(First published by APLF, Hong Kong, in my Cool Hunting Column)
One of the famous characters of the 20th century leather industry was Bert Childs, a hide and skin trader from Liverpool. His wife used to collect sand as she travelled around the world and after staying with them in the early nineteen eighties I took up the same hobby. My latest sample comes from Gangzihou Beach, an exquisite little spot on the island of Gulang Yu just off Xiamen on the east coast of China. A leading city for over 1000 years Xiamen has been totally transformed since I first visited in 1987.
Today Xiamen is characterised by the outstanding level of its education, sophistication and innovation: a place where entrepreneurs are encouraged and high net worth individuals are increasing in line with the fast growing sales of Ferraris in the local showrooms. It is here in Xiamen that the Danish shoe company ECCO decided to put its Chinese manufacturing centre and it now has 3000 employees working in plants with a capacity of 4 million pairs. Last month it opened its new tannery there, the largest single investment that ECCO have ever made. It is developed out of Scandinavian design concepts making maximum use of natural light, natural gas instead of diesel, and leading edge in factory materials movement systems instead of fork lift trucks and horses.
Controlling your destiny
Now ECCO footwear is not perhaps at the leading edge of Cool, known more for wide fittings and soft materials. Recent designs and the Receptor range have started to change that and drive them toward more fashionable clients, but even so what is really “cool” about ECCO at the moment lies in the way it runs it supply system from “cow to consumer” as it likes to put it. The ECCO system established by founder Karl Toosbuy is that you should “control your own destiny” and indeed it was anger over badly performing suppliers that led them start in tanning. Today they have made a core competence out of owning the value chain. Even more it creates a true opportunity for them to build in higher level, coordinated environmental benefits which stand-alone shoe factories, or those outsourcing, which is the most common footwear industry model, would struggle to achieve.
With their leather and shoe plants mostly on the same site ECCO have exploited all the seen and unseen benefits of co-location. In today’s globalised world we have hugely abused the availability of cheap oil. Frequently we listen to presentations on how manufacturers assemble components from all over the world and fly them to China to be put together. We are expected to admire the efficiency of the just in time perfection with which it is all put together. Forgetting the rising costs of oil we know now that this wasteful use of oil for transportation is no longer acceptable. We need to plan for more local sourcing, and where possible manufacturing closer to the final consumer. So for a giant of footwear like ECCO building in China with 1.5 billion people in mind, of which a couple of hundred million or more are already wealthy enough to buy ECCO products, makes enormous long term sense.
Cradle to grave life cycle is not enough
Understanding and controlling the supply chain is now seen as vital to a thorough environmental approach to business. It is not possible to define or claim an item to be environmentally friendly unless it is known how it will be used and how it will be disposed of when the consumer is finished with it. Working in isolation is not appropriate when the environment is considered. Truly environmental approaches have to become holistic to have real integrity so ECCO have the opportunity to add this aspect to their world leading culture and help fulfil their mission to help “create a more comfortable place on earth”. For a start they are in the right place as the Garden Island of Xiamen is not only the cleanest city in China but it has won the Gold medal in the Stuttgart Livecom competition (the Oscar of Environmental Awards) and was the only city in the world to win the 2004 UN Habitat Award.
Owning the whole value chain is very unusual these days –indeed the business model for most consumer goods involves owning nothing beyond design, marketing and perhaps some stores – and this makes it easy for ECCO to monitor and control the environmental impact of its business, its inputs and many outputs. For others internal staff and external advisers can be used but care has to be taken to ensure they have the expertise to understand the chain and act honestly. Companies like Bluesign are increasingly used because of their expertise in the technology of components materials. Good bodies also exist such as Material Connexion to help designers choose materials, and this is important as 90% of the impact a product will make on the planet is defined at the design stage.
From lifecycle to recycle and beyond
Really far thinking companies take this one step further and adopt the cradle to cradle philosophy (Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart) which rejects the production concepts born of the industrial revolution. These embodied abusing the planet’s resources through excessive consumption and thoughtless waste and designing products which used up what we now to be scarce resources with one time, one way use. Cradle to grave now covers putting toxic waste into landfill and telling ourselves they are at least safe. According to Cradle to Cradle products have biological and technical nutrients within them and at the end of life of a product these need to be separated out for proper re-use. The biological elements can returned to the land as the leaves fall from the trees and the chemical elements should be extracted for correct re-use. “Safe landfill” should not be an option nor should re-cycling which involves leaving significant or pertinent technical content in the material. Using chrome leather pieces out of old leather products for running tracks may be well intentioned, but it is not right. Traditional life-cycling may be better than waste but it reduces our guilt rather than removes it.
So while the ECCO staff are enjoying their weekends eating Haagen-Dazs on the veranda of the Hi Heaven Café on Gulang Yu, arguably the best café in China, they should roll up their sleeves (short sleeves are so uncool) and ponder the element in the value chain they still have to work on: how long should a shoe last and what happens to it when it is finished? Their approaches of constantly exploring and impatient curiosity are surely needed, and a solution would make the world a safer, more comfortable place.