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Rothy’s Aims to Be Waste-Free by 2023. Here’s How It Will Get There.

Rothy’s is aiming to close the loop.

On Tuesday, the DTC brand known for its 3D-knitted flats and sneakers revealed a new set of circularity-driven goals to eliminate waste and curb carbon emissions through material and supply-chain advancements over the next three years.

Saskia van Gendt, sustainability head for Rothy’s, told Sourcing Journal that the first phase of the company’s new sustainability effort will begin with a pilot program to explore recycling options for its shoes, which are made from materials like recycled plastic bottles and reclaimed ocean plastics, as well as merino wool, algae-based insole foam, rubber and TPU outsoles. To date, the company has repurposed nearly 100 million plastic bottles and 100 tons of ocean-bound marine plastic in the making of its footwear.

“In the pilot recycling phase, we’re going to really be learning about the process of deconstructing shoes and finding recycling partners for the materials to turn those back into raw materials,” she said. “We’re looking at 2021 as a test and learn phase to figure out what’s needed in order to scale recycling more broadly over the next couple of years.”

According to van Gendt, the concept of continued recovery and reuse furthers Rothy’s founding ethos. The goal is to create a truly circular shoe, she said, and the coming months will serve as a time to experiment with the chemistry of twice-recycled components, like the shoes’ polyester uppers, which are made from fibers extruded from single-use plastic water bottles.

While polymer-based fibers are ripe for continued recycling, Rothy’s must assess the strength, durability and overall viability of the fibers made from recycled shoes to ensure they meet its quality standards. Those learnings will provide a feedback loop for the design team to further their efforts in crafting and creating with deconstruction and recyclability in mind, van Gendt said.

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Rothy's shoes are made from plastic bottles and other recovered marine plastics, as well as algae-based foam, rubber and thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU).
Rothy’s shoes are made from plastic bottles and other recovered marine plastics, as well as merino wool, algae-based foam, rubber and thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). Rothy's

“I see the progression being very iterative, where at first we’re able to recover and recycle some components of the shoe quite easily and use them again,” she said. “Over time I see the circular loop becoming more refined, but very much anticipate we’ll have some learnings from this initial trial that will have to be adapted over time.”

To further that mission, Rothy’s has instituted an internal council of sustainability experts including Samata Pattinson, CEO of women-led sustainable fashion organization Red Carpet Green Dress, Lewis Perkins, president of the Apparel Impact Institute, independent fashion sustainability expert Michael Sadowski, Brittany Sierra, founder and CEO of the Sustainable Fashion Forum, and Jing Wang, director of North Asia for Green Building Certification, Inc. The council will be chaired by van Gendt, and will include Rothy’s co-founder and president Roth Martin and its vice president of design, Sun Lee.

By 2022, the company hopes to have in place a concrete strategy for recycling and reuse of its footwear materials, taking it a step closer to circular production. Rothy’s is also aiming to attain a zero-waste factory certification from LEED next year for its production facility in Dongguan, China.

The 3D-knitting process that provides Rothy’s shoes with their instantly recognizable appeal also serves to eliminate 30 percent of the waste that would normally end up on a cutting-room floor, van Gendt said, as the uppers are knit exactly to size. The company is looking to bring greater waste-reduction to the whole of its operations by delving into material sourcing and resource management strategies that could further cut the company’s output, she added.

Rothy's factory in Dongguan, China.
Rothy’s hopes to see its factory in Dongguan, China, certified waste-free next year. Rothy's

“We are currently buying renewable wind energy to account for all the energy that we’re using at the factory as well as our retail locations and offices, and we’ll be looking to do on site renewable energy at the factory as well,” van Gendt said. By the end of 2023, the company is shooting for a carbon-neutral certification. A shift from air to ocean transport will aid in reaching that goal, she said, as the latter expends about one-fiftieth of the carbon. Whatever emissions that Rothy’s is unable to curb completely will be mitigated by the purchase of carbon offsets and through reforestation efforts in the Amazon, she added.

During 2023, Rothy’s also aims to see all of its products produced with majority recycled or bio-based materials, van Gendt said, and will seek to establish an end-of-life solution for its entire product line. While it is intent on achieving a truly circular solution for its footwear, certain materials like insole foams may prove hard to resuscitate for use in a new pair of shoes. “Especially in the beginning, we are going to look at all recycling options,” she said. “If we weren’t able to use a material or had issues with it, we would look at other industries that could use it.” Footwear and textile waste has historically been used in industrial applications, which Rothy’s might also explore.

“I’m most excited for the future about continuing to lean in to the amount of recycled and twice-recycled materials, and thinking about other waste streams that we might be able to recover and use again,” van Gendt said.