product (both technical and price), I would always refer back to our key goal and what we are trying to achieve (entirely zero plastic). Brands who aren’t all in on their sustainability goals would be far more likely to compromise.

Brands who try to include a “sustainable pack” will always face the question of it being more of a gimmick than a change in design ethos. The idea of being 100% into a sustainability ethos can only really come from a brand starting from the outset. It would be too expensive and a logistical nightmare to completely switch.

SR: The advantage is that you start the right way, with a clean slate. It’s important to pick battles, your “sustainability principles”. For example, we at Circle Sportswear focus on avoiding virgin plastics, prioritising bio-renewable materials, local sourcing and manufacturing, and end-of-life solutions. That’s a LOT. But we can do that, because we are starting with these principles in mind.

If we had to retrofit this ambitious agenda into an existing brand it would take years, and you would have to find a brand that is willing to make all these changes, because it might change the whole business fundamentally. Big brands change very very very slowly, and don’t have much business or legal incentive to implement those types of changes.

Is it harder or easier to get people to buy in (literally and figuratively)?

BG: I think that is a tough question to answer. I feel jaded saying this, but I often find that decisions within footwear are very vein at the customer level. It takes a very educated, informed and disciplined consumer to seek out sustainable products. I feel I consistently see decisions being made out of convenience and aesthetic more than I do for sustainability, as well as to meet a “look” for a moment and not for a long time.

No matter how much the brands I am involved with discuss our missions externally, the conversation at the consumer level doesn’t often drive the decision to ultimately buy the product.

WV: I think it is a question of figuratively buying in and literally.

From a figurative standpoint, the vast majority of people would accept that having a zero-plastic shoe is fantastic and a choice they would much prefer, and this is commonly seen in consumer data and the reception the brand has had so far.

However, converting this into sales is a challenge at least initially. We must convince people that the active good the shoes can do is worth paying for. Not only for the sustainable aspect but that the sneakers can offer exactly what they expect from any other brand.

But more importantly than that, we have to make it a brand people want to buy into; that’s why it is so important to build equity into the brand and make an identity people want to be a part of. I think that consumers are tired of seeing 1000s of “sustainable sneaker brands” with a real activist approach to their concept. What they are really looking for is a brand that inspires them and offers great product, but with the highest level of sustainability credentials behind them.

SR: It depends. On our small scale, we can see that people are willing to make the better choice – especially if the design of the product is exciting. In the case of Circle, people are willing to pay a little bit more, if they don’t have to sacrifice style or technicality.

If you make sustainability exciting, if you are willing to have fun, show some creativity, people will buy into it.

How hard is it in terms of finding the right people to work with?

BG: I am not going to say it is easy by any means. But it’s far easier now then it was twenty years ago when it was just a marketing conversation. It’s really about choice and whether you want to do the extra leg work to make it happen. Which ultimately comes down to the goals of the brand.

I think the greater conversation that needs to be had is, “Why does the world need your product?”, itself another commodity; asking why it truly needs to exist is the conversation that needs to be had up front. Because if there is not a strong reason, don’t waste more of the Earth’s resources.

WV: Finding people is not a challenge, people buy into our concept and want to get involved. The challenge is building the right structure; being a start-up, we must be incredibly strategic, analyzing exactly what we need and where we can get the most added benefit. It’s not only a case of where we can invest the money but also the time.

SR: Finding the right people is actually not so difficult. We have good values and practices, our project is exciting, we are experienced professionals; it’s easy to attract talented people and innovators.

The difficulty, once you are talking to them, is to convince them to work with a small brand that doesn’t have much money yet. The way we do it is that we show our experience, we come up with an interesting solution and show them that if they invest time with us, they will unlock new opportunities, as well as learn to make new things in a better way.

Do you feel there’s more scrutiny on you than there are on brands who don’t prioritize sustainability because it’s your USP? Is that really fair?

BG: In the brands I work with I provide all creative direction – all the way through sourcing and developing, right down to what the customer receives. That means I have a decision in all aspects, from sketch to end result. That comes down to working with everyone involved to collectively make the right decisions. Which means we all are working together. I intentionally avoid working with others who don’t collaborate and are solely out to serve themselves.

The scrutiny is then internal with us. I find it to be the hardest if the product/sourcing/manufacturing is not established. Because I then have to provide far more up-front work than just creating. I have to layout the entire pipeline of how, and in particular where, the product will be made, which really comes down to developing those relationships. That takes a lot of effort, especially for a brand starting out where time and therefore capital is of the essence.

On the other side of the coin, the manufacturing pipeline is usually the one in power. They rarely need another client. Working with them means developing the relationship and proving the product and brand is serious to take them away from their current work.

Is it fair? I don’t really know to be honest. I think if you are going to create a product with sustainability at the forefront, you likely need to spend more time working through why the product needs to exist. If you can determine that it helps the consumer and therefore the world, and is not just a commodity to meet a trend, then that eliminates “fair.” It creates a mission that all parties are embarking on together.

WV: We definitely face more questions, but I think for the most part that I don’t really see it as scrutiny. The reality is that, through what we offer, we have knowledge and transparency that other brands couldn’t provide. One of the hardest things has been to distil all that information in a digestible format. So I see the questions faced as more of an open dialogue, where – if we don’t have the answers or the perfect solution – overall it’s something to take forward to improve us as a brand.

SR: Yes, there is definitely more scrutiny, and no – it’s not fair.

We do the best we can, and raise the bar for the industry because it really needs it, but we are not perfect.

It’s weird because we are put in competition with other sustainable brands, as if it’s a special category of brands, when I see these brands as allies towards better practices.

Is it harder to raise funding for sustainably-minded products? Do you find people question your costs etc. more because they question your motivations?

BG: I believe it’s far harder to fundraise around a product that has no real value or story than it is to fundraise around one that is proven to be needed. Regardless of sustainability or not. If you don’t have a reason, you don’t have a good product. Which ultimately means you have no support.

I have not had an experience where people are not interested in funding something because it is sustainable. I have had more instances where people see sustainability as a “marketing” opportunity, which is then something you need to vet and work out whether they are genuine; whether they believe in the journey they are embarking on. If not, the consumer will see right through that.

In the end, sustainability and product creation do not go hand in hand. If you are developing a product to be sustainable, you probably feel like you have to do it – because it’s the right thing for your brand and nothing can deter you from that. It’s not about marketing; it’s not about fundraising. It’s about making a product that needs to exist and needs to be made in the most healthy way possible for the world, and therefore your business. If you are focusing on sustainability for any other reason, on any other level, it likely isn’t a sustainable purpose.

WV: My experience has been that people want to invest in the brand more for the concept than anything else – they want to feel part of something that could be radical. I think the key thing they need to see to commit is proof of concept; do the shoes work and are people buying them. Sales analytics is really important for this and it has been very difficult to raise prior to launch for this reason.

However, I would say that we have always centred every decision with the consideration of how it can affect potential investment. To be scalable you do need to have a good sense of control because people will want assurance and clarity of how there investment will have impact in the business.

SR: We were able to raise funds for our brand because of the sustainability aspect, so that’s the good news. There are investment funds and angel investors who believe and support businesses like us.

Yes, cost is an issue, especially as a French brand, and we have to educate all our partners about this: innovative, ethical products are going to cost more. It’s about negotiating with them to give us time, that we are running an ultra marathon.

What advice do you wish you’d had when you started out with this?

BG: I don’t know that there is advice that I would be looking for. I do know that I wish there was a way for brands to partner up and source material together. As I see it, major corporations treat this like they do anything else – as IP. Which ultimately doesn’t help anyone. We could all be much better if we collectively worked together.

WV: To see the technical challenges less as problems and more as big opportunities. The project had plenty of hurdles to overcome but, really, these weren’t just issues we faced – they were the problems of the entire industry.

Someone at the factory used to say to me “If it was easy, everyone would do it this way,” so that became the challenge; resolve these problems with easy solutions so that everyone could benefit. Through adopting this mindset, It became a lot less frustrating.

SR: I don’t tend to look at the past wishing to change it. I think all the right and wrong choices that we made lead us to this moment, and no matter how difficult or how great things are we are exactly where we should be.

If you are going to start a brand, no advice can prepare you for the rollercoaster you are about to embark on.

What changes have you seen in the industry since you first started?

BG: Being a part of both footwear and automotive design for 20+ years, I have been through many phases. I have seen “sustainability” go from being an opportunity with regard to designing product, to a marketing story, to now being something more like a “have-to.” In particular in automotive, as government regulation forced it. In footwear and apparel, that has not happened yet. But it likely will have to at some point.

Right now, in footwear, you see it still as advanced R&D projects that are projecting to the future way of creating and is then shared at conventions and conferences to inspire. Rarely does it make full scale production, which hopefully changes soon. For the most part though, it’s all about the materials that are being sourced. I believe it will have to shift far further in the future, but it is moving in the right direction; we’re on the path now where it is no longer just a marketing element.

WV: I think the industry has really started to take to next-gen materials. When I started out I would go to sourcing fairs and be battered with greenwashing and fake “eco” initiatives that were incredibly underwhelming and frustrating. As a result I basically had to turn my back on the industry and work exclusively with next-gen material makers. Often we would be the first to use these materials on shoes, so it would involve plenty of trial and error and a longer process.

However, now there is a growing sense of the industry adopting new, game-changing ideas; established suppliers partnering with next gen-material makers is a radical combination and it’s hugely exciting to see.

SR: Good question.

I think it’s very hard for people in the industry not to acknowledge the importance of sustainability anymore.

Marketing and sales teams still have a long way to go, but even they understand that greenwashing doesn’t work anymore. Most people involved in creating sneakers are now aware of the impact of plastics and toxic chemicals; it has become very hard to look away. And Awareness is the first step towards action.

What would you like to see change?

BG: I would like to see product development change from offering more SKUs to offering products that need to exist. Having real internal conversations as to why the consumer needs it and therefore why the brand needs to execute it.

The answer is always about revenue and market growth. Great brands have a vision and a mission to make that vision clear, more SKUs and offerings take away from that message. Find a way to engage your consumer with meaning and not just transaction.

WV: Brands working together on the Zero-Plastic mission, to support next-gen materials and bring them to market.

The footwear industry can often be a protective and secretive space. However, working with next-gen materials is very different to working with established suppliers. It’s more like a project with many technical elements to figure out; you have to be more patient. However, through brands working together, sharing knowledge, it could accelerate a widescale adoption.

Not only this, but there are huge risks for the developers in bringing these materials to market. For a collective of brands to make a cohesive pact – to say, we will use “x” amount of material, but also share information on how to get the best out of them – could be extremely powerful and provide the suppliers with a lot more clarity in terms of projections and development moving forward.

SR: I would like that unconsidered footwear be banned. If a product is not made to last, is using toxic materials, is uncomfortable or doesn’t have a purpose, it simply shouldn’t be mass produced.

There’s a sense (although it’s starting to fade a little now) that you can either have a good design or a shoe that is materially good in the ethical sense. What do you say to that?

BG: I think humans like to be black & white with statements like that. People won gold medals in far less than what is being performed in now. You have to work with the end result in mind. If it is to provide high performance, then spend the time developing it and you can make it happen.

I think that question is actually better asked in terms of mass production. You can make a great ethical design, but can you consistently do it at the 1,000,000-pairs level that a large corporation wants? That, in itself, is the ethical problem. Really no different than food consumption at that point, its about more, more and more. We don’t need more. We need more why.

WV: I started PURIFIED with the belief that through great design we could not only adopt these ethically good materials but improve them. For me, good design is essential. But it’s possible to have both, and anyone working with these new materials should adopt that as the challenge.

SR: I say F*ck that!

It’s hard work, but it’s possible to make an ethical and well-designed product. Brands have to invest in designers more than ever, and they will get a return on their investment if they leave room for experimentation and creativity.

As a creative, everyday I have to fight for my contribution to be valued in the business and not be seen as superficial. Design is where art and science meet. It means that a great sneaker is a sneaker that conveys an emotion. That’s why people love sneakers so much. Design is inherent to footwear, and if we want people to pay attention to sustainable sneakers, they have to convey emotion; they need to be well designed.

What advice would you give to someone starting a sustainability-centred brand or designing a sustainability-centred product? Is it important to know that perfection isn’t possible or should people strive for it regardless?

BG: Simply put, what got you here will not get you there.

Not to give a non-answer here, but perfection is not a reality in any product. The decisions you make at the start will not be the same at year two or five. And if you make it past ten they certainly will not be the same.

Your search should never end as you should consistently be pushing to evolve. Always strive to make the product the best it can be in the moment it is being created. It should in a healthy brand always evolve.

WV: Stick to your Ethos and don’t compromise. There will be technical challenges and, in those moments, people will try to provide you with solutions that you know aren’t right. It can be tempting to agree to because it’s a step forward, but – in those moments – you have to always consider, “What is this product trying to achieve?”, and that should guide you most.

I think there is a balance to perfection. You should always seek it out because it’s a way to continuously improve. However, sometimes you have to fail to succeed – we probably went through 200 prototypes before we had our final shoe. For that reason you cannot allow perfection to come in the way of progress.

SR: Take it one step at a time. Choose your focus, choose your battles – it’s okay not to be perfect, you will get better and better and better.

Know your “why,” stay focused on your mission during the good and the bad times. Trust your gut. Don’t forget to celebrate even the small victories. No matter what happens, you are going to learn so much and you will not regret it.