Material Matters: Converse 'Renew' Powers Sustainable Sneakers
As temperatures on planet earth continue to soar, it’s becoming more important than ever to find sustainable ways to lace the heat on your feet. Powered by the Converse Renew initiative, the Chuck Taylor All Star and Chuck 70 utilise post-consumer and post-industrial waste to provide new material solutions for the iconic silhouettes. Making use of upcycled denim lifted from landfill, repurposed canvas waste, and 100 per cent recycled polyester from plastic bottles, the Converse Renew initiative is rebuilding the Chuck Taylor’s storied past to envision a cleaner future. We linked up with Jessica L’Abbe, Converse Director of Color, Materials and Graphic Designs; and Brandon Avery, Vice President of Innovation, to find out how the brand is fuelling the next evolution of sustainable sneakers.
Talk us through the design process for the Renew collection.
[Brandon Avery] About four years ago, we had a small group of people around a table at our headquarters. We were talking about ways that we could create experiences for our consumers through the Converse DNA that unlocked new potential around sustainability. We live in a world where there's stuff all around us. Why do we keep stuff? What value does it hold in our lives? A lot of the time, it's the things we’re emotionally connected to. We asked 25 members of the Converse team to bring in something they're emotionally connected to. For us, it was about making that emotional connection with the human and their individual journey, and combining it with the world's most loved and iconic sneaker: the Chuck Taylor. The Chuck Taylor is super forgiving with bringing that personal connection to life.
Is this when the Chuck Taylor ‘envelope’ came to life?
[BA] Well, we were sitting in our office, and on the table was this envelope. I remember asking one of the developers that was working with us, ‘What are the limits here? How far can we push this?’ He said, ‘With time, resources, and a little bit of innovation, we can make a shoe out of just about anything.’ We traced the pattern of a Chuck Taylor on this envelope. This became one of our most exciting prototypes that came back from the exercise. It really opened our minds to the possibilities. The Chuck canvas could be made out of literally anything!
‘With time, resources, and a little bit of innovation, we can make a shoe out of just about anything.’
Is there a way to scale designs like the Chuck envelope?
[BA] I think with innovation and design, you have to create something that breaks the rules and completely disrupts how we think. So while the envelope sneaker was an extremely cool one-of-one experience (if you look closely, that's my name on the envelope, so I really do feel emotionally connected to that sneaker), what it ultimately led to was the important factor. The possibilities are endless. We'll continue to look for ways to scale and bring new ideas to our consumer. We don't want to create one item that the world can't respond to, so we need to make sure that we can do it in a responsible and sustainable way.
How are you connecting sentimental value to sustainability?
[BA] We started to think about that waste. It really isn’t waste at all, but a source material for new things. This was the starting point for our upcycle program. We began with one person bringing in one item. But what if you had a million people bringing in a million items? How do we sort those materials? Where would we get them from? How do we collect? We realised it didn't need to be one type of material. We could push the boundaries and continue to innovate in this space. So when you open the aperture a bit, you realise that the discarded materials around us are not waste at all — they're the new source material for what we make next. For the last two years, we've been working on this concept of Renew as a commercial product collection. It's our ongoing initiative to develop new, innovative, and more sustainable ways to create our product.
'When you open the aperture a bit, you realise that the discarded materials around us are not waste at all – they're the new source material for what we make next.'
The Renew Canvas was the first release to utilise the new technology. How were the materials constructed?
[Jessica L'Abbe] The Renew Canvas was the first iteration really showcasing our new strategy, which represents our ability to create our iconic canvas out of recycled materials. You get the same Chuck Taylor look and feel, but made from 100 per cent recycled polyester that came from used plastic bottles. Plastic bottles are collected, ground in a flake, spun into yarn, and woven based upon our canvas specs. The first couple of iterations that we did on this canvas were shiny. They looked a little synthetic. We tried multiple yarn constructions until we had a version that had that same matte look as our iconic canvas. It has a little bit of a softer hand. It's a little bit more fluid. Although it's softer, it holds up our testing standards and brings that added benefit of taking colour really well. We're super excited about how this turned out.
Does the Renew Cotton involve a similar process?
[JL] It incorporates 40 per cent recycled cotton canvas grafts that we collect from our canvas creation process with polyester to create new yarn that becomes a raw fabric for renewed upper canvas. This project was especially exciting because we turned inward and started to evaluate our own waste stream to discover new resources. The innovation team found that there was excess canvas at our mill partner due to colour matching issues. We worked to develop a system that collects our canvas rejections, runs the canvas back down into fibre form, and creates an intimate blend of 40 per cent recycled cotton with polyester. The polyester is added for strength and durability. We chose to use alternative weave structures to our classic canvas, just to add a little bit more visual value and difference to the material to really signal that something new was happening.
'Why do we keep stuff? What value does it hold in our lives? A lot of the time, it's the things we’re emotionally connected to.'
What can you tell us about the upcoming Chuck 70 Tri–Panel Renew Denim release?
[JL] The Renew Denim really represents the product of our upcycle textile capability. We've developed a process by which nearly any single–sourced upcycled textile can be cut and crafted into the upper of a Chuck Taylor All Star or Chuck 70 at industrial scale. We're working with a UK–based sustainable fashion and vintage retailer Beyond Retro to source tens-of-thousands of pairs of denim jeans a season to create new footwear. People love Chucks because they change over time, and they're often associated with your own personal experiences. Keeping that personal feeling as we scale was critical. What better material to start with than denim? Everyone has their favourite pair of jeans that are worn-in perfectly. They hold a lot of memories, so it really just feels like the natural first material for our upcycle story.
Do you think a sneaker industry with zero waste is possible?
[BA] We do. In fact, we won't stop until we do. Every day, we're going to come in and find new ways to innovate and move forward. How can we create a sneaker in new and sustainable ways? It’s going to be a journey for all of us.
The Tri–Panel Renew Denim Chuck 70 releases October 3. You can pick them up at Converse.