Retail

Tracing The Path Of Sustainable Luxury Back To 1970s Peru

How Circular Sourcing Powers Renewable Retail There plenty of firms, big and small, in the shoes and apparel sector that are “going green” to some extent. But new shoe start-up Thousand Fell is taking the quest a bit more seriously than most, with a fully recyclable shoe and a vision for what co-founders Stuart Ahlum and Chloe Songer call circular sourcing that cuts keeps old shoes out of landfills. Greening the apparel industry has been something of a growing theme in recent years - as clothing, accessories and shoe firms large and small have made pledges to incorporate recycled materials, or clear up their supply chain or commit to using sustainable sourcing. How much and how seriously any given brand takes these greening efforts is largely individual. Some brands are legitimately built on and around green concepts that they adhere to with near religious fervor. Others… are perhaps less genuinely invested in building a clearly retail environment that is friendly to the planet’s long term health, and more interested in the branding effect and good PR that go along with being green. The founding team at recently launched shoe start-up Thousand Fell, Stuart Ahlum and Chloe Songer are decidedly of the first troop of greentailers - to the extent that they’ve largely oriented their entire supply chain around building fully recycled products. And they mean fully - in the rubber sole of ever Thousand Fell Shoe there is a set of instructions stamped in small letters - “Please return for recycling.” And they dont’ mean in general, Thousand Fell offers their customers free shipping to return their old shoes once they are approaching the end of their wearable life. Once returned, Thousand Fell disassembles the old shoe and reuses the component parts to rebuild a new shoe. The customer who sent the shoe back, gets a $20 credit toward their next pair. The brand calls it “circular sourcing” and while they are not quite the first brand to incorporate some level of circularity in their raw materials supply chain, Thousand Fell has made it a more foundational pillar of theirs than others have. A move they made, according to co-founder Chloe Songer noted, because they had to. Shoes, she noted, don't really have much a second life. Consumers have some interest in solving the problem but don't actually have much in the way of good mechanism for doing so. Some people donate old shoes, they frequently show up at clothing banks, the Goodwill and the Salvation Army - but if they show any sign of wear and tear they aren’t going to the floor she noted. They are going to a landfill where chemicals will leach out of the, reusable products like leather will rot, and where the plastics will take thousands of years to biodegrade. “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.” Which is not to say that building a better alternative was necessarily and easy thing to do - despite the fact that both founders saw a big need in the market for a better shoe recycling mechanism it took two years of sourcing materials and finalizing design before they has a solid concept for a simple, slip-on sneaker and a simple lace-up. The top is made from recycled soda bottles made to look like leather, the sole is made from zero-carbon rubber and the insole is made of recycled yoga mats. All three of the components, moreover, are made to be very easily separated from each other when they shoes are returned for recycling so that they can be reformatted into a new shoe- or disposed of by composting. Footwear is a challenging business - particularly on the manufacturing side and breaking in with a new idea and new set of textiles, both of Thousand Fell’s founders note, is not easy and involves a higher cost of production. But, they said, consumers aren’t blind to their environmental effects - and a not insignificant number would like to be offered a product that is easy to recycle - particularly when it is at a fairly reasonable price points. Which means the next step for this burgeoning company, is to figure out how to go greener with the product in ways the keep the product affordable for buyers. Fewer adhesive and less stitching seem to be their starting place thus far. “We want to make it really easy and kind of encouragement as a group or as a community to step up,” Songer says, noting that form what they’ve seen in beta they believe people will.

Back in the 1970s, when Annie Hurlbut Zander was an anthropology student researching Andean marketplaces in Peru, she became, in her own words, “addicted” to the textiles she would come across. “In the Andes, each village has its own distinctive weaving style, its own iconography and symbolism,” she told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “You could tell exactly where someone was from.”

When she returned to the U.S. for her mother’s 50th birthday, Zander brought as a gift a sweater made from the fleece of an alpaca. The camelid species lives some 13,000 feet up in the Andes, the largest mountain range in South America, and the production of its fiber fuels the economy for many Peruvians, often via small craft and knitting operations.

Even though alpaca apparel was relatively unknown in the U.S. back then, and often had a reputation for being too scratchy, the sweater was a hit with her mom’s pals, and Zander was encouraged to start importing them. Along with her mother, she launched Peruvian Connection in 1976 and began selling alpaca-based products to boutiques in the U.S.

Sustainable Luxury

Nearly 45 years later, Peruvian Connection operates as what one might call a sustainable luxury brand, and does business not only via boutiques, but also eCommerce. PYMNTS caught up with Zander to learn more about trends in sustainable commerce – a big retail theme going into the 2020s, especially given that millennial consumers are not only attracted to sustainability, but are moving up the income ranks. The interview provided a glimpse of how sustainable commerce – and sustainable luxury – might play out in the coming years.

“All of our goods are handmade except for a few items,” she said, and almost all are hand finished, voicing one of the main ideals required for successful sustainable commerce. The reputation of alpaca has changed drastically in those decades since Zander was an anthropologist, with softer fibers coming into the market – including from young alpacas – and workers figuring out how to effectively dye the material. “You now have more than 100 dyes and shades,” Zander said of Peruvian Connection’s exclusive collection, and others are also available. “The fiber has become more sophisticated over time.”

That increasing sophistication and appeal has caught the attention of larger operations. But relationships with the small-scale artisans are key – relationships Zander started to make when she was a researcher in Peru all those years ago. The idea behind a true-blue, sustainable luxury operation is not to keep negotiating ever-lower prices from fiber sources, but to pay them fairly. “Every year, we send our designers down there to the cottage industries,” she told PYMNTS. “We are there year after year, coming back to the same people.”

Many of those industries are women-owned, and not only are wages higher than the local average, but the jobs can provide transportation, food and other benefits. And competition for those knitters of alpaca fibers can further serve to increase the benefits for those workers, Zander said.

Sourcing from those small operations is not the only trait that can appeal to luxury-minded consumers who are focused on sustainable commerce, she said. The fact that the alpaca live at heights where relatively few other animals live, and don’t cause the same ecological damage as, say, cashmere goats or sheep, is a mark in favor of that animal’s fiber, at least among consumers of a certain mindset.

“People who are educated and really exposed to the world appreciate where the goods come from,” Zander said. “They not only appreciate the design, but it really matters how (the products) are produced.”

Sustainable Commerce Trends

The trend toward sustainable commerce is playing out in multiple ways in late 2019, with much of the fuel coming from millennial consumers. Delivery is one of many areas where that trend is gaining speed. To help consumers order produce and household staples in an environmentally friendly way, startups are offering grocery deliveries through reusable containers and bicycles.

The Wally Shop, in one case, is “a grocery delivery service that uses entirely reusable packaging that’s picked back up again for reuse,” Founder Tamara Lim told PYMNTS in an interview. The eco-friendly service is “a whole new way to essentially shop without having to compromise on convenience, selection or price,” she said, adding that the company doesn’t work on a subscription business model.

As for Peruvian Connection, eCommerce now makes up some 70 percent of its U.S. sales, with a lower rate in Europe, Zander said. The company also publishes catalogs (which boost online sales) and operates eight brick-and-mortar stores, which serve to satisfy the consumer’s need to actually feel those luxury products and fibers in their hands. The company might also break into home goods, she told PYMNTS.

As for Zander, she still has an anthropologist’s love and understanding of Peruvian culture and those Andean marketplaces – but she doesn’t regret the choice she made back in the mid-1970s. “I never saw myself as an academic, to be honest,” Zander said. “I love being an entrepreneur.”

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