There’s a reminder carved in tiny lettering on the rubber sole of a pair of white sneakers from the new brand Thousand Fell: “Please return for recycling.” The brand is the first to launch a model where it takes back its shoes to be recycled in their entirety, paying for customers to ship back old pairs, so the company can assure that they are taken apart and every component is recycled or composted.
The founders, who both worked in the apparel industry, found that consumers in their twenties tend to replace white sneakers—maybe the most popular basic shoe—every four to six months. “They’re really frequently used, and if they’re worn through even slightly when they’re donated for a second life, they go straight to landfill,” says Thousand Fell cofounder Chloe Songer, who previously worked at Gap. Once in a landfill, leather and rubber leach chemicals and take decades to break down; plastic can take centuries. “Is it okay to stamp your logo on something and then have it sitting in a landfill for 1,000 years, for eight to 10 generations?” she says. “I don’t think so.” The founders saw an opportunity to design a better system.
Songer and cofounder Stuart Ahlum, who was working in China for another shoe brand when the two met, spent two years sourcing materials that were as sustainable as possible. The first two styles available are classic slip-on and lace-up sneakers. The upper is made from recycled plastic bottles with a corn coating that makes it look like leather; the sole is made from the same carbon-neutral rubber that Patagonia uses to make wetsuits. The insole is made from recycled yoga mat material, with a mesh liner made from aloe vera.
Working closely with recyclers, the team designed the unisex shoes to be easy to disassemble, to allow the materials a second life. The outsole, for example, is attached with water-based glues so it can easily be removed at the recycling facility. Some of the components can be recycled into new shoes, while others will be composted or recycled separately. The designers are now exploring ways to go further, designing the next iteration to use even fewer stitches and adhesives.
“We’ve been able to cost-engineer this to make sure that it’s still affordable, and that we’re still running a healthy business,” says Ahlum. “But it has taken a lot more time and effort to develop into these products. Footwear is an old-school style of manufacturing. People want to just use traditional textiles and synthetics and plastics and leather.” The cost of making the shoe, unsurprisingly, is higher than for a typical sneaker, especially when the cost of taking back the shoe for recycling is included. But the company believes that there’s demand for a new way of making shoes and that it will be able to build brand loyalty.
The design is a different approach from what Adidas took with its Futurecraft Loop, a beta-test shoe made from a single material that can be ground up and made into a new shoe. “They grind the whole shoe down, and it’s very difficult to do,” Ahlum says. “And there’s a scale issue there because you have to change radically how a shoe is constructed.” Adidas, which plans to release its shoe to the public in 2021 after a limited release this year, also can’t fully recycle one shoe into another yet; the recycled material only makes up 10% of the next shoe.
Thousand Fell, which is continuing to explore new materials including lab-grown leather, sees end-of-life issues as the next step in sustainability for the industry. “We consider ‘sustainability 1.0’ to be what Everlane has really championed, with supply chain transparency—so who made your product, was it ethically sourced, where did it come from, what kind of materials are within the product?” Songer says. Next, she says, were innovations in materials such as Rothy’s washable, 3D-knitted shoes made from recycled bottles. The new frontier is the circular economy, and brands “being accountable or responsible for what happens to that product that they brought into the world when it’s over.”
The shoes are designed to be as durable as possible, and classic enough that they won’t go out of style. But when a pair wears out, a customer can use a prepaid shipping label to send them back to the company, which will work with a local recycler and industrial composting facility and give the customer a $20 credit toward their next pair. (If there’s life left in the shoes, the company will clean them and donate them.) The brand’s goal is to make it as simple as possible for customers. “We want to make it really easy and kind of an encouragement as a group or as a community to step up,” Songer says.