When looking at the leather shoe industry, one might get the impression that sustainable shoes are in short supply. But there certainly are pioneers who have done important groundwork in recent decades. Think! from Austria is one of them.
The shoe industry too needs to become more sustainable. This is especially true for the classic leather shoe industry that uses a multitude of different types of materials for their products and has a widely branching supply chain. But in comparison to the clothing industry, one hears far less about sustainable commitment here. This is not necessarily because less is happening. Austrian shoe label Think! was founded in 1991 as a sustainable shoe brand and has been part of the Legero United Group since 2000, which also includes shoe brands Legero and Superfit. Think! is thus one of the sustainable shoe pioneers and one of the very few brands in the clothing industry whose products are certified with the Blue Angel.
We spoke to product director Christoph Mayer about why the brand works with the Blue Angel certification, what makes sustainable production more difficult and how sustainability is currently giving the brand a boost.
How did Think! get into producing sustainable shoes?
We are truly pioneers when it comes to sustainable shoe production. When our founder Martin Koller took over his parents' shoe factory 31 years ago, which had been producing men's shoes for a long time, he had the idea to revolutionise the shoe market with sustainable, comfortable but beautiful shoes. But you have to know that being a pioneer 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 our brand essence.
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 chrome. And third, there is vegetable tanning, which uses vegetable-tanning agents. We use 85 percent chrome-free tanned leather in our collection and the rest is chrome-tanned leather for technical reasons. However, everything that can come into direct contact with the skin is always tanned chrome-free, so we are 100 percent uncompromising, even with lambskins.
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 this eternally smooth, flawless, butter-soft leather. The dyeing is also more complex, there are higher colour tolerances and of course our cows and calves may have moved, so there are also scars and bumps. Tanning also takes longer, and that means it is more expensive and requires more craftsmanship in the end. Chrome tanning is faster and the leathers are often easier to work with, which is especially interesting for fashion-driven brands.
What about the colours? Are there differences to chrome tanning?
Nowadays, leather is also available chrome-free in all colours. The trend has definitely played into our hands. In the past, vegetable-tanned leathers were less lightfast, for example. If a shoe stood in the shop window for a long time, it faded, which was of course a problem for retailers. That's why some people had reservations about this leather. In the meantime, however, a lot has changed 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, are you noticing a shortage of sustainable leathers?
No, we haven’t noticed such a shortage. Of course, we are honoured that many brands are now starting to be sustainable as well - almost all of them now have a sustainable model as a highlight in their programme. This creates new competition, but ultimately it also raises awareness for the topic. In the meantime, some large retailers have already defined their own standards for their ranges in order to increase the percentage of sustainable items, which of course helps us too.
In principle, it can certainly be said that the focus on sustainability has stabilised our sales beyond normality in recent years. If we didn't have this focus, things would certainly be different.
Think! was the first shoe brand ever - and is still one of the very few - whose products are certified with the Blue Angel. Why the Blue Angel?
In 2015, Think! was 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 borders, whereas the Blue Angel has a very high profile. In addition: unlike textiles, there are no shoe-specific certificates so far. Shoes have between 20 and 40 different components. So far, there is nothing on this scale. Of course, all our suppliers are LWG [Leather Working Group; editor's note] certified, but leather is just one component among many.
What does the Blue Angel certify and what else does Think! do in terms of sustainability?
The entire production process is audited, from the tannery's purification plant to the delivery of the shoe. We have all production sites audited, we use recycled sewing threads, reduce plastic wherever possible, use recycled, FSC-certified cardboard boxes right down to sustainable adhesive tape. All of this flows into the certificate.
Is the footwear industry making efforts for a standard of their own?
I haven't heard anything about that yet, but we have set ourselves the highest standards in the Legero United brand association as part of the Legero United sustainability agenda.
What share 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 don't get every single colour variant certified because that would take too much time. Certification is so time-consuming because shoes are made of an insane amount of different materials.
Why do people know so little about sustainable shoes? The textile industry is much more communicative…
Sustainability has always been part of the work we do, but unfortunately, we don't have the same marketing budgets that fashion and textile brands have. That has always been a major difference between the footwear and fashion industry! So you may well get the impression that less is happening in the footwear industry, but this is not true.
How could you become even better, what are your goals for becoming even more sustainable?
Prices are the main problem. Sustainability does not exactly make a product cheaper. Regionality is also a challenge because it is not getting easier to source the materials here. We belong to the Legero United Group and are pursuing the goal of achieving CO2 neutrality down to product level by 2030. Here, leather is of course the biggest source of CO2.
What do you think of 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 of the meat industry. With a view to a circular economy, nothing would be worse than throwing away animal skins instead of processing them.
What about recycled leather?
What I am currently failing at is tanning. These leathers are not chrome-free because everything is thrown together here. I won't import cactus leather from South America either; in my opinion, it's not a better alternative to real leather from Europe. Shoes made of vegan leather, and that means plastic, do not make sense from the point of view of breathability, flexibility, longevity and thus also sustainability and health, in my opinion.
Where do you source your leather?
We source our leathers mainly from Italy and also from Germany. The soles come mainly from Italy and Spain. We work with production partners who produce almost exclusively for Think! They are located in Italy, Bosnia, Romania and Hungary. At our Kopfing location, we still make our own prototypes and also offer a repair service. Repairability is part of our design; it is part of our sustainable philosophy, and it is also very much in demand. We repair around 1,000 pairs of shoes a 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 complex issue. The fact is that there is no solution for shoe recycling yet. Recycling works primarily with single-variety products, and that simply doesn't work with leather shoes. As far as we know, there is currently no solution. What we can influence, however, is this: According to waste regulations, broken shoes should be disposed of in household waste, which means that about 80 to 90 percent of shoes end up in incineration. If that's the case, then at least no pollutants should be produced during incineration. And we always think about that, already in the design and in the choice of materials.
Think! is sold mainly in the DACH region, but also in the Benelux countries, Scandinavia and other EU countries, as well as in Japan, the USA, Canada and South Africa. Think! does not operate its own brick-and-mortar stores, but there are 16 partner stores in Germany and two in Austria.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.DE. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.