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Q&A: How Aldo Approaches Authentic Sustainability In-Store and At Work

To hear it from David Bensadoun, CEO of Canadian footwear brand, Aldo, sustainability has always been a part of his business.

Leading the company his father founded on the principles of ethics and compassion, has been a point of pride for Bensadoun and one he’s carried forward in shaping Aldo’s story.

The retailer has become the first fashion footwear and accessories company to be certified climate neutral by South Pole, a leader in climate projects around the world.

And Aldo’s efforts to defend the environment don’t end with its products or production. The retailer has made a mission out of eliminating waste from its campus in Montreal by integrating composting and recycling into its facilities. In stores, Aldo has incorporated boxes with built-in rope handles to dissuade the use of plastic bags and the brand has worked with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to further minimize its impact on global warming.

Sourcing Journal caught up with Bensadoun to understand how Aldo defines sustainability and how the footwear retailer sees itself in the future.

Sourcing Journal: How do you think having a history and heritage rooted in sustainability has positioned Aldo now that the rest of the world has caught on?

David Bensadoun: My father founded the business at a time when the world was really waking up to social justice. He was part of the Beatnik generation which preceded the hippies and there was a lot of passion coming from things like the civil rights movement and later on the gay rights movement. His goal was to create a successful capitalist company with a socialist bent–one that would take care of its staff in a warm way and would make good decisions for everyone involved.

I’m really proud of that heritage and it has been guiding us as we’ve made big decisions regarding sustainability. We’ve been working hard on sustainability since 2013 but 2017 was the big moment where we were able to declare that we’re the first fashion footwear company in the world to be certified Climate Neutral.

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As for the rest of the world catching on, I think that’s great! If, by saying ‘the world’ you mean consumers, that’s great for our business as any time consumers choose Aldo they’re making a choice for good. If, by saying “the world” you mean our competitors, I can tell you my great hope is that our whole industry will catch on.

SJ: On that note, what does it mean for a business to be certified carbon neutral? Do you think that holds value with the consumer?

DB: It means we’re doing our part—not only as key players in the industry but also as citizens of the world. We have taken steps, implemented changes and have made investments to offset the carbon emissions produced by our stores, offices and distribution centers. Since 2017, Aldo Group has reduced 48 percent of emissions in our own operations.

Customers are absolutely more sustainably conscious but may not be necessarily exposed to every facet of the sustainability movement as many brands tend to highlight their efforts specifically to product. I think the certification definitely holds value to the customer and it ultimately makes it easy for them to purchase responsibly.

Our customers can buy their fashion footwear from any brand. We believe that a growing percentage of consumers are actively seeking out brands that are doing the right thing for the environment. We want to make it clear to consumers that by choosing Aldo, they are making a choice for good.

SJ: How does Aldo approach designing sustainability into a product?

DB: We are constantly evaluating ways to create, source and produce responsibly. Our sustainability team hosts workshops with our product designers to educate them on the impacts of shoemaking. We evaluate the environmental impact of common materials and then look at the benefits of using environmentally preferred materials (ex. recycled polyester).

We also discuss how design can affect the overall environmental footprint of a product. We are actually working with the sourcing team to pilot test water-based glues instead of the traditional, solvent-based glues used in footwear.

Even from a packaging perspective, our shoeboxes are soon to be made entirely recyclable, made from 80 percent post-consumer recycled materials and designed with built-in paper-made rope to facilitate transport and ultimately eliminate bag use.

SJ: How have your employees reacted to seeing the sustainability changes you’ve made in your own offices?

BD: We hold ourselves to a high standard when it comes to waste diversion and reducing the overall waste we generate. In 2013, we adopted a zero-waste philosophy that challenged our associates to reduce waste sent to landfills or incineration by 90 percent or more in our facilities.

At our Montreal campus for example, we’ve made all associates responsible for sorting their own waste at centrally-located recycling hubs. We also collect organic waste through composting. In 2018, our headquarters produced 48 tons of compost. Takeout packaging, including coffee cups, are also made from renewable materials that are 100 percent compostable in industrial facilities, and we have even banned plastic water bottles. We’ve also optimized our sample management process to better control and share product samples between teams, and to reduce the total volume of product development waste.

As for the staff’s reaction, it has been really positive. We have a young and switched-on workforce so for a lot of them the moves we’ve made at the office just match what they were already doing at home. Montreal is a very progressive city, so a lot of the things we’re working on are top of mind here.

SJ: Do you think creating a sustainable work environment is important to committing to the movement?

DB: It’s critical. The consumer of today, regardless of generation, is extremely savvy and generally more socially conscious. This isn’t just a movement from a product perspective but also a people perspective. We are a purpose-driven organization. Our purpose: a journey to create a world of love, confidence and belonging. That purpose drives our company’s culture and it comes to life in so many ways. I think getting this right “at home” in our own offices and stores is actually the only way for the movement to be real–consumers are craving authenticity and they would know if we weren’t real.

SJ: What role do industry groups play on the road to a sustainable footwear and apparel industry?

DB: Industry groups serve as valued partners and counselors in our journey to sustainability.

It is a priority for the Aldo Group to work with like-minded brands and retailers through the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. We have been actively involved in developing the Sustainable Apparel Coalition Higg Product Tools and using them to measure the benefits of our eco materials and future products. Sustainable Brands is also a great partner and an excellent platform to share best practices with the entire industry.

We received our climate neutral certification from the South Pole Group, another valued partner and leading provider of global sustainability solutions and services. Prior to certifying a company, they perform a thorough evaluation of methodologies, results and calculations and they ultimately validate that what a company is putting into place is working.

We joined the Leather Working Group in 2016 which is a non-profit organization created by brands, retailers, tanners, manufacturers, technical experts and non-governmental organizations. They work to transparently improve the environmental performance of the leather industry and we have been working with them to source leather from the tanneries they certify.

SJ: What’s next for Aldo’s sustainability programs and how will social responsibility continue to play a role in your business?

DB: We have some really exciting initiatives launching this year. This past April, we launched a partnership with Give Back Box that provides a platform for ALDO customers to recirculate unwanted items back into the economy by donating old shoes, clothing, handbags and other goods to charities, reusing their ALDO shoebox (or any box) and prepaid shipping label.

This coming August we will begin phasing out single-use shopping bags from our store locations in North America and the UK, encouraging our customers to leave with just their shoe box. Eco-designed with a built-in rope and made from 80% post-consumer recycled materials, this box will be entirely recyclable.

Just before the Summer ends, we will launch our first ever sustainable product. I can’t share the exact details or my brand team will kill me, but let’s just say that one pair of these shoes uses up a lot of plastic. And they look amazing!

We are proud to be the first fashion footwear and accessories company in the world to be certified climate neutral. Global sustainability solutions provider South Pole certified the ALDO Group’s climate neutrality and confirmed that the company is successfully offsetting its Scope 1 and Scope 2 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as a portion of its Scope 3 indirect emissions related to the company’s business travel. We are now working to expand the scope of what we will offset for next year.