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New Balance unveils the world’s ugliest shoes

It may be ugly, but New Balance’s Made Responsibly shoes signal a sustainable new approach for the company.

New Balance unveils the world’s ugliest shoes
[Photo: New Balance]

Last week, New Balance released a new collection of sneakers in its Made Responsibly line. The shoes are made with a mix of factory scraps and new materials, and each pair is unique, thanks to the variety of sourced materials and the design is the standard New Balance 998 model. There were about 2,700 pairs made, each priced at $180, and they sold out as soon as they became available on May 1.

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Unique is one way to describe them. Another would be the sneaker version of a Spider-Verse glitch. Or, you know, just plain ugly. Yet, as any Yeezy release will tell you, there is no universal standard for ugly kicks. The glitch-looking models are primarily for show, with more standard 998 versions for sale.

[Photo: New Balance]
On the surface, it appeared to be yet another marketing stunt, mixing the obsession of sneaker culture with a little sustainability hype. After all, high-end sneakers made with factory scraps or recycled materials are nothing new—Steve Nash debuted Nike’s “Trash Talk” shoe in 2008—but behind this design curiosity and sneaker drop is a message about New Balance’s new sustainability goals and initiatives.

“When you look at our industry, scarcity is a common strategy,” says Jeff McAdams, New Balance’s vice president of global marketing. “In this case, it looks like a limited product launch, but there’s more depth to why we did it, why we got to it, and where it’s going to go.”

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[Photo: New Balance]
In April, New Balance unveiled what it calls its Responsible Leadership strategy, which focuses on the company’s sustainability goals and initiatives between now and 2030. The strategy includes using 100% renewable electricity across its global operations by 2025 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 as a signatory of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. The company also is working toward sending zero waste to landfills from its footwear factories by 2025, and the brand will launch an apparel repair pilot this year (with the Renewal Workshop). New Balance cites polyester and leather as its two largest drivers of climate impact, so it will be using 50% recycled polyester and 100% eco-friendly leather by 2025.

The brand needs to make a splash, since it’s lagging behind at least one of its biggest competitors on the sustainability front. Last year, Nike reported using 100% renewable energy across its operations in the U.S. and Canada, as well as diverting 99% of its shoe manufacturing waste from landfills in its top facilities. Adidas had also previously announced similarly ambitious sustainability goals.

McAdams says that once New Balance’s initiatives were announced, all the company’s internal teams began working to hit the goals. The product team found it had almost 3,000 extra soles and came up with the idea of using factory scraps to create a limited collection. The used leftovers include pigskin overlays, body mesh, lining, laces, molded collar straps, and the sole, while the new materials are used to line the interior of the shoe and include foams and toe boxes.

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[Photo: New Balance]
“This isn’t a marketing initiative—this idea came to marketing from our product teams,” says McAdams. “We had the opportunity to talk about it in a way that makes it a beacon for our other sustainability initiatives.”

Over the last couple of years, more and more brands have begun using physical products—particularly those in limited supply—as marketing tools, hoping social hype and earned media will help them break through the noise created by the thousands of other ads we all see every day.

For McAdams, while marketing is a part of the shoe drop, it’s also meant to reflect the company’s new goals. “You set it as a guiding principle, then product and marketing teams will use it as inspiration, and that’s how you end up with something like Made Responsibly,” says McAdams. “Our aim is to do things that, when you get under the hood and see it, which in this case is getting to zero waste, it’s real.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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