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How Soludos Turned a Sustainability Stumble Into an Innovation Opportunity

Soludos knows its jetsetting millennial customers care about seeing more of the planet’s beauty—and taking care of it, too. So when it created a recycled plastic shoe as a nod to shoppers’ interest in sustainability, it wasn’t quite prepared for how customers reacted.

The small, 9-year-old espadrille-inspired summer-minded shoe brand, which is carried by retailers like Nordstrom and Revolve and has opened three of its own stores in the past six months, bears the tagline “inspired by our travels, made for yours.” Like the 20- and 30-something shoppers driving a new wave of brands that put their values front and center, Soludos customers care that their purchase does more than pad a company’s bottom line. So the brand decided to do something about it.

Joining the likes of Adidas, Sperry and Ecoalf in making a desirable new product out of plastic waste polluting the ocean and harming sea life, Soludos jumped on the recycled plastic bandwagon with its Ashore sneaker. Each shoe diverts four post-consumer recycled plastic bottles from marine ecosystems, includes recycled rubber soles and and features non-toxic ink emblazoning the Soludos logo inside the footbed.

And given the flurry of new recycled plastic shoes hitting the market, coupled with Adidas’ pledge to double its Parley shoes production, Soludos was confident it had a hit on its hands. The whole Ashore project was born from a steady trickle of customers wanting to know if Soludos shoes can be washed, for example, or if any incorporated recycled materials that take less of a toll on the planet, founder and CEO Nick Brown shared at The Lead Innovation Summit 2019 in Brooklyn Wednesday.

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“I’m constantly inspired and intimidated by how informed that millennial customer is,” he said.

Apparently, that customer knows a bit more about sustainability than Soludos, helping the digitally native shoe brand swallow a slice of humble piece.

Ashore sounded great on paper and in concept: 10 percent of the proceeds fund efforts around ocean plastic waste and the sneaker is washable—just what customers said they wanted. But when Ashore launched in April, Soludos was met withs a very unexpected response. Though customers liked the design of the shoe, they expressed concerns over washing a plastic shoe that would just leach microplastics back into ocean-feeding waterways—fueling the very problem Soludos was hoping to tackle.

Soludos’ remedy takes a cue from brands like Patagonia that have come up with clever stopgaps for the microplastic problem. It’s developing a bag in which consumers can safely launder their Ashore sneakers in a washing machine without worrying about any pulverized particles entering the wastewater stream.

Brown, for one, seems grateful for a teachable moment that helped the company think deeply about product impact, innovation and the many considerations around sustainability.

“It’s incredible how social media and being customer-centric can be an engine for…creating better product if we listen to the customer,” he said.