Johan Olsson didn’t set out to sell sneakers, let alone so-called “sustainable” ones.
“I was a private-equity guy who invested in brands,” he told Sourcing Journal. Somewhere along the way, however, Olsson became enamored with the idea of launching a direct-to-consumer company. He had some friends in the business, it seemed like fun and he wanted to try his hand at something new. So Olsson left the world of London finance and launched Roscomar in the summer of 2018. The shoes, he admitted, had “zero sustainability attributes,” but the brand started attracting wholesale interest and soon its high-tops and low-tops, which were made in Vietnam and sold at prices comparable to Converse, were treading the floors of retailers across the United Kingdom.
Then Covid-19 happened.
In a span of two weeks, Roscomar’s business “basically imploded,” Olsson said. While he had enough cash squared away in the company coffers to avoid declaring bankruptcy, Olsson quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to scrounge up any meaningful revenue for the rest of the year. He thought about sustainability, and then the flagrant “green” claims that were often exaggerated or patently false. Shoes supposedly clad in ocean plastic, for instance, might contain only a fraction of what they promise. An “eco-friendly” sweater might be brimming with petrochemical-based fibers.
A light bulb went off.
“[I felt like] this business is probably going to go belly up anyway, so let’s just see if we can use this as like a research project,” Olsson said. He sought answers to two main questions: How do you make a shoe with a very low carbon footprint? And can that product also be circular or involve some kind of end-of-life recycling solution?
Price wasn’t a consideration—at least not yet—nor was Roscomar bound by any practical limitations. “We had relatively few constraints because our backs were against the wall,” he said. “And we figured, you know, screw it, let’s do it, and if it fails, then so be it.” It took nine months for the first prototypes to emerge, and in January, Roscomar 2.0 was open for business.
Still, the timing hasn’t exactly been auspicious.
For one thing, Brexit has left supply-chain relationships with the rest of Europe in a state of tumult. For another, the coronavirus is still raging and the United Kingdom is in various levels of lockdown. With the significantly reduced consumer demand for fashion, GlobalData expects the market to rebound by only 19.9 percent to 47.2 billion pounds ($64.3 billion) this year, which is still 7 billion pounds ($9.5 billion) less than 2019 levels. It’s the latter, more so than the former, that keeps Olsson up at night.
“If you’re not going out, you’re not going to buy sneakers, even if they’re the coolest sneakers under the sun,” he said. “So, it’s challenging to sell sneakers [right now].”
Roscomar sells two models: the Leather Working Group Gold-certified leather-and-suede Court, which weighs in at 9.7 kilograms of CO2e—that’s carbon dioxide equivalent, a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints—and the 100 percent vegan Tencel-knit Rv3, which generates 6.5 kilograms of CO2e. (A typical pair of running shoes emits just over 13 kg of CO2e, according to a 2013 study led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Olsson engaged a third-party environmental audit firm to crunch the numbers, though he’s in the process of reevaluating their relationship and so declined to name it.
When Roscomar made sneakers in the Before Times, Olsson and his team let the factory handle all the materials sourcing. This time, they “nominated and selected every sub-supplier in our supply chain” to cobble together components both large and small, from the natural and recycled rubber outsoles to the Global Recycled Standard-certified polyester pull tabs and composition labels. Midsoles are derived from rain-fed sugarcane, insoles are made of 100 percent recyclable polyurethane and laces comprise either Global Organic Textile Standard-certified organic cotton or post-consumer recycled polyester.
Though it’s set up to sell globally, Roscomar is currently focusing its marketing efforts within the United Kingdom, where it continues to be based. To minimize emissions from transportation, Roscomar moved production from Vietnam to Portugal, though this also had the effect of driving up costs, which is reflected in the sneakers’ $299 price tag.
“It’s not a cheap product; we’re more in the luxury category,” Olsson said.
Each pair of shoes is assigned a unique serial number in the form of a Quick Response code that the customer can scan and associate with his or her email address, which Roscomar will use to dispatch periodic reminders of its free end-of-life recycling program. From this vantage point, Olsson hopes to take a stand against throwaway culture as exemplified by fast fashion. Billions of shoes are created ever year, and most end up in the landfill, where synthetic components such as ethylene vinyl acetate, found in shock-absorbent soles, can take centuries to break down.
Progress, not perfection
Roscomar doesn’t use the term “circular” to describe its shoes because it would be the type of inflated claim Olsson abhors. Instead, the brand talks about its products’ “reincarnation” and “afterlife.” The brand doesn’t expect to receive shoes for several months, but it has lined up a recycling facility in Germany, where any old footwear can be ground down into matting or construction mulch. Olsson concedes this is “downcycling,” since the materials aren’t recirculated or regenerated in a stable loop. Right now, there isn’t a way for old shoes to become new shoes, though Olsson said this could change.
“Our product development continues,” he said. The brand is planning to make future iterations of the footwear with glue-free soles, applied using heat, that can be more efficiently pulled apart and channeled into a purer and more valuable waste stream. The shoes demonstrate some of that longer-term thinking, too: For instance, Roscomar doesn’t use elastane, even though the material’s elasticity would make for a more comfortable fit, because it’s not recyclable. Instead, the shoes are cut a bit looser to accommodate more ease.
It helps that Roscomar plans to have a seasonless schedule and its designs are stripped down to the point of being aggressively nondescript, with an equally minimalist palate that includes black, gray, white and, if the wearer is feeling particularly risky, tan.
“We’ve adopted an iPhone-like mentality where we release a very tight range of products,” Olsson said. “We’re not going to be introducing new colors each season or anything like that; we’re just going to upgrade it every year.”
An “upgrade” could mean a lower-impact alternative material or a new, more locally available supplier that can help cut down on logistics-related emissions, which make up the bulk of Roscomar’s footprint. “There are a bunch of things that we’ve identified where, if we could change x, it would improve our carbon footprint by y,” he added. Certifications that indicate fair labor are likewise in the cards.
Getting the customer buy-in
As with any recycling program, customer participation is a non-negotiable element. Brands typically entice takebacks by promising some kind of discount, applicable to a future purchase. Olsson doesn’t think this tack would work with Roscomar, however. “I don’t think that a customer who buys a $299 shoe is necessarily incentivized by 10 percent off your next pair,” he said. “Maybe, but I don’t think that’s the point.”
Instead, Olsson is planning some manner of “frequent flyer” program, where customers can rack up points that can be redeemed for exclusive merchandise, like a hoodie that can’t be obtained any other way. “You basically achieve exclusivity through participation,” he said. “[It’s more valuable], than, you know, 20 bucks off your next order.”
Roscomar anticipates that its sneakers will be returned faster than they’re worn out—perhaps a year or two after they’re purchased—just because of today’s current pace of consumption. But the shoes themselves, Olsson said, are designed to “last a long time.” Though sneakers, which are referred to as “high-frequency basics,” are not, by design, repairable or resoleable, the brand will offer replacement parts, such as laces and insoles, for long-haulers.
“The quality of the product is outstanding,” he said, namedropping that Roscomar shares a factory with high-end nameplates like Versace and Fear of God. “So, [we’re] completely at the top end of the luxury market in terms of product quality. I expect that the shoes will last for a really long time.”