Rothy’s: Using Purposeful Production To Make Products For People And The Planet
The fashion industry remains infamously dirty, responsible for more annual carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. In fact, fashion might fall second only to oil in terms of overall environmental impact.
Rothy’s, the $1 billion leader in the “slow fashion” movement, believes that together with its brand community, it can model more responsible business methods and thereby significantly reduce the toxic footprint of its industry.
The secret is simple, Rothy’s argues. It’s “making and buying fewer, better things that last longer.” For that reason, Rothy’s, the Bay Area global lifestyle brand, focuses on transforming eco-friendly, bio-based materials into machine-washable wardrobe staples such as shoes and bags.
Think upcycled bottles. But also algae-based foam, hemp fiber, castor beans, and a host of other innovative, natural solutions to stem our unchecked collective consumerism. The idea is fashion that stays “as good as new for season after season.”
That’s one main definition of “circularity,” the latest iteration of sustainability, and Rothy’s main goal. “At Rothy’s, we think of it as a continuous loop that renews itself, from material and manufacturing to product and recycling. Our vision is to use twice-recycled materials in new products — to close the loop, like nature does.”
Best foot forward
In fact, Rothy’s intends to be fully circular by 2023. What exactly that means is still a work in progress, given there’s no perfect model out there — and no strict definition of “circular production.” But Rothy’s considers sustainability holistically, say Sasksia van Gendt, chief sustainability officer, considering “every part of our entire business operations and production. How can it all be more environmentally responsible?”
By extension, says van Gendt, the company defines circularity as filling every gap in the journey of a product’s lifecycle. “That begins with the materials that we’re using, how we’re designing each shoe, how we’re producing it in our wholly-owned [China-based] factory, and eliminating waste through things like 3D knitting,” she says. “We’re designing products so they can be washable and truly last as long as possible.”
Then, at the end of a product’s useful life, the company’s working on innovating ways to rebirth it as a new item. “Circularity closes the gaps from start to finish,” the company says.
So, by next year, Rothy’s plans for all its products to be crafted with majority recycled, 2x recycled and/or bio-based materials — and every product Rothy’s releases onto the planet will have an “end-of-wear solution.” Rothy’s also plans to reach carbon neutrality in 2023 by curbing its footprint and investing in nature-based solutions for whatever offsets might still be necessary.
Succeeding at that ambitious mission depends heavily on the company’s continued Lead With We efforts — intense collaborations including knowledge-sharing across the organization and its industry. That’s why in 2021 it assembled a Sustainability Council, a group of scientists, designers, and other experts whose mandate is to co-create industry-leading, zero-waste solutions.
Stepping into the fray
One member of that council is van Gendt herself. Prior to joining Rothy’s in 2020, she was senior director of sustainability at environmentally-friendly icon Method Products, and before that she served at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for six years.
“At the EPA I was looking at how we avoid waste and mitigate climate change through more innovative solutions,” says van Gendt. For example, “How can we prevent ocean plastic through different packaging innovations?” She also worked on multiple partnerships with municipalities to establish recycling programs.
Among all she learned at Northwestern and Leiden University in the Netherlands was “the science and methodology of calculating a carbon footprint.” Later working at a “forward-thinking part” of the EPA became “a proving ground for the idea of sustainability. How you implement that science in practice is so different” than one learns in a lecture hall, says van Gendt.
In the private sector now, she says she’s thrilled to see an impact that’s meaningful and measurable. Nearly half a million pounds of ocean-bound marine plastic and more than 125 million single use plastic bottles have been transformed into Rothy’s signature thread to make its shoes, handbags, and accessories. That’s not a drop in the bucket.
Walking a mile in the customer’s shoes
Similarly, in studying environmental science, you don’t get any practice answering that age-old marketing question of which comes first in a customer’s calculus — sustainability or sheer quality. Yet that question remains no less relevant today at Rothy’s than at almost every purposeful company out there.
Van Gendt cites “timelessness … durability, and versatility” of its line as the main purchase drivers. But comfort might be number one. Van Gendt and many online reviewers have mentioned that Rothy’s shoes made from recycled bottles require “no break-in period.”
If you’re a five-year old company in a super competitive space, then sure, says van Gendt, it helps for the likes of Mandy Moore, Katie Holmes, and Meghan Markle to be photographed in your shoes and quoted praising them. But it’s likely they, like all customers, probably wouldn’t wear them if they weren’t “impossibly comfortable” first.
Van Gendt argues, “We’re still at the point where customers are primarily shopping based on attributes” other than sustainability. Yet as for goodwill and the word-of-mouth that follows, “That kind of customer engagement is everything,” she says. So, “Companies have a responsibility to start with making a really amazing product.” Yes, “Sustainability should be woven into all of those elements of a great product. But foremost, the product, in this case footwear, should be really comfortable. It should be really durable. It should have that performance built into it. That’s why customers will keep returning to a company.”
“However, we are seeing in other markets, Europe, for example, and the UK, more customers that are shopping with sustainability primarily in mind,” says van Gendt. “So, I think that there’s a toggling where at some point sustainability might become a primary purchase driver” in the US market.
How to flip that toggle? Van Gendt recommends, “At the company level, I would really encourage companies to look at science and data-driven strategy to develop what they should be going after. Take the time to do a materials assessment and understand where you might be producing waste throughout your supply chain. Take the time to do a carbon footprint and really go after the biggest pieces in your carbon footprint.
“Within this confusing world of sustainability,” she says, “there are these trusted methodologies and the data can really inform the direction that companies can go, to go after the lowest hanging fruit, the biggest opportunities that they have. And then later on, of course, they can think about some of those maybe more far-reaching innovations that aren’t available to them yet.”