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December 10, 2020
The global footwear industry is worth more than $365 billion dollars, with a projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.5% through 2027.
Historically, many brands have relied on constructing shoes with leather or plastics and have utilized low-cost labor to maximize their bottom lines. As consumers begin to demand more environmental accountability from corporations in their design and manufacturing processes, startups such as Third Mind Footwear are taking steps to answer end-users' requests for eco-friendly alternatives.
Following his three-decade career in the footwear industry, Founder Steve Hamel set his sights on designing a men’s formal dress shoe that is primarily made from recycled materials, is durable and, most importantly, comfortable.
“I wanted to really challenge myself with solving a problem,” he explains. “If you talk to any guy and you pose them the question, ‘what are your least comfortable shoes,’ hands down, every guy I've known and met will always tell me the least comfortable shoes they have are dress shoes. And I just set out on a mission to figure out a way to design and manufacture dress shoes so that they perform just like your favorite athletic shoe. And that's what I think I've accomplished.”
California-based Third Mind Footwear touts "an extensive approval process for selecting suppliers that provide parts for manufacturing which requires fair wages, renewable energy programs and pollution eliminating programs." New products must meet "rigid" quality control standards before entering the market, including testing for harmful chemicals.
Hamel recently spoke with Waste360 about developing sustainably-sourced formal footwear while leveraging technology and responsible manufacturing from the sole to the laces.Waste360: Have you always been interested in designing your own footwear?
Steve Hamel: What really has intrigued me about footwear over the years is on the one hand, you get design driving everything. On the other end, it all has to be engineered properly. You've got to have creative types and engineer types work together to be able to produce a finished product. That's where I think I've been the best – in being able to work with both types of people and bring them together to bring a product to market.
Waste360: When did you become aware of the issue of plastic waste and how did that turn into Third Mind?
Hamel: I've always approached things with a very responsible attitude, whether it's taking care of people, setting people up to succeed or just showing that I'm a caring individual. My son in law who works for the [Center for Ocean Solutions] at Stanford University, was telling me about how he had been in some of the most remote parts of the ocean. They do a dragnet of the water to see what they find. And he said that even in remote parts of the ocean, they found plastics. And that just blew me away. When I found out about that, and from then on, it really registered with me that we have to figure out a way to do a much better job to keep plastics out of our environment.
Waste360: What challenges did you come in with the design process?
Hamel: There were a ton of challenges for sure. We work with a shoe form called a shoe last, and design that last so that it, number one, is comfortable. Number two is figuring out how to take classic designs and convert them into performance shoes. Really, there's, there's no difference between the way my shoes are made, and the way running shoes are made. And then the big challenge was coming up with the materials so you could pull them off to be dressed. You really don't know until you run all kinds of different experiments. And then you have somebody in a tux wear them.
Waste360: How long did they take to develop?
Hamel: About a year and a half to get everything just finally dialed in and to where I could go into mass production.
Waste360: Can you tell me more about the concept behind putting people first and the idea of sustainability?
Hamel: It’s really an interesting topic because if I didn't put people first, number one, I wouldn't be here today. There's no way I could have accomplished this by myself. It was a team of people that work together. And we just sat around brainstorming different ideas and traded ideas. I think that from a standpoint of putting people first, you've got to be able to give them hope for the future, and they have to want to do it together and that's where the whole concept of people first comes.
Waste360: One pair of Third Mind Footwear shoes saves 20 water bottles from going into waterways and land sales. How were you able to accomplish sourcing recyclable materials?
The way we were able to accomplish the concept of keeping plastics out of the ocean and reusing what is available to us was all part of the development process. We knew we could accomplish several things like sourcing recycled tread for the polyester uppers. That was, on the surface, quite easy. But then when you go, how do I prove this is actually recycled? Then you've got to do your homework and actually visit the facilities.
One nice thing about China is that the government is very strict about this type of thing, and they issue red tin numbers for companies that just specialize in this. They actually have auditors that go in. So, that was very, very helpful. It’s following the philosophy of reduce and reuse. All of our laces and web tape are all recycled. The fabric on a footbed is recycled, the foams on the footbed and the foam on the inside of the shoe is 70% recycled. It’s really throwing it out there to all the different companies you can source from and spending a lot of time doing the homework and making sure everything is legit. And then to top it off, we also wanted to make sure that the shoes can hold their shape really well. We designed a plastic insert made from 100% recycled materials. Not only did we make the shoes with a lot of recycled materials, but we're keeping their shape by using recycled plastics as well.
Waste360: Where would you say the footwear industry has been failing when it comes to creating sustainable solutions?
I think one of the most difficult things in the eyes of most people in the shoe industry is their development processes are weighted toward finding the least expensive way to develop shoes. We did just the opposite. We embrace high-quality material, and we embrace technology. Our shoes are not in-expensive shoes. Thank goodness for direct-to-consumer marketing, we pass on a lot of savings to the consumer. If this had been the traditional model, we would have to charge at least $200 for this shoe, but because it's direct to consumer, we're able to charge quite a bit less. And that that's been a big help. But from the shoe industry itself, I think getting any mature industry to change is difficult. What I'm seeing now is a lot of startups, and I think that's going to force a lot of change.
Waste360: Where do you see innovation going in the industry in the next five to 10 years with companies striving to become more sustainable not only in their manufacturing processes but in their materials as well?
Some people are going to some very remote corners to find the cheapest labor, and that follows a pattern that has existed probably for the past 50 years in the shoe industry. But there's another group of people that are embracing technology instead of finding the cheapest labor in the room, eliminating labor steps. I think that as things move forward, it's going to take far fewer pairs of hands to make a pair of shoes five years from now than it does even today.
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