The founders of Wildling Shoes Anna and Ran Yona believe that feet are healthy by nature, and we only need shoes that will protect them from the elements. Wildling shoes are therefore designed to interfere with regular foot function as little as possible, allowing feet to move freely and develop naturally.
Anna and Ran founded the company in 2015 with the mission to provide consumers with a truly sustainable and minimal footwear option. Wildling Shoes uses all sustainably sourced materials and ethical manufacturing practices to minimize its ecological footprint.
I recently caught up with Anna to learn more about the company and its mission. She told me that an inspiration for the company was finding shoes for their children. After finishing her education at Tel Aviv University, Anna worked in marketing, and the couple initially remained rooted in Israel. Their three children grew up barefoot there before the family moved to Germany in 2013. At that point, finding suitable shoes for kids who were used to running around barefoot became the biggest challenge. None of the models available seemed to meet the requirements in terms of freedom of movement, sustainable materials, and fair production which inspired their founding of Wildling Shoes.
Christopher Marquis: From the beginning, Wildling worked towards a 100% sustainable supply chain. Why was this important for you? And what were and are some challenges in achieving this mission?
Anna Yona: We would have loved to launch from the start with a 100% sustainable supply chain. But honestly - this is a challenge that even after 8 years in business we have not been able to solve. Off-the-shelf supply chains and material options are a far cry from our ideals, and it takes a lot of time, effort, and passion to implement changes for the better from within the existing structures.
Today the supply chains for our main textiles are transparent, so we know about each step a material takes in the making - beginning with the source and cultivation via each processing step up until the production. This allows us to improve areas that have a negative impact, as well as to seize the opportunity for a positive change. For instance, we give farmers an incentive to switch to regenerative cultivation methods, and we work together with our production partners to continuously improve labor conditions.
Marquis: We hear a lot about delays and disruptions in the global supply chain. Does having a 100% sustainable supply chain experience the same problems?
Yona: Our supply chains are focused mainly on Europe, to guarantee high labor standards, keep transportation routes short, and allow for closer collaboration. This regional focus, together with good personal relationships with many of our suppliers, helps us to keep our supply chains quite stable, despite disruptions caused by global disturbances.
Marquis: We hear about fast-fashion and how detrimental fashion waste is to the environment. How is Wildling working to reduce its environmental impact, from ingredient sourcing to packaging and avoid the normal waste generated by other shoe brands?
Yona: The negative impact of fashion concerns all stages of the product life cycle. It manifests itself in the cultivation of the fibers in pesticide soaked monocultures or in plastic fiber production, in the water consumption and chemical use during processing and dyeing of fabrics, in long transportation routes with high emissions, in high social costs due to labor abuse, in energy and water used for laundering and care as well as in micro-plastics that make their way into our ecosystems, and yet again at the end of a product’s life-cycle, when fashion regularly ends up in landfills.
To reduce the environmental impact, Wildling needs to tackle all the stages of a product’s life cycle at the same time, which is a complex and challenging task. We choose local, natural materials and craftsmanship, leave many fabrics undyed to reduce water and chemicals use, specifically test all materials for their quality and durability (longevity is key for sustainability) and make our products repairable, so that they can be worn and enjoyed for an extended period. Our packaging is made of recycled carton and doubles as a shipping box.
Crucial decisions for sustainability are also taken during the planning phases. We plan carefully to avoid producing a surplus, adapting our production schedule throughout the season, and receiving small weekly deliveries instead of one huge bulk shipment at the beginning of the season. This way we avoid the down pricing rush so typical of fast fashion, pushing customers to buy yet another product they don’t need at a price that is unsustainable. Our shoes are never out of season and will be sold until they are out of stock. We also carefully tend to each returned or damaged pair to reduce the number of discarded shoes to the absolute minimum.
Marquis: Can you elaborate on how and why minimal type shoes specifically are more eco-friendly compared to traditional sneakers? How recyclable are Wildling Shoes?
Yona: Much of the course toward a more sustainable product can already be set during the design and development process. When designing a shoe, we try to use only the bare minimum of materials - only what is necessary to create a high-quality product. That also serves our general idea of what a good shoe is about - namely “as little shoe as possible”. That way it will not interfere with a more natural way of movement.
Wildling is also working on recycling options. We can now recycle used outsoles and turn them into new outsoles (while adding a part virgin material again). We are also working on options for the textiles. Being able to take back our products soon and recycle all their components is one of our bigger goals for the next few years.
Marquis: Why did Wildling pursue B Corp Certification? What did you learn through the certification process? Did you make any changes in the company as a result?
Yona: B Corp sets a good framework for taking a critical look at various areas of the company itself in terms of the common good and impact. The B Corp Assessment - which, by the way, is free to access and recommended for any company - helps guide and structure this critical examination of one's own organization.
To become a B Corp, Wildling had to go through a rigorous process. The effort and requirements are great. The B Corp certification not only looks at individual products, but also at the company's management, employees, society, environment, and customers. At the end of the day, it's all about hard, bare facts and figures.
Completing the assessment allowed us to see where we have already made good progress (e.g. regarding our work culture and supply chain management) and where we need to improve (e.g. regarding documentation and measurements). This has led to establishing a sustainability report, collecting, and analyzing data in all areas of the company. The report is now in its final stages and will help us document our progress to the team and anyone interested in transparency.
Marquis: Certified B Corporations must meet rigorous criteria around people, the planet and profit. How does Wildling support its employees, supply chain workers, and customers?
Yona: Wildling has a whole team of people working on creating, shaping, and supporting our work culture. It entails both the concrete, tangible parts of our collaboration (such as flexible work hours, remote work, vertical career opportunities, a fair salary concept, etc.) as well as the soft, less tangible parts (such as how we communicate with each other, how we give and receive feedback and how we allow for regeneration at the workplace).
Regarding the workers in our supply chain, we have two people dedicated to improving the social standards, with our focus lying on the shoe and outsole production facilities now. The team runs a regular risk assessment to rule out any harmful conditions. We strive to create good, close relationships with all production teams, to work together on equal footing, share information and improve working conditions continuously. To that aim, we hold regular workshops with those teams, set goals and collaborate to achieve them.
As a direct-to-consumer brand, we also hold close ties with our customers. We strive to be as open and transparent about our actions and goals as possible, taking our customers and community along on the journey. They are an inherent part of our endeavor to become truly sustainable and regenerative and as such we rely on them, to give us regular feedback about how to improve the function, the beneficial effect, and the longevity of our shoes. We also need their collaboration in sending us back the shoes for repair and returning the shoes to us once they have reached the end of their usefulness, so that hopefully soon we can return the product components to another use.
Marquis: What does the future look like for Wilding Shoes?
Yona: Our goal and purpose as an organization is to find ways in which we can act in such a way that we don’t only minimize harm but have a positive impact through our actions. The aim is not to conserve and sustain the status quo, but to regenerate, to leave things behind in a better state than in which we have found them. This concerns all areas of our organization - the entire supply chain, the partnerships and collaborations, the team, the money Wildling generates and how it can distribute it more fairly and finally, of course also the ties with our customers and the impact we can have on their health and wellbeing. For guidance, we look at how a well-balanced ecosystem functions and try to adapt our way of thinking and our actions to those principles. Circular, collaborative, diverse and regenerative - this is what the future looks like for Wildling.