The Ins and Outs of Keeping a Company Sustainable, According to Someone Who Does It Every Day

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As the word “sustainability” grows in popularity, many companies—especially fashion brands—are searching for a way to appeal to the conscious consumer population. One brand at the forefront of sustainable fashion is Rothy’s, which is best known for creating stylish, comfortable shoes (and now masks!) from single-use plastic water bottles.

In this episode, Liza, Brightly’s co-founder and CMO, talks with Saskia van Gendt, the head of sustainability at Rothy’s. Van Gendt is an environmental scientist by trade, and prior to joining Rothy’s, she worked as the senior director of sustainability at the eco-friendly home brand, Method. She began her career at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she focused on pioneering approaches to waste reduction.

rothy's sustainability
Photo: Saskia van Gendt

Balancing Sustainability and Growth as a Brand

While Rothy’s is a conscious brand, it’s ultimately a product-based business. So how does it balance sustainability with consumerism? According to Van Gendt, this balance starts with the nature of sustainability at Rothy’s.

“Sustainability is built into the foundation of the company,” says Van Gendt. “It’s integrated into how we design the product and how we purchase materials. And that foundation makes it much more scalable, because you’re not putting a band-aid on that you can easily take off. It’s a very integrated approach.”

Van Gendt also references the durability and production of Rothy’s products as healthy drivers for duality between financial growth and emphasis on sustainability. “The intention for Rothy’s is to design products that last and sit at the front of the closet, so that [the customer is] pulling those shoes out and really using them as long as she can.”

On the production side, Rothy’s uses its own factory and an innovative 3D knitting process. This production flexibility means the company isn’t stuck carrying an excess of unwanted inventory. That’s not just financially beneficial, but environmentally beneficial, too. “We’re essentially able to produce on demand,” Van Gendt says.

Rothy’s Circular Production Model

Rothy’s isn’t stopping at durability and low-waste production. “The last piece is recycling and returning materials that we’ve used back into new products,” says Van Gendt. “That’s truly the element that’s closing the loop.”

This “closing of the loop” is what the industry refers to as “circular fashion” or “circular production,” and Rothy’s intends to achieve this by 2023. It will start out with a pilot recycling program in order to learn what it takes to deconstruct shoes and recycle them into raw materials, followed by actually incorporating twice-recycled materials back into new products by 2022.

Ultimately though, Van Gendt would like to see this solution for waste minimization transcend the industry. “It’s really lacking—the footwear recycling capacity in the United States,” says Van Gendt. “To me, this points to the need for brands to collaborate—probably with industry and with governments—to establish some of these recycling collection programs.”

rothy's sustainability
Photo: Rothy’s

How Van Gendt Practices Sustainability in Her Own Life

When it comes to sustainability on a personal level, Van Gendt describes herself as “pretty dark green,” which is her way of saying that she tries to live as sustainably as possible. As a city dweller, she rides her bicycle as much as she can. And, of course, tries to purchase apparel from brands that approach sustainability in ways similar to Rothy’s. She’s also an advocate for increasing the adoption of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.

“I try to go after the biggest pieces of my footprint,” says Van Gendt. “If I know that food is a big part of my footprint, what are the things I can do to lower that, versus some of the kind of small things that are less impactful, but can just be more challenging to adopt?”

How to Get Into a Career in Sustainability

Lastly, Van Gendt has few tips for those interested in a career in sustainability. “The first thing is to not shy away from taking some of the science of sustainability,” she says. She recommends taking courses in chemistry, toxicity, and biology (to name a few), as the knowledge acquired in those courses could enable you to translate information and make recommendations that you normally wouldn’t be able to.

Because the landscape of sustainability is so vast, Van Gendt also recommends a process of elimination when determining your focus.

“I worked for smaller nonprofits for a while—either through internship programs, or in summers in between years of college—and had great experiences at all of these different organizations,” she says. “But it also started to channel me into what I’m most passionate about within this landscape of sustainability that’s so broad.”

Van Gendt found that the intersection of products and sustainability is where she was meant to be… which explains perfectly why she found her home at Rothy’s.

Curious about a zero waste lifestyle? Want to know what the “circular economy” really means? Subscribe to Brightly’s top-rated podcast, Good Together. Every 30-minute episode features daily, actionable tips to help you live your life more sustainably.

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