Anna Yona of Wildling Shoes: Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Tackle Climate Change & Become More Sustainable
Lead by example and let them participate — Kids learn most through imitation and participation. We try to include our children in our world of thought and action. At the dinner table we often talk about current politics and the state of the world, things that are going on in our heads, things we are working on or questions that we ourselves have been unable to solve, yet. We try to keep an optimistic view and always look at what can be done, instead of what cannot be done. That way, I hope, the children will not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of challenges we’re all faced with but will learn to tackle what they can change first and draw hope and energy from that for the next bigger task.
As part of our series about how companies are becoming more sustainable, we had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Yona.
Anna Yona, together with her husband Ran, founded the company Wildling Shoes in 2015. After Anna completed her degree in Middle Eastern Studies and English literature at Tel Aviv University, she worked in marketing, as a freelance translator and journalist. The couple initially remained rooted in Israel. Their three children grew up barefoot there before the family moved to Germany in 2013. At that point, finding suitable shoes for kids who were used to running around barefoot became the biggest challenge. None of the models seemed to meet the requirements in terms of freedom of movement, sustainable materials, and fair production. That’s how the idea of Wildling Shoes was born.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Wildling kind of happened to us by chance. We had recently moved to Germany with our family and were starting a new life. Our kids — who had grown up mostly barefoot up until then, needed shoes to get through the German winter. They simply refused to put up with conventional footwear that was restricting their feet and free movement, so we had to become creative.
Looking into the data of how frequently people suffer from footwear related health issues, we quickly felt that we were onto something important. With the right design and function, we were certain that we could create a product that would really solve a problem. That gave us the energy and commitment for what then turned out to be a rather lengthy product development process.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
This generation is faced with two huge challenges that are intricately connected — climate change and global injustice. We believe that companies play an important role in (re)shaping global societies through their economic activity. It is time to accept that responsibility and to take an active part in designing a world we would rather live in.
As a producer of consumer goods our main negative impact lies with the use of resources within our value creation processes. Our aim at Wildling is to achieve a positive impact in all stages of our value creation and to become fully circular. The main next steps are further reducing plastic in the shoes, a full repair service, and recycling methods for our outsoles and textiles. We are partnering with farmers to grow our raw materials in regenerative cultivation projects and with manufacturers to establish local European supply chains. We are rolling out social onboarding programs in our factories and are working on fair compensation schemes that will go far beyond minimum wages. We are also dedicating time to the team itself, creating safe spaces for belonging and diversity, self-reflection, communication, and resilience.
We believe that it is all interconnected and that we need to tackle social and environmental issues at the same time. The complexity can sometimes be overwhelming, but on the bright side, if done right, solutions can be multi-solving, too. The results are manifold — more biodiversity, more carbon storage, better water retention in the cultivation projects, future perspectives, and better pay for the people involved in creating value, less waste, less chemicals, less plastic and at the same time a higher quality and an extended lifespan of the product for our customers.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
We have big goals for the future! By 2025 we want our main materials to come from regenerative agricultural sources. We are helping to establish and finance these projects in Europe. We are also working with Rewilding Europe to rewild big natural ecosystems. In ten years, we want to have helped return 500,000 hectares into truly wild spaces. We will also invest in a circular economy, to help not only our own company but the industry become more sustainable. By 2031 we want to have reached 100 million people with our message and help each other create a future in which we can live healthy, fair, and sustainable lives with equal opportunities for all.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
First, I believe we need to redefine success. Is that really best measured in monetary terms — aka profits — or are there other indicators that can spell success even better? Of course, a company needs to be able to pay its bills and some impact also directly depends on the financial resources available to fund a project or invest in sustainable improvement. However, in the end I would always rate a beneficial impact on our social and ecological environment as the highest indicator of success. Ultimately this can translate to “conventional”, economic success, too. If your team feels safe, motivated, and committed, this will take the company further. Treating your partners on eye-level is the basis for long-lasting, reliable relationships that will create high-quality goods. A brand that stands up for its values and is committed to meaningful change may inspire a strong identification with the company and its cause and therefore create a loyal customer base.
The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
1 and 2) Paint a positive image of humankind and kindle optimism
The most important thing we can teach our kids is how to look at human nature. Are we really the competitive, selfish, and short-sighted species that we are so often portrayed to be? Or are we rather inherently kind, solidary, and able to solve the huge challenges we are faced with, by tackling these problems together, sharing our knowledge and striving for the benefit of all? I believe the latter holds true. This idea of humankind will lead us and our children to create better relationships — between family and friends, in a work environment, in societies and ultimately for the global future.
3 and 4) Name the culprit and take it down
What stands in our way are systems designed to suit an outdated kind of society — selfish and competitive. Within these systems — as we can well see, if we look at the “winners” of our society — egocentrism, greed and a craving for power often lead to a concentration of power and money, which in turn generate more power and money. We must show our kids that these systems are not a law of nature but man-made (in the true sense of the word). And that they can be changed and improved, where they have shown to be deficient or simply out of date. This way we can create the framework for a more diverse, inclusive, just, and sustainable society.
5) Lead by example and let them participate
Kids learn most through imitation and participation. We try to include our children in our world of thought and action. At the dinner table we often talk about current politics and the state of the world, things that are going on in our heads, things we are working on or questions that we ourselves have been unable to solve, yet. We try to keep an optimistic view and always look at what can be done, instead of what cannot be done. That way, I hope, the children will not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of challenges we’re all faced with but will learn to tackle what they can change first and draw hope and energy from that for the next bigger task.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
The best thing about our entrepreneurial journey has been that we literally had no clue. We neither knew how to make shoes, nor how to run a business. Most people knew better than us. Not listening to their advice has been a blessing since we were (and still are) able to question anything and everything and to find our own way of doing things. Had we listened to their expertise we would have ended up with another version of the old. Therefore, just this:
- Trust your intuition
- Work only with people you like
- Focus on what you love to do and delegate the rest
- Find a cause bigger than your ego
- Don’t listen to anyone ;-)
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Building an organization is first and foremost about shaping relationships with many different people that will teach you something or help you — even with a little gesture — when you most need it. So, it’s hard to pinpoint the one story.
But for me as a female founder and mother, the one person who helped me most along the way is my husband and co-founder, Ran. Since our three kids were still quite young when we started the business, him taking over the giant share of the family management was essential for me to be able to focus on Wildling. At the same time, he has always had a clear vision and very good intuition of how the product, brand and customer relations should develop. It is not always easy to be both — husband and wife as well as business partners but knowing that we can entirely rely on each other is invaluable.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
With each little success Wildling has had, I have become more and more painfully aware of the responsibility that we have — as founders, as a team, as people — to contribute our share to turn around what is going terribly wrong in the world. As an organization we have an even bigger responsibility than as individuals to question how we act and to find ways to do better. At the same time, Wildling is offering more opportunity to have a positive impact than I could ever have hoped for. I believe our purpose is to co-define a regenerative economic system, by trying and failing and succeeding, by encouraging others to try, and by learning from each other to generate transformational change together. Soon.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
“Impossible is not a fact, it is an attitude” (Christiana Figueres) and “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them” (Albert Einstein)
It has always been very important for me to be able to think freely and creatively and to act by intuition and conviction. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is people who kill an idea, because it might actually change something or those who will stick to a well-trodden path, because anything else is scary and unfamiliar. At the same time, I draw a lot of energy from collaborating with people who can think outside the box and who will courageously question the status quo. Now more than ever, we need to believe that we have the means and capabilities to transform what we have known into something better — a brighter, more sustainable, and just future — one step at a time.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
You can view our minimal shoes here: https://us.wildling.shoes ! Follow us on IG @wildling.shoes and FB Wildling Shoes and my journey @annawildling .
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!