Chatting to Alex Ward, founder of aspect climate projects
Ali Clifford, had a chat with ethical shoe brand ‘aspect climate projects’ founder, Alex Ward as part of the incredibusy #MeetTheCreative series.
The ethical shoe brand is on a quest to inspire change in the footwear industry.
One that helps to create shoes better for the Earth, and better for your feet.
They have created a range of unisex, plant-based shoes that have had each and every component independently tested for its impact on the climate and biodiversity.
No other shoe brand has gone to this level of detail to ensure its environmental credentials and transparency.
What is your mission?
Our aim is to make the most climate-conscious shoes possible, and we also want to be fully transparent so that customers are completely clear on every component that goes into our shoes and the impact that they have on the planet.
Is the appreciation for the environment enough these days?
It’s a really important start point and motivation for looking for solutions to climate change, but with it being a really complex issue I think each industry needs to look at it in its own way. For footwear, I think we need to improve the way we design but we also need to start selling in a more responsible way. Something we say a lot is that we didn’t set out to sell more shoes, we started to create better more ethical shoes, so it’s not about purely maximising sales, its about being more transparent and educational with our approach so customers understand exactly what goes into their footwear.
While there’s a tendency for companies to mark their own homework when it comes to sustainability, we partnered with Biodiversify, an independent conservation consultancy who looked at every material we used and it’s impact on biodiversity and the climate. They concluded that ‘aspect climate projects’ are “a gold standard example of how shoe design can truly consider environmental impact” and we openly share their findings on our website.
How did the idea of ‘aspect climate projects’ come about?
I grew up in the countryside and my parents managed a nature reserve, so I have always had an interest in environmental issues. Having worked in the footwear industry for many years I was aware of the damaging materials that were going into products, and I was growing increasingly frustrated at how the term ‘sustainable’ was being used for marketing purposes.
Nowadays, a lot of people want to “do their bit” to help the world and for me that meant using my experience within footwear to try and create positive change within the industry. So, while there have been a lot of positive changes going on recently, I felt that there was a real opportunity as a start-up to be really innovative about what we did because whilst bigger companies have quite strict cost structures and timelines, we didn’t have that so we were able to look at every material and think really innovatively about what we did.
I looked at the problem holistically, developing a design principle that considered every aspect of the shoe for its performance and impact on planetary well-being and this meant looking both inside and outside the shoe, considering all hidden components. I focused on looking for nature-based solutions, sourcing plant-based alternatives which delivered on sustainability while also being flexible and hard-wearing enough to be used in shoes, thus creating ‘aspect climate projects’.
What challenges did you face in the process?
Shoes are really complicated so for us the challenge was to find materials that delivered on sustainability whilst still giving us the performance that we required.
We partnered with companies such as Pinatex who make an pioneering hard-wearing alternative to leather that is made using discarded pineapple leaves, a by-product from the food industry. We found other traditional materials such as cork and natural rubber, and these fitted well with our ethos as the materials are harvested from their trees so they stay in the ground and continue to sequester CO2 as they grow.
However, for some materials like our padding and internal reinforcements we couldn’t find solutions within the footwear industry that we were happy with so we took inspiration from mattresses that use coconut fibres and natural latex padding. The waste coconut husk fibres combined with cork are used for internal components such as reinforcements and the footbed. These materials have durability, breathability and elasticity that provide long-lasting support and comfort, and through their, and the pineapple leaves, upcycling, we help to prevent the release of carbon through the normal disposal or burning. Using these by-products also means there is no need for any extra land, water or fertiliser during the growth phase and their purchase gives added income to farming communities, helping to sustain plant-based, decarbonising economies.
Finally, once we had found all of our materials, we worked through a lengthy process with our factory to try and find ways to integrate these materials into our ethical shoe brand product and get the performance that we needed.
Our shoes are crafted in Felgueiras Portugal
Using unorthodox materials is a challenge, so we’ve been fortunate to work with Pedro and his team at Tofel, who showed patience and dedication in finding solutions and help create a shoe we’re truly happy with.
They are a third-generation shoe-maker with a focus on quality over mass-production and strive to work with more sustainable materials. Also, being located at the centre of Portuguese shoe manufacturing, we are able to minimise shipping distances and further lower our carbon footprint; making them a perfect partner for aspect climate projects. So when you ask #WhoMadeMyShoes – we can tell you…*
You’re operating on a pre-order basis, why is that?
We wanted to ensure that all of our shoes have a home to go to from the start so we chose to work on a pre-order basis. This means that we only order the amount of materials needed and cuts out the need for ‘guessing’ what customers might buy which in turn minimises over-production and waste. We appreciate this means a longer wait for our customers to get their shoes but we would like our customers to make informed, considered purchase choices so we are proud to adopt this slow-fashion ethos and hope to be at the forefront of this in the footwear world. Any returned shoes will be re-distributed to customers on the waiting list who may have missed out on the pre-orders.
The delivery elements have also not been forgotten when it comes to acting in the best interests of the planet. The shoe box is made from FSC-certified post-consumer recycled cardboard and is fully recyclable and biodegradable, as is the tissue paper the shoes are wrapped in. The boxes are printed with vegetable-based inks and the shipping bags are made from a corn-based material that can be home-composted. Shipping itself is carried out worldwide via a carbon-neutral delivery service, and we work with Ecologi to offset one tonne of carbon for each pair sold. For context, a ‘typical’ sneaker creates 30-40kg of CO2 to produce and although our shoes would already be lower than this, we are offsetting 1000kg to help create more meaningful change.
To ensure maximum wear from each pair we have also partnered with ‘Sal’s Shoes’, a charity that donates shoes to people in need around the world. Customers who donate their worn ‘aspect climate projects’ shoes to this cause will receive a discount on their next pair.
What is your wish for the future?
I’m really happy with the first style that we have developed called ‘Suber’ (from the Latin name for a Cork Oak), and through the process of developing it I’ve noticed that a lot of the things that we are doing and the materials we are using, are extremely scaleable. Hopefully we are showing that things can be done differently and better so there is hope that the materials could become industry norms.
We’re aware that we are entering a market space full of claims about sustainability, but our message is gaining in momentum. We are proud to be doing things differently and for the lengths we have gone to to ensure full accountability and our hope is that we can continue researching, developing and designing more climate-conscious shoes.
Better Shoes Foundation
A not-for-profit initiative to phase out harmful practices and fast-track sustainable development in the shoe industry www.bettershoes.org and on instagram @bettershoesfoundation
Fashion Revolution* was founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. Since then, they have grown to become the world’s largest fashion activism movement, mobilising citizens, brands and policymakers through research, education and advocacy. Find out more here.