Environmental initiatives are being rolled out across the industry, as brands seek to reduce their carbon footprint and appeal to conscious consumers. But a number of leaders in this space are setting comprehensive and ambitious goals, to help drive meaningful change in footwear and apparel.
As part of Fairchild Media Group’s virtual Sustainability Summit, New Balance Athletics Inc. presented a conversation about the brand’s sustainability journey. In “Grey Meets Green,” Chris Davis, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of global merchandising at New Balance, spoke with FN’s deputy managing editor Jennie Bell about setting ambitious environmental goals; sustainability as a requirement not a differentiator, and the value of partners like Jaden Smith.
“Over the course of the last decade, there have been so many entrepreneurial initiatives throughout the entirety of our organization, with people just being so proactive and solution-oriented in bringing new innovative sustainability options and projects to the table,” said Davis. “For New Balance, it’s an expectation of our leadership team that we’re acting with conviction and confidence in this area to really ignite and inflict change.”
New Balance has built its sustainability program around three pillars: planet, product and partnerships. This has been in place for more than a decade, with the company developing a whole culture around driving environmental change. The brand’s previous vice president of responsible leadership and global compliance actually just joined President Joe Biden’s administration to help with sustainability initiatives.
With such an established record for corporate responsibility, it is unsurprising that brand has also set some large-scale goals for 2025. Davis outlined a three-pronged approach, matched to its three pillars of success: to strictly use 100 percent renewable and solar energy in all of owned footwear manufacturing facilities; to reduce environmental impact across its main product collection, and to increase its partnerships with organizations like 1% for the Planet and the Costa Rican Football Federation.
“We’re a product company by nature and we’re a global sportswear brand, so focusing on our most prominent materials is going to be absolutely essential,” said Davis. “By 2025, our hope is to source 100 percent preferred leather and 50 percent recycled polyester in all of our products. And a more innovative concept for our owned manufacturing facilities centers around post-purchase waste: We will be implementing refurbishment programs and repair programs for both footwear and apparel going forward.”
While the brand is very ambitious and committed to its sustainability program, these achievements are partly possible due to the strong partnerships that New Balance has built. One such notable collaboration has been with Jaden Smith, known both for his role in the entertainment world and for his work in environmentalism and entrepreneurship.
Smith joined the conversation to share a few thoughts on the project and his upcoming reworked Vision Racer shoe.
“Community and protecting the environment are really at the center of everything we do with the Vision Racer, especially with our reworked pair,” said Smith. “Every time we drop something new, I feel this reenergizing vibe of the environmental conversation. I’m so happy that we’re able to push the entire industry in this way and that you guys are including me on this. Thank you so much, I’m so excited with what we’re going to do in the future.”
The Vision Racer is just one example of New Balance’s upcoming special projects, utilizing 100 percent environmentally preferred materials. In addition to this, 1 percent of all proceeds from the Fresh Foam Hierro trail shoe — an industry leader and New Balance’s most popular trail shoe — will be donated to 1 Percent for the Planet, while the Green Leaf collection will help consumers identify products where 50 percent or more of the fabric content is made from or sustainable materials.
Davis also spoke about New Balance’s upcoming Made Responsibly launch, a special initiative that takes scraps and excess fabric from factory production and repurposes them into one-of-a-kind pieces. The initiative originally launched in May of last year, to great success, and Davis described this second round as a project he is particularly passionate about.
“The launch sold out in less than a minute the first time around; we’re upping the pairage and we’re really focusing on eliminating waste in factories by bringing these new, unique and fiercely independent shoes to life,” said Davis. “Through everyone having their own version of a totally bespoke, unique shoe, I think this is not only great for the environment, but a great custom, personalized approach for sneakerheads across the world.”
Notably, New Balance is not using sustainability as a means to outshine competitors; the brand wants this to be an area of collaboration across the industry, in order to better serve the planet. Davis described the need for brands to be transparent with consumers and to focus on constantly evolving and learning, not getting caught in stagnation.
“We definitely don’t have all the answers right now, but what we do discover we will definitely be sharing with the industry and it’s totally all-hands-on-deck,” said Davis. “We want everybody, all organizations, no matter what industry, to take this seriously and elevate their practices to be a more conscious corporate environment.”