Follow our journey towards a more sustainable shoe industry
To be the front runner also comes with a responsibility to share and help others to follow. Our sustainability section of the web is one way of doing this. This blog is another. Here we can keep you posted on what's happening, both good and bad, in real time and as transparent as we can.
As South Vietnam is starting to re-open after months in lock-down, we're put to the test: What's the real value of our climate commitment?
Like many other footwear and apparel brands that have production in the Ho Chi Minh city area, Icebug is missing a lot of products. In our case, about one-third of what we had planned to sell during this fall and winter. It hurts, and we have had to cancel a lot of customers' orders. In this situation, the first business instinct is to switch to air freight instead of sea freight, cutting at least a month lead time and still catching most of the season.
But before running with the first instinct, it's necessary to pause and think. Switching to air freight is not something you have to do. It's a choice to make. Because there is one huge problem. Air freight causes at least 20 times more carbon emissions. For an average shoe from Icebug this means that the carbon footprint would double. From 10 to 20 kilo CO2e per pair.
When following the climate reporting, I always find it hard to wrap my head around this paradox: We know what must be done, still global carbon emissions increase.
That's why this case is so interesting to put in the spotlight.
It's an apparent conflict of interest. The pros of air freight weigh heavily: Servicing your customers better, being able to bring products to end-users that you think they need, increasing sales and profit. This will undoubtedly be beneficial for you in the short term.
The cons are really just one major: Not taking your share of the responsibility for carbon emissions. Long term, everybody will bear the cost of the looming climate crisis.
Are we ready to do the right thing when nobody's looking, and there's a significant cost for us here and now attached to it?
Maybe I'm kicking in open doors here. Maybe you, who are our colleagues in the footwear and outdoor industry and are facing the same tough choice, already decided that it's worth to walk the climate talk. As a part of the industry, it would make me proud, and as one of the inhabitants of this planet, it would make me happy.
It's a painful decision, but not a very difficult one. After the latest IPCC report, none of us can say we don't know that we're in a man-made climate emergency. To take our commitments about sustainability and responsibility seriously, we need to get on the roadmap of the Paris agreement. Then we can't double emissions now on the way to halving them in 2030. We have a limited carbon budget left to spend.
In a climate emergency, no brand should deliberately cause avoidable emissions at scale.
The possible exception would be small brands that are just getting started and wouldn't survive without the sales from air freighted products. As they're small, they will have a very marginal impact anyway. We don't have that excuse for the rest of us, where it will rather be a question of a few percentage points profit. Going forward, it will be impossible to combine using air freight at scale with a position as a responsible brand with a serious sustainability agenda and climate commitment.
The biggest impact will be the decisions of the biggest players. We see ourselves as a footwear and an outdoor brand. So starting with the biggest brands, from footwear, Nike and adidas, and from outdoor, The North Face, and Salomon: Will you use air freight from Vietnam?
/ David Ekelund, co-founder and co-CEO ICEBUG
A little more background about Icebug related to the situation:
Apart from not using air freight, we have also decided not to cancel orders. After several months without income, the factories really need the business. For those that don’t catch this winter season window, we will use it as an early delivery for next year.
We don’t use inbound air freight as part of our business model. For the past five years, we have not used any air freight from the factories to our warehouse.
Icebug's goal is to have a fossil-free operation as soon as possible, and a minimal carbon footprint. When looking for bio-based materials to replace synthetics, new biomaterials are not always available for purchase. Recently, Icebug increased the proportion of natural rubber in its soles and discovered that it is difficult to get hold of sustainability certified natural rubber with the footwear quality needed.
Therefore, Icebug started a collaboration with FSC – Forest Stewardship Council. We also got support from Inclusive Business Sweden, who are experts in designing business models that benefit low-income groups, in our case the smallholder rubber farmers.
Together we created a project with the joint aim to establish a responsible value chain from the cultivation of rubber trees in Thailand to FSC-certified Icebug shoes in the store. It is about finding the right motivation for smallholder rubber farmers to switch to sustainable cultivation and to continue to do so. Until recently, there was no FSC-certified natural rubber in Thailand, which is the world's largest rubber producer. There is FSC-certified rubber from large plantations in Guatemala and Sri Lanka, but the volumes are quickly booked up. Very recently, some small-scale cooperatives in Thailand have obtained FSC certification, and there is potential for growth if demand can be aggregated to match the available supply. As liquid latex is a fresh product (like milk) with specific logistic challenges, it is a delicate phase to balance regular demand and supply of FSC rubber so that farmers can continue with the sustainable farming. We need more shoe manufacturers to ask for FSC-certified rubber to get sufficient volumes to process the liquid rubber to shoe quality for a regular supply basis.
Icebug strongly believes in sharing sustainability experiences and solutions between brands, to scale up and increase the speed of change in a sustainable direction. Therefor Icebug invited other footwear brands to join us in securing this supply chain in Thailand to secure sufficient long-term volumes for the footwear industry with resulting benefits for the smallholder farmers involved.
June 22 2021, we met with 23 footwear brands in different sizes from all over the world! Thanks to all involved and we look forward to the next steps together with the suppliers in Thailand.
/ Maria Munther, sustainability manager of Icebug
This blogpost is largely based on the key note speech that Icebug’s co-founder and co-CEO David Ekelund gave at the ISPO Munich online sustainability conference, February 4th, 2021. He’s talking about what we worked on at Icebug this year, but it’s also a personal story about how this year has changed him as a leader and person. He shares for the first time publicly what has grown to be our third mission as a company: Developing good work that works on developing people.
Our vision is Icebug being a true changemaker in a society where people thrive on a planet in balance.
We aim to contribute to that by inspiring people to live wholeheartedly and develop to their full potential, transforming lifestyles so that we reap the health and happiness benefits of getting outside, getting exercise, and reconnecting the nature.
That is a big vision.
And sometimes, I have to admit, I feel too small to reach for it.
At Icebug, we were already coming off a bad winter season when the serious business impact of the unfolding Corona crisis started to sink in.
In the management team, we started asking ourselves:
What would the lockdowns mean? Would the spring and summer be fully lost? And come fall, would there be any customers left to deliver to? Indeed: how were we going to be able to keep paying salaries?
The uncertainty kept increasing, and for a while it felt like the world and the rules that we were playing by were changing completely week by week. We started cancelling our events and the stream of orders came to a complete halt. From the management side, there was no way of pretending that we knew what would come or that we were in control.
We had to change to survival mode and prepare for the worst-case scenario. We called upon the whole organization, all internal teams, to put everything we did on the table to look at what was really business-critical.
That included our sustainability work.
This felt particularly uncomfortable for me. Partly, of course, because I find it very important, but also, I understood, because it would have meant some kind of personal embarrassment. I had grown quite attached to the image of myself as leading a company at the forefront of sustainability work. Perhaps I could have forced it through, but doing that as the same time we asked from people to pitch in to save the company, on reduced hours, would have been wrong and ruined trust.
Luckily, the way the organization and the company has grown, they wouldn’t have it. They said that without the sustainability agenda, there is no Icebug. At least not as we know it. They said that it’s not possible to look at the sustainability work separated from the other work and say whether it’s business-critical or not. It’s a fully integrated part of the work and the business. And after Corona, we knew that an even bigger emergency is looming: the climate crisis. Taking action on minimizing the effects of that couldn’t wait.
of course we now know that we also experienced positive business effects from Corona. A radically increased participation in outdoor activities, a renewed urgency towards trying to stay healthy, and seeing the risks of an over-exploited planet.
We were lucky that our mission and business model proved to be relevant even in a pandemic.
Or was it just luck?
Maybe it’s evidence that being purpose-driven has future-proofed our business so that there is always value built into our work. We had also built financial reserves and cultivated a culture of agility so that we could shapeshift the organization to capture the online business opportunities that appeared.
Eventually, we managed to push beyond our boundaries. Instead of shelfing it, we forged ahead with our finest and most complex sustainability work so far, and what could prove to create most long-lasting impact: Follow the Footprints. This is a program of radical transparency, where we will publish the carbon footprint for each of our products and open up our supply chain and materials sourcing, making our CO2 emission reductions replicable and scalable by others, starting March 2021.
1. Use high uncertainty and intensity to increase speed of change.
In practical terms: our business is seasonal and there’s a huge increase in transaction volume from October to January. Previously, we’ve always hit pause on process development during that time to get back to that after the peak season. This year, we didn’t settle. When the weather was getting colder and things really heated up for us business-wise, we went for transforming in steps. Not going for the big projects and executing them perfectly, but testing and testing many small things, making quick wins in a strategic dimension.
2. In a crisis, stick to your purpose.
Or, to turn it around, make sure to work on your purpose so that it is relevant even in a crisis. Volatility won’t disappear after Covid. Having a purpose you can stick to means you have a direction. Combining that with being agile about how to move in that direction, is your best chance to future proof your organization.
3. (On a more personal level--) Give up trying to be Superman.
Pre-Covid, I had already started being more open about the things that I was uncertain about and where I was struggling, like how I reacted and interacted in different situations. Somewhat to my surprise, this really resonated well with people around me. I used to think that my job was to always try to be the smartest. But when I didn’t come into every meeting with the mindset that I had the best new ideas and solutions to problems, others became more motivated and felt more at ease to pitch in. This has resulted in better collaboration on decisions with more perspectives built into them. Being open about not having the answer is being more vulnerable, which is quite uncomfortable when you are the CEO. But I stuck through the discomfort and noticed that it unlocked feeling more joy and gratitude at work. Not only experiencing that, but actually joining the fun and saying thanks was counterintuitive, at least for me. Being firmly steeped in a Lutheran work ethic, I was afraid somewhere deep down that this would make people lazy.
But guess what? I was wrong. The organization is getting even more motivated, and Icebug is now a better place to work, not only for me, but for everybody. It still doesn’t come naturally, but I’m practicing sharing the joy and expressing gratitude. This is also spilling over and effecting my private life. I think that I’m now a more enjoyable partner and father.
This year has taught me that personal growth and sustainable development go hand in hand. We’re all linked, and perhaps there is no issue that illustrates this better than the climate crisis where we’re all affected by what everybody else does.
Trying to tackle the climate crisis still often feels overwhelming. When I do feel really small, I think of Greta Thunberg. How someone so small and with very little resources can find so much courage and have so much influence.
I also find faith in thinking that I’m part of a team. And I’m not talking about my small Icebug team now, but a much bigger team. I’m part of a team where the other team members also share the vision of contributing to a society where people thrive on a planet in balance. ISPO with 50 Years of Tomorrow, unleashing the force of the sports, and the outdoor industry being a driver of sustainable development and changing the world is an excellent example of this.
Some of the other team members in this bigger team I know already, but the vast majority of you out there I don’t know yet. And if you’ve read this far in this blog post, I’m pretty sure that you are one of the changemakers. So please reach out; that would make me happy. I’ve got your back. And I need you to have mine as well. This year showed all of us that things can change extremely fast and that we can handle great uncertainty. We should not be overly scared to shoot for maximum impact, even if we come up short, as long as we are moving in the right direction. Let’s form an alliance for change. Let’s further the cause. Together.
This blogpost, our development work and the ideas it’s based on, rests heavily on other people’s work that we are picking up and getting inspired by. To mention a few here:
The concept of psychological safety from Amy C. Edmondson.
(https://fearlessorganization.com). This is something we have been working on in the culture for quite a while and it now feels like a prerequisite for daring to share. Practical work with it in the organization and coaching me and my co-CEO Tom Nilsson in leadership development we are doing with Charlotte Henschel (https://www.milinstitute.se/ledarskapsutveckling-och-organisationsutveckling/vara-konsulter/charlotte-henschel)
Consent decision making process – first encountered in Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan and taught in practice at a workshop with Squeed, an agile consultancy in Goteborg (https://www.squeed.com/)
And last but not least the eye-opening work by Brené Brown about vulnerability. This has been a path to feeling joy and gratitude. Most recently the Dare to Lead podcast session with Simon Sinek (https://brenebrown.com/dtl-podcast) gave me language for the feeling of being part of a team of unknowns that are furthering the same cause.
But when we found the UN carbon offset platform, we saw that the average cost for offsetting carbon emissions was a little more than $1 per tonnes of CO2e and that you could find a lot of projects that was less than $0,5 per tonnes.
Since our emissions calculation for one pair of representative Icebug footwear, the Ivalo2 BUGrip, even with adding 30% extra for uncertainties was less than 15 kg of CO2e it meant that the actual cost for offsetting could be less than 1 cent per shoe. Our first reaction was shock. Could this be right? And if it’s the cost is this low, how come everybody aren’t doing it already?
We decided to jump ahead of our 2020 schedule and do the full offsetting already for 2018, but we still thought it was too cheap and we offset with a double standard. Both UN’s CDM (clean development mechanism) and WWF’s gold standard.
But after a while we started rethinking. What we’re really after is the effect of offsetting carbon, and as pointed out to us by the UN, the CDM standard alone does this job. The CDM standard is robust for creating CERs (certified emission reductions) which is a kind of carbon credit.
Better than offsetting at a higher cost, would be to use the same money to offset more. So with that new principle, we went ahead and did an estimate of emissions that we had caused since the start of Icebug in 2001, for more than 2,5 million pairs of footwear and our operations, travel and transports. In June 2019 we made a historic offset. And we decided that from here onwards, we will double down our climate positive action – offsetting 200% of emissions caused (so if the carbon emissions of a pair of footwear is 15kg, we will offset 30kg).
The historic offset costing us less than $10,000 USD.
Having done this doesn’t make Icebug all that great. Sure, we had the dedication to get climate positive, we were committed to doing the work of measuring, but then we got lucky when we found out that carbon credits were actually extremely affordable.
And we’re still looking for maximum effect in greenhouse gas reductions, that a small player like Icebug has done it will have a very small impact. We’re still battling with the question: How come everybody aren’t getting at least climate neutral already?
Well maybe it’s because other brands don’t know. So we have decided to use all the platforms and contacts we have to spread this knowledge. We all have a shared responsibility to take action for the climate and that responsibility grows with power and influence. Our closest sphere of influence is the outdoor industry, where we now take action to mobilize for all to take the pledge to join UNFCC’s Climate Neutral Now no later than 2020. Fridays for Future has showed us that a lot of positive momentum can happen in one year, and we’re sure that if Icebug could get climate positive in six months, all of our colleagues will be able to do it in one year.
– We’re willing to invest all of the profit into this change to become sustainable. After all, that’s a small price for doing all that we can to stay within a safe temperature for the planet, David Ekelund, CEO of Icebug, says.
Talking about sustainability, the starting point has to be that we need to consume less to get within what the planet can regenerate. From a brand perspective, that means making things that people need. In the case of Icebug, that is footwear that can cope with cold, wet and slippery conditions. Next, it’s about making stuff that people can and want to use for a long time and do it in the best possible way.
– To become a sustainable company has been our target for a long time, and we have done a lot of good work already when it comes to decreasing negative impact, but climate positive 2020 is the game changer, David Ekelund says.
This is truly a leap towards unknown ground, and the big question is: Can such a small company do this in such a complex and difficult industry?
Icebug’s answer is yes. The Swedish company will, to our knowledge, become the first climate positive outdoor footwear brand. Our pledge for 2020 looks like this:
– We’re not perfect, and right now we don’t exactly know what our footprint is, or how to get to climate positive. But we’ve made a conscious choice not to wait to talk about this until it’s a done deal. We want this process to be transparent, since we don’t have any interest in doing this alone. We want others to be able to hold us accountable, and we want to give other companies the opportunity to join us as soon as possible, David Ekelund says.
To be climate positive 2020 Icebug will have to offset. It will mean getting a clear idea of what the carbon footprint is and then compensate that with an extra 10% added, in projects which reduce CO2 emissions.
Offsetting is not a green card to carry on with business as usual. The process will involve setting a data-based baseline for actual emissions caused and then ambitious targets for reducing these. It will also not narrow down Icebug’s scope for the sustainability work to just be about climate; it will still be based on the four principles of sustainability of the natural step (www.naturalstep.org).
We firmly acknowledge that the climate is not the only planetary boundary that human activity is in high risk of passing. But at this point, the scope of the pledge is for the climate, because there is a mechanism to change CO2 emissions into money, which means that it can be built into the core of the business model. This also means that it has potential to fundamentally change the way we do business.
And offsetting also isn’t a letter of indulgence. To offset emissions that you have created with a surplus helps to improve the skewed balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
– If we can succeed in getting climate positive, most brands around us can – if they want to, Ekelund says.
Icebug is an outdoor brand, and as such we believe that we have an extra obligation to take care of nature. And that outdoor customers will expect outdoor brands to take that responsibility.
– The more successful we are with this, the more incentives and pressure for our colleagues will increase. If the first phase is a brand being chosen by more people because it does good sustainability work, then in the next phase a brand that doesn’t reach the sustainability bar is not on the table to be selected at all. That’s when change gets disruptive.
– Alone, we are small, but if we can prove to other giants in the industry that this is actually good for the business in the long run, then we have made a real impact, Ekelund says.