Circularity is a fashion buzzword, but few brands can infinitely turn old products into new ones. Rothy’s now can.
When you step into a Rothy’s store, you’ll find tidy rows of multicolored ballet flats, which have a cult following. You’d never know each pair had two previous lives.
Rothy’s makes shoe uppers from discarded water bottles that are melted and transformed into fibers. And now, thanks to a new recycling program, Rothy’s accepts customers’ old shoes, then melts the plastic in them once more to create a new pair. Rothy’s describes this material as twice-recycled thread.
Rothy’s approach epitomizes the circular business model, in which products are infinitely recycled rather than thrown away at the end of their life. Sustainability experts argue that this approach is crucial to helping fashion curb the enormous damage it is inflicting on our planet: the industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon-dioxide output and 92 million tonnes of textiles that are thrown into landfills every year.
But to create this circular system, Rothy’s had to overcome many challenges. First, it had to design shoes from the start that could be easily disassembled. It then invested two years and extensive financial resources to build out a complex, global supply chain to recycle the individual materials. Rothy’s efforts illuminate both the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead for the fashion industry as it moves toward a circular future.
FASHION’S CIRCULAR FUTURE
Economists first developed the idea of a circular economy in the early days of the environmental movement in the 1960s, when it was clear that human consumption was driving the planet toward collapse. Extracting natural resources from the Earth ruins ecosystems and biodiversity; shipping them to factories around the world to be manufactured into products generates greenhouse gases and pollution. Scholars imagined a future where we would stop using raw materials and instead recycle existing materials into new products—much like an aluminum can can be infinitely recycled back into a can. This would mean eliminating pollution because we would never throw anything away.
This sustainable future hasn’t yet materialized, but over the past decade—thanks to advocacy from environmental organizations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation—more companies have made forays into circularity. In the fashion industry, “circular” has become a buzzword that brands use to market themselves as sustainable. The problem is that many brands use the term to describe one small part of their business, rather than an entire model. Everlane, for instance, creates clothes out of recycled plastic, but these clothes can’t be recycled at the end of their life, so they will end up in a landfill. Adidas is developing a fully recyclable sneaker, but it is just one style out of the hundreds the brand releases every year.
“It is really vital that the circular economy is not just seen as recycling, but as a larger systems transformation,” says Laura Balmond, fashion initiatives lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We’re seeing a lot of companies adopt the language of circularity, but if you just apply it to some parts of the business, you risk it being nothing more than a marketing tool.”
Balmond adds that pilot programs are making progress toward bringing circularity into the mainstream as a business opportunity. Rothy’s circular program is one such pilot. It’s steered by Saskia van Gendt, who joined Rothy’s two years ago as head of sustainability after a career as a sustainability-materials manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Our goal is to close the loop on the circle,” she says. “We need to recover products, then convert them back into new materials that will go into the next pair of shoes.”
DESIGNING A CIRCULAR SHOE
Over the last century, footwear has become increasingly complex. Sneakers, for instance, contain dozens of materials, including leather uppers, rubber soles, plastic midsoles and insoles, metal eyelets, plastic laces, and more. Conversely, most shoes in Rothy’s portfolio use only four materials: the recycled plastic upper, outsoles made of rubber and plastic, and algae-based foam insoles. “This is a gift, from a sustainability perspective,” says van Gendt. “Fewer materials means there is less to take apart, which makes it likelier that we can create a real circular model.”
Part of the reason Rothy’s shoes are designed this way is that the brand’s cofounders, Roth Martin and Stephen Hawthornthwaite, were on a mission to tackle the plastic pollution crisis by using as much ocean-bound plastic as possible in their products. They found a supplier that collects plastic bottles on land 30 miles from coastlines (which would otherwise have ended up in the ocean), then processes them into pellets that can be used to make new products. “As we researched the material, we realized it was extremely durable and versatile,” says Martin, who is now Rothy’s president. “We could transform it into fibers of every color, texture, and thickness imaginable.”
In 2015, Rothy’s built its own factory in Dongguan, China, equipped with specialized 3D-knitting machines that could knit these plastic threads precisely to the shape of the uppers of the shoes, resulting in no waste. Over the years, Rothy’s designers have used this technology to create all kinds of new products, from men’s driving loafers to luggage. “Since we don’t have unlimited materials to work with, we need to be creative with what we have,” says Lavion Gibson, Rothy’s design director. “The machines can create different textures and patterns, but it is all the same material.” Rothy’s new bag collection, for instance, has complex textures like herringbone and houndstooth, but all of it is made from the same ocean-bound plastic.
Van Gendt began piloting shoe recycling two years ago, starting with damaged shoes in the company’s factory, then inviting Rothy’s most loyal customers to send shoes in. Rothy’s sends these shoes to a third-party recycler to be taken apart and each material is recycled separately. The shoe’s plastic upper is cut out, then melted and turned into black fibers, which are then sent back to Rothy’s factory in China. There, the fibers are dyed into different colors, then put back into the production line, where they are turned into new shoes. (The company also collects the other materials, like rubber and foam, and sends them down separate recycling streams. It is currently working to incorporate them into future shoes.)
COLLABORATING WITH THE CUSTOMERTo scale up this circular program, Rothy’s requires customers to return shoes. But van Gendt says that this is a tricky problem because it is also important, from an environmental perspective, to keep shoes circulating for as long as possible. “Fundamentally, we don’t want to drive customers to recycle shoes earlier than they need to,” she says. “We make the shoes machine washable, so they last longer. We even encourage customers to resell their shoes.”
Rothy’s shoes go through rigorous testing, withstanding being flexed 120,000 times, and washed 10 times, which equates to several years of normal usage. But eventually, they will wear out. And after six years in business, there is now a critical mass of Roth’s customers that are ready to send their shoes back. To encourage returns, Rothy’s offers a $30 store credit voucher for each pair of shoes sent back, and so far, thousands of customers have taken the brand up on that.
Recycling these shoes isn’t cheap either; and for now, the program adds additional cost to the bottom line. Rothy’s must pay the recycling companies to take the shoes apart and recycle each material, then pay to ship the recycled fibers back to the factory in China. Van Gendt says that these twice recycled fibers are currently about double the price of the ocean-bound plastic, but Rothy’s absorbs the additional costs, so the customer does not have to pay more. But over time, as the circular program scales and the volume of returns increases significantly, van Gendt says that costs should go down.Martin says the goal is ultimately to bring all of this recycling in-house. He points out that at the start, Rothy’s partnered with third-party factories to manufacture the shoes, but eventually, the company built its own supply chain, which allowed the brand to drive down costs. “If we can eventually bring the entire recycling process in-house, we’ll be able to scale this circular program much faster and more cost efficiently,” he says.
Balmond, of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, agrees that a circular system will eventually be much more profitable for companies because they will not have to buy materials for their products. But transitioning to this new model will be very expensive, which is why most companies are not willing to do it. She says it takes investment from companies like Rothy’s to kickstart the process and build the infrastructure required to create this circular future.Van Gendt, for her part, believes that companies that invest in a circular business model now are setting themselves up for financial success in the years to come. “There is a future where all of these costs go down because you’re using the same material inputs many, many times,” she says.