If you look at the leather shoe industry, you might get the impression that sustainable shoes are rare. But there are definitely pioneers who have done important groundwork in recent decades. Think! from Austria is one of them.
The shoe industry must also become more sustainable. This is especially true for the classic leather shoe industry, which uses a multitude of different types of materials for its products and has an extensive supply chain. But compared to the clothing industry, you hear much less about sustainable engagement here. It is not necessary because less is happening. The Austrian shoe brand Think! was founded in 1991 as a sustainable shoe brand and since 2000 has been part of the Legero United Group, which also includes the shoe brands Legero and Superfit. Think! is one of the sustainable shoe pioneers and one of the few brands in the clothing industry whose products are certified with the Blue Angel [een speciaal eco-label opgezet door de Duitse overheid, red].
We spoke to product director Christoph Mayer about why the brand is working with the Blue Angel certification, what makes sustainable production more difficult and how sustainability is currently boosting the brand.
How is Think! started producing sustainable shoes?
We are true pioneers when it comes to sustainable shoe production. When our founder Martin Koller took over his parents’ shoe factory, which had long produced men’s shoes, 31 years ago, he got the idea to revolutionize the shoe market with durable, comfortable but beautiful shoes. But you must know that pioneering was difficult back then. The materials didn’t even exist yet. He wanted chrome-free, vegetable-tanned leather, and the supply was minimal. Since then, sustainability has been the essence of our brand.
What about vegetable tanned leather? What other tanning methods are there and why do you reject some of them?
There are three main tanning methods: First, tanning with chromium salts. Second, white tanning, which is chemical tanning without chromium. And thirdly, there is vegetable tanning, where vegetable tanning agents are used. We use 85 percent chrome-free tanned leather in our collection and the rest is chrome-tanned leather for technical reasons. But everything that can come into direct contact with the skin is always chrome-free tanned, so we are 100 percent uncompromising, even with lambskin.
Why don’t more companies work with vegetable tanned leather? What are the disadvantages?
This is due to the greater challenge in production, the leather has more character. You don’t have the eternally smooth, flawless, buttery leather. The coloring is also more complex, there are higher color tolerances and of course our cows and calves may have moved so there are scars and imperfections. Tanning also takes longer, which means it is more expensive and ultimately requires more craftsmanship. Chrome tanning is faster and the leather is often easier to work with, which is especially interesting for fashion-conscious brands.
What about the colors? Are there differences with chrome tanning?
Nowadays, leather is also chrome-free and available in all colours. The trend has certainly played into our hands. For example, vegetable tanned leather used to be less lightfast. If a shoe was left in the window for a long time, it faded and this was of course a problem for the shopkeepers. Therefore, there were some who had reservations about this teaching. But a lot has changed since then, and more and more retailers are looking for sustainable collections.
How do you feel about more and more brands following in your footsteps? For example, do you notice a lack of sustainable leather?
No, we have not noticed such a deficiency. We are of course honored that many brands are now also starting to be sustainable – almost all of them now have a sustainable model as the highlight of their program. It creates new competition, but ultimately also more attention to the subject. Meanwhile, some large retailers have already set their own standards for their range to increase the percentage of sustainable goods, which of course also helps us.
In principle, you can certainly say that the focus on sustainability has stabilized our sales more than usual in recent years. If we didn’t have this focus, things would definitely be different.
Think! was the first shoe brand ever – and is still one of the few – whose products are certified with the Blue Angel [een Duits eco-label van de overheid, red.]. Why the blue angel?
In 2015, Think! as the first shoe manufacturer to receive the Austrian eco-label, which is even stricter than the Blue Angel. But the eco-label is not known beyond the borders, while Den Blå Engel is very well known. Also: Unlike textiles, there are no shoe-specific certificates so far. Shoes consist of 20 to 40 different components. So far there is nothing on this scale. All our suppliers are of course LWG [Leather Working Group; noot van de redactie] certified, but leather is only one of many components.
What does the Blue Angel certify and what does Think! even more in sustainability?
The entire production process is controlled, from the tannery’s cleaning plant to delivery of the shoe. We have all production sites audited, we use recycled sewing thread, reduce plastic where possible, use recycled, FSC-certified cardboard boxes and sustainable adhesive tape. All this is reflected in the certificate.
Does the shoe industry make efforts for its own standard?
I haven’t heard anything about it yet, but we have set ourselves the highest standards as part of Legero United’s sustainability agenda.
What proportion of the total collection do the Blue Angel certified shoes have?
Think! has certified 40 models so far. And every season we add between four and six new Blue Angel versions. However, other models would also meet the criteria, but we do not get all color variants certified because it would take too long. Certification is so time-consuming because shoes are made from an insane variety of materials.
Why do people know so little about sustainable shoes? The textile industry is much more communicative…
Sustainability has always been part of our work, but unfortunately we do not have the same marketing budgets as fashion and textile brands. There has always been a big difference between the shoe and fashion industry! So you might get the impression that less is happening in the footwear industry, but that’s not true.
How can you become even better, what are your goals to become even more sustainable?
Prices are the biggest problem. Sustainability does not exactly make a product cheaper. Regionality is also a challenge because it does not make it easier to get the materials here. We belong to the Legero United Group and strive for CO2 neutrality up to product level in 2030. Here, leather is of course the biggest source of CO2.
What do you think about vegan leather or recycled leather?
First of all, the positive thing about leather is that no animals are bred to make leather, as long as meat is eaten. Leather is a waste product from the meat industry. With a circular economy in mind, nothing would be worse than throwing away animal skins instead of treating them.
What about recycled leather?
What I’m failing at the moment is tanning. This leather is not chrome free because everything is thrown together here. Nor am I going to import cactus leather from South America; I don’t think it is a better alternative to real leather from Europe. Shoes made of vegan leather, and that means plastic, in my opinion, are not useful from the point of view of breathability, flexibility, longevity and therefore also sustainability and health.
Where do you get the leather from?
We source our leather primarily from Italy and also from Germany. The soles come mainly from Italy and Spain. We work with production partners who work almost exclusively for Tænk! They are located in Italy, Bosnia, Romania and Hungary. At our facility in Kopfing, we still make our own prototypes and also offer a repair service. Repairability is part of our design; it’s part of our sustainable philosophy and it’s also in high demand. We repair approximately 1,000 pairs of shoes per year.
How do you deal with the question of what happens to the shoes at the end of their life cycle? Can your shoes be recycled?
This is an incredibly complicated question. The fact is that there is still no solution for shoe recycling. Recycling works primarily with one-of-a-kind products, and it just doesn’t work with leather shoes. As far as we know, there is no solution at this time. What we can influence is the following: According to the waste regulations, broken shoes must be disposed of together with the household waste, which means that around 80 to 90 percent of the shoes end up in the incinerator. If this is the case, no harmful substances must be formed during combustion. And we always have that in mind, also during design and material selection.
Think! sold mainly in the DACH region, but also in Benelux, Scandinavia and other EU countries as well as in Japan, the USA, Canada and South Africa. Think! does not operate its own physical stores, but there are 16 partner stores in Germany and two in Austria.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited DE. Translation and editing by Caitlyn Terra.