Walking the Walk

Shoe Companies and Sustainable Production

Jack Dobbrow
May 12, 2017 · 8 min read

By Jack Dobbrow

Z Shoes’ business model exemplifies the trend of corporate responsibility — both social and environmental — in the footwear industry.

Carefully scraping trees for sap, working with underprivileged villages in Peru, and hosting intimate marketing concerts. None of this seems like typical responsibilities of a shoe company, but Z Shoes isn’t like any other shoe company. With its non-profit values Z Shoes is aiming to revolutionize the footwear industry.

The Ideology

Founded by two Californians with extensive backgrounds in social work, Z Shoes is just one product behind a campaign to prevent human trafficking. Dave Batstone and his son Zak are approaching the issue with an upstream, or preventative, solution. Employing oppressed communities empowers the people economically and structurally, strengthening their resilience against oppressors.

Z Shoes provides this solution for an Amazonian village in Peru. After recognizing the illogical contradiction between the village’s rich natural resources and lack of material wealth, Zak realized he could help. Following their upstream model, they needed to find a way to employ the villagers with livable wages and ensure the economic value of their local resources return to their pockets. All he needed was a product, and that’s how Z Shoes came to fruition.

Despite its non-profit values, make no mistake about it, Z Shoes has highly marketable merchandise. Z Shoes isn’t a charity but is rather a good product first and foremost, according to Dave. Publicizing the ecological and social benefits of the shoes helps create brand loyalty, however the quality of the shoe is what initially attracts buyers. This strategy is effective according to a self-identified conscious consumer, Lindley Dobbrow.

“Ultimately style and a comfortable look are what catch my eye, but brand values are what keep me coming back.”

— Lindley Dobbrow

With a slogan like “Walk like a Hero” it is easy to understand the deeper attraction behind the product. It appeals to conscious consumerism, which is “purchasing products or services produced with social and environmental considerations in mind,” according to the Network for Business Sustainability. The founders believe that the practice of conscious consumerism is growing and will continue to with the progressive-minded younger consumers.

The brand values of Z Shoes are explicitly stated as “putting human dignity and environmental impact before profit” and its track record proves it does just that. On top of the empowering effect the company has on the community, Z Shoes sends 2.5% of their revenue back to the Peruvian community they source from. With this money the community can invest in their infrastructure and become stronger.

“Z Shoes looks like a casual shoe, but what makes it a luxury product is the story behind it and all of the hands that touch it.” — Zak Batstone quoting singer and brand supporter Aloe Blacc

In order to maintain grasp of the sustainable direction of the company, Dave and Zak denied equity investment offers. Instead, they built their company primarily off of Kickstarter contributions from close followers that support the ethical implications of the project.

The positive humanitarian impact the company makes is impressive, however arguably most impressive is the minimal impact it has on the environment. The natural resources in the Amazonian village combined with the company’s ingenuity make it possible to manufacture a shoe with no damage to the local environment.

Starting with sourcing, Z Shoes works to continually improve its product life cycle. The Sharinga trees that grow naturally in the area provide a way to harvest rubber sustainably. The local well-paid employees have the knowledge and technique to extract the latex from the tree by scraping it, or tapping it, as opposed to cutting the whole tree down. The practice is so sustainable that Zak recalled from a conversation with one local that the man “harvests from the same tree that his dad - and his dad’s dad - used to harvest from.”

Local Peruvian harvester rubber tapping the Sharinga tree. Photo by Brandon Crocker.

The rubber isn’t the only material in Z Shoes that is sourced from Peru. The entirely organic and sustainably harvested cotton and dyes come from nearby areas. Even the manufacturing process occurs within Peruvian borders, specifically the capital Lima. Consistent with the theme, only fairly compensated workers in safe conditions construct the finished product of the shoes.

The next endeavor for Z shoes is finding an alternative to the animal-based leather they currently use. One possible replacement that Zak found through extensive research is pineapple skin leather. If successfully implemented, Z Shoes could add vegan to their accomplishments alongside its already earned labels: organic, fair-trade, and sustainable.

The Responsibility

Z Shoes sets a standard for ideals and aspirations, however it isn’t realistic to compare it to the monsters of the shoe industry. The company has a light scale of production and it plans to keep that scale manageable for its workers and their environment.

Sustainably managing a large company is a difficult task. The amount of material and scale of production makes it hard to work with the environment in a respectful way. The globalization of manufacturing complicates monitoring work conditions and social implications.

Acquiring the raw materials necessary to produce the quantity of shoes that industrial giants do is innately damaging and controversial to yield. Rubber harvesting, if done by clearing, can be resource intensive and contribute to deforestation. Additionally, there is both an ethical and sustainable argument against leather production. Leather typically comes from large domestic livestock which, when farmed intensely, has devastating environmental impacts. Lastly, factories where shoes are intensively manufactured emit harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Reports of large, global companies committing ethics violations surface every so often. These infractions are less common after the nineties, however they are still present. Two of the most notorious cases of worker neglect in that decade come from the footwear industry. Industry leaders, Nike and Adidas, ran unsafe and unfairly compensated sweatshops in Asian countries. The reason they outsourced their labor to the dirtiest of warehouses was to save money on manufacturing costs.

Strong reactions against the social and environmental misacts of these larger companies sparked a movement within the industry. The negative publicity forced companies to right their wrongs and now their momentum has continued in the right direction.

Social and environmental responsibility benefits companies by creating a competitive advantage. The market for conscious consumerism in the footwear industry is growing and dragging businesses with them.

Deckers Headquarters in Goleta is an LEED certified building, meaning it reaches a high standard of operational efficiency and uses renewable energy sources.

Deckers is one large footwear company that emphasizes sustainable environmental and social progress. The company practices transparency through releasing Corporate Responsibility Reports every fiscal year. The company creates a culture of ethical and sustainable practices for its employees to follow and even offers incentives for community service or car-free commutes to work.

Deckers donates both money and resources to worthy causes. It supports HERproject, investing in wellbeing of women working, and gives returned post-consumer shoes to companies that distribute them to poverty stricken communities. The company takes great pride in donating $190,036 to environmental impact mitigation last year, however its more useful contributions come from the changes they’ve made in their operations.

Deckers has a specialized Ethical Supply Chain team dedicated to taking care of its global workers. Deckers selectively chooses locations of factories it works with and intensely audits them to ensure quality workplace conditions. In its strict audits last year, only 4% of its partner factories failed, according to Deckers’ CR FY16 Report. Unsatisfactory establishments must go through the Deckers improvement program in order to be reinstated. In 2017 the company plans to improve worker quality of life even further by bringing benefits to workers in countries where it isn’t required and better educating factories on handling of hazardous chemicals.

Deckers also has its own centralized team focused on greening its operations. The company tries to “consume less natural resources and leave a lighter footprint,” according to the CR FY16 Report. Deckers approaches this goal with a variety of strategies.

The two main materials used in composing Deckers shoes is sheepskin for the leather and cardboard. Ninety-eight percent of the sheepskin Deckers uses is from tanneries that pass intense audits based on ethical and environmental factors. The company also takes extraordinary precautions with cardboard, ensuring that it avoids high-risk fiber sources. Additionally, cardboard is material that can be recycled. Thirty percent of the cardboard used is post-consumer recycled content and Deckers aims to expand that to 70%.

Often times environmental regulations and worker safety go hand-in-hand. Deckers improves its standing both by eliminating the use of conflict minerals, enforcing a strict Restricted Substances list, and reducing Volatile Organic Compounds in its products.

Deckers is conscious of its energy and resource usage company-wide. In offices and retail stores it has waste diversion programs and water efficient systems. The company tracks energy usage from US retail stores and 80% of its global manufacturing partners. Collecting this data is the first step towards locating areas of improvement. For this reason, Deckers aims to begin tracking Greenhouse Gas emissions and its waste volume in 2017.

Deckers as a company shows its commitment to its employees and the planet. Its improvements are impressive, however it should be noted that nearly two-thirds of the company’s emissions generated come from its materials. A certain amount of that is inevitable, but shoe companies are now trying to design shoes with materials that limit impact.

The Competition

Ecodesign is the idea of creating a product design to reduce the environmental impact of a product’s life cycle. It entails reducing impact in any part of the life cycle: raw materials, production, distribution, or final destination. The concept is embedding itself in the footwear industry because it is beneficial to the business, not just the environment. Ecodesign opens entrances into new markets, launches of new products, and most importantly catalyzes competitiveness through cost reduction, according to the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Nike and Adidas are examples of competition that come through ecodesign. As direct competitors they have been pushing each other to go further with their product development. Nike’s Flyknit shoes consist of recyclable material from post-consumer plastic bottles and now Adidas has a fully biodegradable shoe made from artificial spider silk. The fact that these two companies are making real efforts to decrease the impact of their products shows how ecodesign breeds competition and drives sustainability in the industry.

The progressive movements we are witnessing from large companies are promising. The question is whether companies can value ethical behavior over excessive profit. Z Shoes has adopted that mindset and it is one that could revolutionize the footwear industry.

Large companies would have to scale back immensely to reach a point that is sustainable and it is doubtful any realistically will. It might just be the world we live in where money reigns superior, but for now the responsible and innovative companies continue to strive for both profit and corporate responsibility.

The progressive ideology and values of Z Shoes, the corporate transparency and responsibility of Deckers, and the ecodesign competition between industry leaders reflects the growing importance of sustainability within the footwear industry.

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