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Why Greats Founder Ryan Babenzien Says ‘Zero Impact’ Isn’t His Sustainability Goal

Greats has been making its best-selling Royale Knit sneaker to great acclaim for years and last week it unveiled the newest innovation for the silhouette: an upper knitted entirely of recycled ocean plastic.

The upcycled silhouette will be available for both men and women and Greats says that this first release will be responsible for removing around 75,000 plastic bottles from the oceans and dumps of the planet. While this is not a completely new idea—Adidas famously has its own line of ocean plastic sneakers and Sperry also recently unveiled a collection—Greats came to it with its own unique perspective.

“We’re never going to be a zero-impact company, we make things,” Greats CEO and founder Ryan Babenzien told Sourcing Journal. “But we can be more responsible and have a lower impact and that’s what we continue to do.”

Babenzien said his sneaker company, which he calls the world’s first digitally native sneaker brand, focuses on sustainability by making sure its products are built to last. In that way, he said, consumers do not have to trade comfort and style to get a better deal for the environment.

“I don’t think you can make something that is the ‘most sustainable’ that isn’t also good-looking and comfortable,” Babenzien continued. “Those factors still have to be part of the equation. We think we’ve made something that people really like. It has a fantastic elasticity in terms of how you can wear it, it’s super comfortable and it’s really well priced at $119.”

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The sneaker brand founder believes that the industry has moved toward thinking of sustainability only in terms of materials used—from recycled ocean plastics to coffee grounds and more—and that this approach won’t necessarily solve footwear’s sustainability challenges.

“If you make something that lasts long and is trend-resistant, there’s a sustainability to that,” he explained. “We’ve always used premium quality materials, we’ve always made things that have a high value proposition in terms of quality.”

Why Greats Founder Ryan Babenzien Says 'Zero Impact' Isn't His Focus
Every Royale Knit sneaker in the recycled ocean plastic line will come in 100-percent recycled cardboard printed with biodegradable ink. Greats

That’s why Greats produces its sneakers in Italy at one of the world’s highest-rated factories for footwear in terms of environmental impact. In this way, sustainability has always been a part of Greats—long before it released a line of sneakers made with recycled ocean plastics.

But sustainability doesn’t stop with product design. The entirety of a business, from top to bottom, must consider sustainability in order for a company to truly be committed to the cause. That’s why Babenzien said he no longer thinks simply being a participant in sustainability is enough to entice consumers in the current environment.

“I don’t think having a sustainability component to your business is a competitive advantage, I think it’s a requirement,” Babenzien noted. “New generations of consumers are going to demand that you have that in your product and we recognize that.”

That’s why Greats has never used single-use plastics in any of its packaging, he added. In fact, the new upcycled Royale Knit is sold in packaging made from 100-percent recycled cardboard and featuring biodegradable ink.

Greats plans to ship all of its products in this packaging going forward, Babenzien said.

“We’re seeing a trend now, and I hope this trend continues, of people buying really high-quality products within a budget,” Babenzien said. “Consumers are starting to realize fast fashion was not a good thing. Buying trends constantly for things that didn’t last very long, in both physical and style form, is wasteful compared to buying better and buying less.”