A sneaker from Po-Zu’s line
The footwear industry is a hotspot for innovative sustainability-focused design. So much so that even sneaker giant Adidas has released a line made from 75% recycled trash.
But one entrepreneur has been making eco-friendly sneakers since 2006. Sven Segal had worked as a shoe designer for various fast fashion brands for more than a decade when he decided he wanted to launch his own company.
“After visiting many shoe factories in different parts of the world, I increasingly felt disturbed that I was contributing to the numerous exploitative practices I came across; from how the factory workers were treated, to the toxic substances that are widely used in the process,” he says.
“Po-Zu was born out of this desire to make shoes the way I think should be made: stylish, comfortable and with respect to both the workers and the environment.”
The 55-year-old’s company Po-Zu has been named the number one ethical shoe brand in the UK multiple years running. “It’s still very niche within the global footwear industry,” he explains.
In terms of other similar companies, Segal says Veja and Allbirds are the brands he looks to for competition, saying they have grown “exceptionally” in the past few years.
“As an industry that is clearly lagging behind sustainable development, it’s now finally on the up.”
Segal says he believes his company is the only shoe brand in the UK that produces its entire collection of shoes and boots solvent-free, which he says is something he is “particularly fanatical” about.
“My top priority is to protect the factory workers from inhaling toxic fumes.”
Nine out of 10 tanneries use highly toxic chemicals such as chromium and formaldehyde, while the same percentage of shoe factories use solvent-based glues.
Solvents used in shoe production can affect the nervous system and cause everything from peripheral neuropathy to paralysis.
The majority of sneakers producedby Po-Zu are made in 100% organic cotton canvas – conventional cotton is a pesticide intensive crop and The World Health Organisation estimates that over 370,000 people die every year from acute pesticide poisoning. For the soles, the company uses natural and Fair-Trade certified rubber, paying a premium for every kilogram of rubber used, which goes to improving the lives of rubber producers.
Po-Zu has also developed a shock-absorber feature called “Foot Mattress” based on the coconut husk’s natural properties which are well known for shock absorption, and the material is 100% bio-based and made from renewable sources.
Segal’s work has become easier in recent years, thanks to sustainability becoming an emerging trend. However it’s not always been that way: finding sustainable materials when Segal was launching his company was like “finding a needle in a haystack”.
“The internet was in its infancy and sourcing guides were simply unavailable. Finding the right factories that were willing to comply with our strict environmental standards also proved challenging.”
Po-Zu has worked directly with suppliers in order to implement changes from the bottom up. One already well-established Portuguese factory the company worked with, that was manufacturing for large global brands, started a new solvent-free production line specifically for Po-Zu.
“This factory recently told us that the ‘pilot run’ was so successful, that they have decided to convert all of their production lines’ assembly methods to be solvent-free,” Segal explains. “For me this proves that although change is difficult and intimidating at times, it can be highly rewarding.
“The factory has a much cleaner and healthy environment and the workers are much happier and more productive too. It’s a clear win-win for everyone.”