Selling products may be what keeps the industry alive, but leading footwear and fashion innovators are equally focused on what happens when consumers are done using them.
On April 28, Fairchild Media Group — which includes WWD, FN and Beauty Inc — brought together executives in the space for the “Scaling Solutions: The Innovator’s Agenda” virtual sustainability forum.
For Unless Collective cofounder and chief executive officer Eric Liedtke and Timberland vice president of global footwear design and development Chris McGrath — who joined the conversation titled “Can Fashion and Footwear Finally Take Responsibility for End of Life?” — the missions are similar, but the approaches are different.
Liedtke, a 28-year footwear and fashion industry veteran, spent 26 of those years at Adidas, ending his tenure in 2019 as executive board member of global brands. During his time with the athletic giant, Liedtke became alarmed by plastic waste and the footprint it leaves behind.
“Plastic is made roughly from 9,000 different chemicals, so you’ve got this robust, beautiful material that’s been invented, but no one took into account when they invented it the end of life,” Liedtke said. “What happens to plastic when you’re done using it? The answer, we’re finding with more alarming urgency, is that it never goes away, and it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and enters the food chain, it enters our bodies.”
Liedtke launched Unless Collective in August 2021, a plant-based streetwear company with apparel designed to be biodegradable.
“I’ve banded together with fellow soulmates and visionaries on what we could do. We said we have to go from the outside in, disrupt the status quo and create a different material feedstock in a different solution for the fashion industry to tap into,” Liedtke explained. “Every conversation, every brief, every product description, every design, every development starts with what happens when you’re done using it? Because ultimately, that’s what matters to the footprint and one of the greatest sins of fashion, which is the problem of waste.”
As for Timberland, McGrath — who had stints at Nike, Puma, Clarks and others before landing at the outdoor brand — said the company’s eco-innovation push has two focuses. One focus is designing products for circularity.
In April, the outdoor brand delivered what McGrath called its first foray into looking at closing the loop, the Timberloop Trekker City Hikers, a boot with outsoles that can be removed through its Timberloop product take back program.
“It’s a great program we’re excited about because it means we can design for disassembly without compromising performance,” McGrath said. “And the materials can then be sent down their respective recycling stream.”
The other area of focus is sourcing natural materials through regenerative agriculture.
“We’re looking at regenerative practices, with leather and rubber being an exciting opportunity for us,” McGrath said. “It’s about what goes into the product, not just taking the product apart and then sending it somewhere. It’s understanding all the materials that make up that product with the end of life in mind, looking at how it can be recycled and reused and then brought back to life.”
Despite coming up with separate solutions, both Liedtke and McGrath are wary of roadblocks that could potentially hinder progress.
“Unfortunately, petroleum-based plastics and synthetics are the cheapest prices out there. It’s why the incumbents, in general, can’t get rid of their plastic addiction,” Liedtke said. “For us, every material, every construction, every method and dyeing technique is developed with the mantra in mind of how do we get to zero waste? They all come in a premium, they all come at least two to 5x the price of petroleum, but it’s important for us to continue to drive down this road to provide solutions for others to follow.”
As McGrath added, “One of the biggest challenges is building infrastructure, having it in place, and communicating that to the consumer so the consumer understands that there is a place to send product and it can be disassembled. It’s also being transparent in what happens to that product and those materials as it gets taken apart and recycled. Designing all the way through from a systems standpoint is critically important — and having designers and developers thinking that way from the outset is important. From a regenerative material standpoint, it’s about working to build supply chains. We currently have pilots underway for our top volume natural materials, so we continue to test and learn and scale.”
The answer to these challenges, according to Liedtke, comes from the top.
“To pilot new things that are going to be more expensive, more cost prohibitive, they are going to require a commitment by the board level, from the CFO, CEO down, that’s going to see this as an opportunity, not just an innovation cost,” Liedtke said. “The incumbents are complicit in the current efficiencies that they’ve made, that they’ve created with cheap materials, cheap labor and shipping things all over the world. That’s where start-ups have an advantage because we can take those shorter margins, we can build a different business model through d-to-c, we can take those things into account and not be beholden to shareholder public company interests or private company investor interests.”
For McGrath, the fixes will come from building efficiencies in the process.
“From a product-led company, it’s building them into the infrastructure internally to be able to visualize things in an efficient way,” McGrath said. “For instance, Timberland created a maker space where designers and developers can get hands-on and realize things without sending information away, then sending samples back to us — it’s minimizing that back and forth. The other side of that is coupling with digital. We talk about reduction in samples, reduction in timing to create samples and the waste. That’s where digital product creation comes to the forefront. With the hands-on aspect, they’ll work hand-in-hand. That’s critically important.”