It’s difficult to find trainers that score high for both ethics and aesthetics. Rare is it that you find a brand that is committed to ethical and sustainable production. For the most part, you have to compromise, with most sneakers brands containing a plastic compound that is hugely polluting to produce, as well as many being produced under unethical working practices.
But there’s hope. Certain under-the-radar brands have been working tirelessly for some years now on developing sneakers that can do good while making you look damn fine too. And zero hemp in sight.
One brand, in particular, if you want simple, everyday flats to go with every look; they’re called Ethletic.
Back in 2004, the trainers brand was weirdly enough focused on an altogether different goal (pardon the upcoming pun). At that time, the founders of the label were responsible for bringing the world’s first fairly manufactured soccer balls onto the market. This was a pioneering achievement in an industry that was extensively known for child labor and inhumane conditions. With footballs being largely made from rubber, up to this point there was no sustainability seal for rubber, so Martin Kunz (co-founder of Ethletic) worked to create one.
Fast-forward six years, and a fairly-traded pair of sneakers, manufactured in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way and using the established Ethletic supply chains, comes into being. The Ethletic sneaker becomes the first sneaker brand worldwide on the market to be certified with the Fairtrade quality seal for organic cotton.
A compelling story thus far, we had to speak with this under-the-radar, impressive brand to learn a little more about what drives the label and what we can expect next from them.
It’s crazy to think the Ethletic sneaker brand came to fruition by way of a soccer ball. The first fairly manufactured soccer ball in the world, no less. Did the founders, James Lloyd and Dr. Martin Kunz, always have sneakers in mind for the future?
No, in the beginning they did not. Sneakers were more or less “accidentally“ incorporated into the portfolio. The producers of the soccer balls happened to be capable of producing fair and organic sneakers as well, so campaigned for giving it a try. Thus a success story was born.
You are one of only a few sneakers brands to use natural rubber; a process in which it is extracted by hand in Sri Lanka, the first place in the world with FSC certified rubber plantations. Firstly, can you explain what this means? And secondly, do you consider Ethletic to be revolutionary in the sneakers market?
“FSC“ stands for “Forest Stewardship Council“ and is an international certification system for forestry. Worldwide valid principles are guaranteeing that products of wood and paper with the FSC seal are stemming from responsibly farmed forests. This ensures the ecological functions of a forest survive, and in doing so secures threatened animal and plant forms from extinction and protects the rights of local inhabitants and employees. Our natural rubber plantations in Sri Lanka are afforested every year from the beginning. Considering Ethletic has brought to life the very first FSC rubber plantation we, in all modesty, are revolutionaries!
There’s been a lot of dialogue in recent years around social entrepreneurship. It’s inspiring then to hear that Ethletic was the first sports brand to voluntarily donate 15% of the purchase price of a pair of Ethletic sneakers to its workers’ welfare association. And continues to do so today. Do you see this as something that makes you stronger as a company, despite the financial obligation?
Without a doubt, yes! A minimum wage and workplace safety are the foundation, but we want to go much further than that. We also want the employees in our production facilities to be able to have a positive relationship with their customers from the “West”, which is often viewed with skepticism. We achieve this goal by giving the workers a voice in their workplaces and by promoting their own community projects with the premiums you have mentioned. We see Ethletic as a champion for the social concerns of production workers, and this is at the core of our brand and our daily commitment.
Could you share a little on the creative process and how you go about deciding on new styles?
Our designer Johanna Balzer lives and works in Berlin, a real fashion capital. She is very much in tune with the current trends and visions, with the latest collections received well by our customers. She presents the designs to CEO Marc Solterbeck and the Social Media team at an early stage of the process so she can gather the feedback from the customer base. Sometimes we even let our followers decide on certain designs and/or colours. This is always a lot of fun! For 2018, the evolution of our brand will make a big leap forward since we are about to launch the new Ethletic Hiro. It is the first real sneaker – fully padded – worldwide to stem exclusively from certified sustainable resources. The fair trade organic cotton comes from Pakistan and is harvested by the first Fairtrade certified small farmers’ cooperative in the country ever, which has been instituted by our company. The sustainable natural rubber for the soles and latex padding, that also serves as glue, comes from FSC certified plantations in Sri Lanka. Our whole supply chain is “green”, so to speak. To cut a long story short, for our customers we made the almost impossible possible: a sneaker that is eco-fair and fun to wear.
Can you tell us about how the brand’s early perceptions of sustainable and ethical fashion differ to how you see the industry progressing today?
For us, stable fair trade supply chains are the basis for everything. Starting from our natural resources, we develop the designs that we hope will convince our customers. For us, the seals – Fairtrade, FSC, GOTS – are absolutely crucial for our brand. We will never compromise substance for style. Nevertheless, we aim to provide products that are real ethical alternatives to established “non ethical“ brands. We are very happy about the evolution of fair fashion. Today, it is possible to make real fashion statements relying solely on ethically made pieces.
Finally, if you could share one piece of advice with someone considering shopping in a more conscious way but they don’t know where to start, what would it be?
First, you should definitely give secondhand clothes a (second?) chance. There are various Apps that make secondhand shopping so much fun. And while you’re online anyway, you should follow some fair fashion bloggers. They will give you loads of inspiration and you will find that you don’t have to abandon your sense of style at all when deciding to shop more ethically.