These days it seems nearly every brand has a sustainable design element in its collections and is ushering in a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. Brands claim to be passionate about their good intentions. They say their efforts are authentic, genuine and transparent. Unlike previous green waves, for example, that involved too much hype and too little substance, eventually turning off consumers, this time it’s different. For starters, consumers are better informed, more concerned and voting with their purchase power. This is far from a fringe movement. Conscious consuming is attaining macro-trend status. The fact that sustainable designs are now better looking, more durable and competitively priced is fueling the demand.
Likewise, companies are dramatically changing the way they treat employees—and focusing on aspects of the workplace that extend far beyond good pay and benefits. Management has seen the data: A happy employee is more productive, creative and enthusiastic. And Millennials and Gen Z-ers aren’t wired the way previous generations were when it comes to work-life balance. The workaholic “greed is good” mentality is getting the pink slip as employers introduce a “good is good” philosophy, trying to do right by their employees from a workplace environment and career path perspective. It’s considered the most effective way to attract and retain talent, especially in a tight labor market.
Is this all too good to be true? Are green and good just the new black, or do these movements represent a paradigm shift in consumer shopping behavior and industry business norms? I, for one, want to believe the efforts signify real change. For starters, it would justify the work that went into creating this special “Green & Good” issue. Beyond that, I believe it’s simply the right thing to do. If, for example, the way a shoe is made can reduce negative impact on the environment, then what’s the hold up? Studies show that when presented with an eco-friendly option—style, quality and price being relatively equal—consumers will choose the green version almost every time. Eco-friendly design has moved beyond the enticement stage to a consumer expectation. Choosing to ignore sustainable design practices is just bad business.
Consumers love a good story, and the ones behind these eco-friendly initiatives are inspiring. In the case of Timberland, such initiatives now extend to cattle ranching. Colleen Vien, sustainability director and the subject of our Last Word (p. 22), says the brand’s good, better, best strategy for sustainable design inspired it to go to the source of one of its most used materials, which also happens to have a more negative impact on the environment than tanneries. Long considered not the shoe industry’s problem, Vien says if Timberland is true to its green ethos of striving to always do better, then ignoring who it sources its hides from is not acceptable. The company’s efforts to start partnering with ranchers who practice regenerative agriculture (substantially reducing the carbon footprint and combating climate change) is just one of the many ways its eco-friendly efforts are authentic, tangible and relatable to consumers. The first such shoes are set to debut next fall, and the company hopes the industry will follow suit soon afterward.
Numerous other good green stories can be found in our feature Riding the Sustainability Wave (p.16). They range from breakthrough manufacturing practices that look to revolutionize the leather industry (Ecco’s new DriTan process dramatically reduces water and chemical usage) to Sole’s ReCork program that collects used wine corks across North America and transforms them into footbeds. Cork is one of nature’s wonder materials: It’s sustainable, renewable and incredibly comfortable as a footbed—just ask Birkenstock’s legions of fans. Sole is looking to collaborate with other brands that want to swap out eco-unfriendly manmade materials for its recycled cork. Other sustainable materials are gaining traction as well, including sugarcane (used in Allbirds footbeds), pineapple skins (featured in Bearpaw’s new Spring ’20 collection) and Cleansport NXT (a probiotic odor control technology being introduced by Keen in place of fluorocarbon material that doesn’t break down).
On the flip side of good materials is plastic, which has attained Darth Vader status. That’s why the efforts of Twisted X and Sperry to collect plastic waste and convert it into fibers that then become shoe uppers presents another feel-good story. Both brands are taking their efforts a step further, with financial contributions to environmental causes that speak to their target customers. Because for sustainable design and cause-related outreach efforts like these to make a meaningful dent (an estimated 300 million pairs of shoes end up in landfills every year), the entire industry must pitch in so the effort snowballs and eventually becomes standard practice. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, the only choice consumers will have is sustainable designs.
Until then, Dani Zizak, vice president of corporate communications and social responsibility for Wolverine Worldwide and the subject of our Q&A (p. 10), is a firm believer in the greater good approach to sustainability and CSR. As point person of the $3-billion conglomerate’s green and good efforts, Zizak reveals how doing good trumps bad every single time. Brand to brand, internally and outwardly, Wolverine Worldwide’s efforts reflect its ongoing journey to do right as best as it can. It’s better for the company’s customers, employees and the planet. You might even say it’s all good.