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This Sustainable, Style-Staple Sneaker Is Set on Saving the Environment

Thousand Fell knows your pristine, white, goes-with-everything sneaker isn’t going to stay that way forever. That’s why it’s designing these style-staple shoes to help consumers maintain their sartorial sensibilities—just without sacrificing the environment.

On Wednesday, co-founders Chloe Songer and Stuart Ahlum launched Thousand Fell to the world after teasing the footwear startup on Instagram for weeks. The vegan, unisex brand offers the kind of clean white sneaker seen cladding the feet of influencers and everyday Janes alike, but it’s built with sustainable and responsibly sourced ingredients like sugarcane, recycled plastic bottles and aloe vera, and designed to be taken back, recycled and transformed into new product, closing the loop on what’s usually a one-way street that terminates in destination: landfill.

High-frequency basics like the universally loved white sneaker are an ideal target for a circular new brand simply because these items are used early and often, and purchased on repeat. Thousand Fell is starting with just two shoe styles, a classic lace-up sneaker and a slip-on priced at $120 apiece, each available in five hues accenting the main white colorway.

Songer and Ahlum, who met during their Princeton in Asia fellowship in China, admit that making sustainability and circularity “fun” is an uphill battle, but Thousand Fell’s Instagram account aims to inject a new attitude into what many would deem a downer of a topic.

“Sustainability traditionally has been very doom and gloom,” Ahlum told Sourcing Journal, noting the “optimistic” tone of Thousand Fell’s whimsical, eye-catching Instagram posts.

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And thanks to the founders’ “obsession with new media,” the direct-to-consumer startup has invited a cadre of Tiktok influencers to perform the “Thousand Fell dance” on the social platform, a virtually surefire way to get in front of the app’s legions of Gen Z devotees.

Like many of today’s most successful and sustainability-focused brands—Allbirds comes to mind—Thousand Fell wants shoppers to fall in love with a great product first, and appreciate, second, that the shoes tread lightly on the planet.

Consumers, and especially the college-age-and younger crowd, are paying closer attention to what policymakers and corporations alike are and aren’t doing on the eco front, voicing their opinions through global events like September’s headline-grabbing climate strike. But even environmentally “woke” consumers still consume, and it’s very difficult to change behavior, so new products must be designed to meet people where they are and fit into their lives rather than the other way around.

Ahlum saw the need for a rethink in shoe manufacturing while “in and out of footwear factories” in China’s Dongguan production capital, where he oversaw product development and sourcing for a startup brand. “What I saw there was pretty tough working conditions,” he said, “maybe not necessarily from an ethical point of view or a wage point for view, but definitely from an environmental point of view.”

He and Songer have spent the better part of the past two years tinkering with material innovation and different component combinations that can make a good-looking, durable product. “The idea was that not only to we want to be sustainably sourced on the front end but we want to make sure that [the shoes] can be fully recycled or biodegradable and compostable on the back end,” Ahlum explained.

Vegan, closed-loop and unisex, Thousand Fell doesn’t want consumers to sacrifice their sartorial sensibilities for sustainability’s sake.
Wearers need only glimpse the message carved onto each shoe sole reminding them to “please return to recycle.” Courtesy

Thousand Fell accomplishes that lofty goal by replacing virgin plastic—a top footwear ingredient—with the byproducts of food and agricultural waste, like palm tree leaves and coconut husks, which met Songer and Ahlum’s strict standards of breaking down completely in less than 12 months and leaving behind no micropollution.

Recycled yoga mats sourced from Arizona form the insole padding and aloe-vera-infused mesh lines the interior for comfort. The shoes are produced in Brazil in one factory that takes on cupsole lasting and another that manufactures the outsole.

Landfills are no place for a shoe to end up and so Thousand Fell set up its business to take back used-up kicks and ferry them on to their reincarnation with a recycling partner in New Jersey. Each new Thousand Fell shoe can contain about 30 percent of materials recycled from one of the brand’s previous products. The remaining 70 percent of the disassembled shoe parts find new life in other products, Songer said.

Customers receive a $20 discount off their next Thousand Fell purchase when mailing back their worn-out shoes with a prepaid label printable through the brand’s e-commerce site, part of what Ahlum describes as an incentive to encourage mainstreaming the closed-loop mindset.

And to keep recycling at the forefront of customer consciousness, the brand set up a chatbot that will fire off periodic texts—on an opt-in basis, of course—inquiring about the shoe-wearing experience and reminding users of the take-back plan. Songer says 90 percent of text messages are read by the recipient versus the random email that might languish unseen in overstuffed inboxes. And if they forget to check their texts, wearers need only glimpse the message carved onto each shoe sole reminding them to “please return to recycle.”

Despite Thousand Fell’s take-back model and best efforts, Songer and Ahlum acknowledge the inevitability that a wayward shoe might leak out of what should be a waste-limiting closed loop. But in the event that some of their footwear ends up landfilled, the co-founders are hoping to infuse future generations of product with enzymes that can accelerate rubber degradation in the anaerobic conditions of a dump, and break down plastics, too.

Depending on how much plastic it contains, a shoe can take up to a millennium to fully biodegrade. That’s partly what inspired the name Thousand Fell, along with the old English term for an animal skin or pelt, and what Songer says is a “multiplicity of ideas” and a focus on “new ingredients” that leave fauna out of the footwear equation.

Thousand Fell might be built for closed-loop production but if any gently used shoes find their way back to the brand, it has a plan to keep those in circulation, too. A Soles4Souls partnership will direct these still-usable shoes to high schoolers on Arizona Indian reservations. “That’s because we can continue to gift the same community and same family and continue to take back their shoes,” Songer explained.

In its first year, the brand guesstimates that 60 percent of its sneakers will, like a boomerang, return from whence they came. But Songer worries that consumers will divert the shoes to places like The RealReal or ThredUp” when they inevitably Marie Kondo their closets.

And that concern is why Thousand Fell—backed by BBG Ventures and Everybody & Everyone founder Veronica Chou—is eager to break out of the exclusively DTC mold. “The reason we want to expand to an in-store presence and we don’t want to be just DTC is that it’s really important for us to have physical drop-off points and locations,” Songer said of wanting to further streamline the footwear take-back process. “That will be a part of our wholesale strategy.”