After 25 years in the footwear industry, Sean Scott was disheartened and disillusioned by the seemingly inescapable ugliness of overseas mass production. So much so that he thought he might never return to the shoe business.
Years-long stints at Nike, Asics, Vans, and most recently, TOMS, were full of highs and lows that both invigorated and deflated the designer and product developer—in often unequal measure.
The joy that he gleaned from creating was tempered by a knowledge that the global supply chain—an ostensibly immovable force based primarily overseas—was defined by unhappy workers and inhuman conditions.
“I was part of a process, or reinforcing a system, that keeps labor cheap,” he said. “We end up buying things that are made by people who aren’t treated well. Cheap labor cheapens people, and I couldn’t be a part of it anymore.”
But the industry’s siren song brought him back. “It turned out that I really loved shoes,” he said. “So the way to stay in the business was to make them closer to home.”
Rather than build a brand solely around product, Scott decided to address the issues that had driven him to the brink of quitting. Together with his co-founder and industry veteran wife, Shannon, Scott laid the groundwork for ComunityMade in 2017.
Nestled in the heart of Los Angeles’ Arts District, just a stone’s throw away from Skid Row, the Scotts’ burgeoning casual shoe business relies entirely on local manufacturing. As its namesake would suggest, the fiber and flavor of the city is inextricable from the brand’s identity.
With a workforce of 30-100 local artisans that waxes and wanes, ComunityMade is committed to bringing manufacturing back to the City of Angels, which once boasted around 50 footwear factories, Scott said.
The Scotts crave a sense of belonging, and their desire to embed themselves in Los Angeles’ thriving arts culture has birthed a robust giving program.
For each pair of shoes sold, ComunityMade donates $10 to programs that provide services to the surrounding community. Consumers can choose to donate their dollars to youth-based support programs like Youth Mentoring Connection or artistic incubator Street Poets, Inc. They can also opt to support The People Concern, which helps get homeless citizens off the street.
During his time at TOMS, a business built on a commitment to giving back, Scott learned that engagement, outreach and service were indispensable to a brand mission. “Business can do good,” he said. “It doesn’t just have to be about creating a commodity.”
The benefits—and pitfalls—of being local
In the wake of lingering tariff tensions with China and recent coronavirus concerns, Scott is more resolute than ever in his decision to bring manufacturing stateside.
Still, finding consistent local partners has presented a challenge he didn’t fully anticipate.
“There are some great craftsmen and artisans here in L.A., but there aren’t a ton of them,” he said. ComunityMade has relied on their employees to train others, including people off the street, and young hopefuls looking to find steady work.
American footwear and apparel production has been depleted over the past few decades, Scott said. And even as brands are increasingly looking to move out of China, local manufacturing remains a pipe dream for many labels due to the roadblocks presented by cost and scalability.
Scott described the sticker shock he felt upon launching operations in Los Angeles. In China, factory workers earn between 30 cents to 50 cents an hour, he said, but in the U.S., he’s committed to paying over minimum wage, or at least $15 an hour.
“When you pay someone 50 cents an hour, they don’t have health care, their buildings aren’t up to code, they’re allowed to work 18-hour shifts on a regular basis, and they’re living in crowded dorms,” he said. “That’s not acceptable to any of us—but most people don’t have to see it.”
Despite paying his workforce about 30 times more than the industry average, Scott insisted that proximity to the brand’s home market is a huge advantage.
“Our lead times at TOMS were 18 months minimum, but we can go from design through testing and delivery in two months here,” he said. “On top of that, we don’t have to carry a lot of inventory because we can turn things around fast.”
Geographical closeness allows for increased visibility into the company’s supply chain, affording him a newfound sense of ease. Rather than spending “13 hours on a plane and two hours in the car” to visit factories in China, he can jump on a bike and interface with his staff in minutes.
“It’s not just about setting up shop in a place where we think we can extract money—it’s about being an integral part of the community,” he said.
Being a small brand with a clear vision also allows for a certain degree of agility, and an ability to push new solutions. Describing his previous tenure at household name labels, Scott said, “Everyone was interested in improving things in the factories, but you can’t disrupt the entire system.”
For Scott, it became clear that ComunityMade needed to build a new system a world away, and they’d do it from scratch.
“When we talk about the future, this is just going to be the way things are done. The overseas mass production model has peaked,” Scott added.
“There will always be a place for low-cost production, but the cat’s out of the bag,” he said. “The cost of the cheap goods we’re getting is very high, and 20 years from now, it’s not just going to be ComunityMade—it’s going to be every major brand that’s making things closer to where their customers are.”
Local manufacturing has also played a key role in the brand’s sustainability profile, Scott said. While the ComunityMade still sources some of its materials, like Italian leathers, from overseas, placing manufacturing at the heart of its target market cuts down on the company’s carbon footprint by a large margin.
ComunityMade is now actively working to source materials closer to home, and has engaged with some of the industry’s most innovative component manufacturers in pursuit of that goal.
Molded materials like rubber outsoles and midsole EVAs have presented the biggest challenge, Scott said, adding that the company bought its first run of those parts from China. But now, ComunityMade has engaged with rubber manufacturers in Mexico, along with midsole maker Blumaka, which upcycles foam from factory scraps and post-consumer products into a granulated mix. Those tiny pieces are blended with a polyurethane binding agent to create brand new compounds with up to 85 percent recycled content.
“If we’re open about our shortcomings, we trust that people will hold us accountable to improve,” Scott said. “We still source from overseas, but I think a year from now we will make a massive statement with midsoles made here in the U.S.”
The company is also working to mitigate the impact of its leather sourcing by adding new alternative materials into the mix.
ComunityMade is currently working with a third-party supplier on the creation of reground leathers, which come from factory floor scraps. “Theoretically in the future, it could be post-consumer leather,” he said. “They take the scraps, grind them up, and then process them with a cover to make a material that looks like regular leather.”
In house, the company’s product manager, Noah Chavez-Stedman, is championing a process that involves repurposing leather scraps from the downtown, L.A. factory. By stitching them together, workers can create large usable hides with a visually arresting patchwork effect.
Ultimately, though, Scott believes that brands must push for a broader cultural shift that eschews fast fashion and low-quality products in favor of durable, repairable goods that can stand the test of time.
“Choose well, and make it last,” he said, describing his philosophy on consumption. “The idea of reduce, reuse and recycle…. That phrase is put in that order because the first concept is most important.”
The company has a liberal repair policy for its premium casual shoes, which range from $100-$400. ComunityMade lends its mending or resoling services to any customer who returns to them with a pair of damaged kicks, Scott said.
“We need to reduce consumption in the first place by choosing products that are going to last,” he said. “That way, there are fewer products being produced in the first place.”
While ComunityMade in many ways exemplifies qualities of the direct-to-consumer model that have come to define a new class of modern brands, Scott balked at the classification.
“DTC is a super important part of what we do, but we need to connect with people,” he said, adding that success hinges on community buy-in.
ComunityMade’s philosophy revolves around a “sincere, authentic effort” to make its downtown location a place to engage locals through events and gatherings that aren’t solely centered around commerce. The company hosts shoe-making events, fundraisers for giving partners, and classes for arts and crafts like flower arranging.
Shoppers can also stop by the store and watch company artisans making shoes in real time.
“They ask questions, they touch the leather, and they can see the kind of care that goes into it,” he said, noting how the experience helps define the brand’s ethos in a way that can’t be communicated online.
“It always starts with the product. People are coming because they’ve heard about us or they’ve read about us,” he said. “It’s value-based. They love the idea that it’s made in L.A., and they want to be able to pick up the shoes and see the workmanship.”
The company is also building upon its popular custom business, which allows shoppers to personalize their shoe selections. Currently, they can choose the silhouette, color, laces and size of their desired purchase, and have their shoes made quickly on site. Scott said the ComunityMade is working to streamline an online custom ordering system.
Over the next five years, Scott sees ComunityMade opening up shop in a dozen different markets worldwide, from Brooklyn to Seoul. That vision involves replicating the same model that inspired its L.A. flagship.
“The whole sustainable, quick-to-market thing only happens if production is close by,” he said. “We want to serve customers where they are, and to bring the community, the production, the spirit wherever we go.”