Microplastics are one of the greatest threats to the health of our oceans. And did you know that we're all kind of guilty of spreading them in our environment each day? Here's some food for thought; microplastics are scuffed from the soles of our shoes with each step we take, and most of us probably aren't even thinking about that. It's why a bunch of surfers founded the company WAES, which creates 100 per cent plastic-free and biodegradable kicks that are good for you and the environment.
Today, the company has officially launched a Kickstarter campaign (go here) to help propel the business forward. At the helm of the operation is Ed Temperley, formerly of MSW and a surfer who has an eco-conscience engrained in his being.
WAES has already teamed up with the likes of Surfers Against Sewage (organisation that aims to eradicate ocean waste) and 2MinuteBeachClean to help raise awareness of the state of our oceans, and lend their support to the cause. But more than just a punt into the realms of sustainable buzz words, WAES is a company built from the ground up on the foundations of protecting and preserving the playground we all use, every day. And it helps that they look good too; think, retro-styled with a contemporary edge – timeless design.
Anyway, we caught up with Ed to talk shoes, the impact we're currently having on the environment, being a surfer and taking responsibility for the oceans, creating plastic-free kicks and so much more.
Tell us a bit about WAES what sets them apart from other shoes out there?
Our main difference is simply that our shoes are 100 per cent plastic-free and biodegradable, which means they are designed to be disposed of easily after a long and useful life.
We set out to produce a shoe which looked amazing but left a minimal impact, and then we wanted to make it affordable. We managed on the first two and we are keeping the costs as low as we can. Turns out using really expensive materials doesn’t come cheap, even with our direct model which cuts out the middle-man. Also a percentage the revenue from each shoe goes directly to helping clean up our beaches and plant mangroves forests.
To state the obvious, we all need shoes but most current shoe design assumes we can continue producing petrochemical based goods which have to be landfilled or incinerated indefinitely. Look at your feet, if you are wearing sneakers, or almost any shoe, you’ll see a colourful and complicated plastic matrix, or at best organic matter coated in plastic – rendering it impossible to ever untangle them for recycling or composting.
Shoe sole erosion is something we don’t even think about. But if I gave you a big handful of microplastics and told you to chuck it in the ocean you’d think I was crazy
And during everyday life, as we walk around, those plastic soles wear down and produce virgin microplastics which are directly injected into the air, water and soil. Investigations into the sources of micro plastics is only just really kicking-off and when you think about that small section of your shoe sole which wears down, what does that matter? Unfortunately, it turns out that it does matter when you extrapolate it across the global population.
We’ve been working with some amazing scientists at The Fraunhofer Institute who have calculated that 109 grams of microplastics are scuffed from the soles of every person, per year in Germany. They claim it's the 7th largest source of environmental microplastics and it’s not hard science to believe as we all see our shoe soles wearing down.
Shoe sole erosion is something we don’t even think about. But if I gave you a big handful of microplastics and told you to chuck it in the ocean you’d think I was crazy. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are more than 20 billion pairs of plastic based shoes produced each year, enough to circle the world 300 times. And most of it goes straight to landfill, incineration, left on the beach, or discarded in some other way. It’s amazing how many pairs of shoes we find on beach cleans.
Our shoe sole are made from 100 per cent rubber tree sap, which sounds obvious, but there’s only one methods for producing these soles without injecting large amounts of plastic alongside the rubber. It takes more than a week to produce a workable shoe sole in our factory. And it's really worth it even without the environmental benefits. These things are so so supple and provide the natural plastic-free foundation for us to construct the rest of the shoe.
Sustainability and having an eco-conscience is in vogue, and scores of companies are moving to position themselves in a state of eco-Nirvana. As WAES is run by surfers, having an eco-minded ethos is kind of in your DNA – but how did this concept come about?
It’s a good question. Like a lot of ideas the concept started off in a completely different place and evolved through iterations until we had a product we were happy to take into full development. As a surfer, working at MSW, and also working with inspiring organisations like Surfers Against Sewage you are keenly aware of the health of our oceans and it’s really in our oceans and on our beaches that the plastics bell was tolling long before it hit the mainstream consciousness.
The irony being that for decades we surfers have been travelling around on planes with our polyester surfboards, petroleum wax and toxic sunscreen to deposit on pristine reefs, and were amongst the first to see how much plastic was accumulating into the most remote places. So yeah we have to be uniquely connected to both the issue and our role in perpetuating it.
Fundamentally, Damian and I (my business partner), were fed-up with companies who couldn’t care less about the environment but, who used a little eco chat to sell their goods. And it’s the combination of Damian’s understanding of shoe construction and my bloody-mindedness that we could find or develop alternatives to the industry standard plastic glues and threads that’s sign-posted our journey.
In terms of other companies no one wants to hear about how bad everything is, and how most of these eco shoe brands are really just encasing natural materials in plastic, or how vegan leather is organic materials held together with plastic and polyester thread. But that’s the truth.
We aren’t here to talk good intentions down, but at the same time it’s important to not let eco-spin get in the way of genuine change. There’s so much research out there around new and innovative materials that were really excited about the future of manufacturing. But right now just make sure you look into a claims like “wild rubber” or “sweetfoam” and find out what the percentage of plastic there is in there, and how biodegradable it is? And then ask, what happens when you are done with it?
Fundamentally our philosophy is that nature is clearly the greatest chemist of all time, and our approach is to work as closely with natural materials and adapt and change them as little as possible in producing a beautiful sneaker. So we’ve tried to create a product we don’t need to spin and we’re happy to talk about the negatives as well as the benefits.
And how do you get your message heard while there’s a whole load of conversation from other businesses going on?
It’s going to be tough. But people are already awake to all the PR they get fed, and I hope they see something honest in what we are doing. Consumers (who are also people) are savvy, it's a tough old world out there and can spot a fake sell a mile off but we’re all so used to swimming in a tide of bullshit it’s accepted as being ok for companies to up the ‘sell’ and omit the bad bits.
Talk us through the manufacturing process? The shoes are all plastic free?
Yep, from the laces to the toes. The sole is the heart of the shoe, it's the really expensive bit to make and also the best part with its base in a technique which has been in continual production for more than 40 years.
It takes more than a week to pour, set in a water bath, cook and the cure one of our sole units. A process which reads like a recipe and that’s because it really is akin to sous vide water bath into a slow roast – which sounds delicious.
I could bang on about this forever so sorry about that, but one more thing worth mentioning is the reason this expensive technique has survived the age of plastics is that during this cooking and curing process the rubber soles shrink down by nearly half, moving from a big jelly to their finished state through the expulsion of liquid water. And behind them is left a network of microscopic air-filled tunnels which provides the flexibility and comfort loved by a few top end shoe brands.
Up top we’ve engineered out the plastic which is used to shape most shoes and developed new solutions for industry standard plastic threads. Even down to the molecules in the glue, it’s biodegradable. The only thing we are keeping for now is the raw metal eyelets in our Vegan Hope model (which are easily removed and recycled), whilst we experiment with an equally robust solution.
And you’re working with a few surf companies to help raise some awareness too, tell us about those partnerships?
We are working with Surfers Against Sewage to support their beach cleans and campaigning, and also SeaTrees to replant mangrove forests ecosystems and sequester carbon. There are so many other brilliant organisations in surfing like 5 Gyres and locally 2MinuteBeachClean, plus loads more we’d love to work with, but right now we aren’t even a drop in the ocean. But you never know, with a bit of luck and a following wind we’ll be able to lend our to support a few more projects.
As we spoke about before surfers have been at the pointy end of protecting our oceans for some time and we’re inspired to be working with a few committed surfers who are helping us get our process out there. I can’t imagine a surfer who’d want there to be more microplastics in the ocean, so whilst we can only have a tiny impact right now hopefully we can start to help change the way shoe manufacturing is considered.
As surfers, it’s important for us to speak out against single-use plastics. If we don’t, then the ocean’s health will continue to decline – do you think surfers should shoulder more responsibility for the oceans? Whether that’s a 2 minute beach clean or lobbying local politicians?
I think it’s up to manufacturers to stop producing cheap disposable plastic goods, and surfers can help that shift by voting with their Dollars, Euros and Pounds. Democracy might be pretty screwed-up, but business listens and responds to the flow of cash so don’t think your choices are irrelevant, you are voting every time you make a purchase.
We can continue to clean things up, that needs to happen, but simultaneously we need to turn it off a source. The great example is if your bath was overflowing, would you first mop the floor? Or would you turn off the tap?
If we don’t voice ourselves now, what do you think our environment will look like in a few years’ time?
Well worse than now and it looks pretty bad already. But I’m hopeful, more hopeful than I’ve ever been that we are about to pivot and even though we’ve left it too late to not suffer I do think there's light beyond that burning rainforest. We’re an ingenious species and ultimately survival is in our best interests.
And how is WAES safeguarding this?
We are trying. We are tiny, and far from perfect, but I want to look my kids in the eye when they ask us that same question.
What’s in the name too?
The WAES logo is derived from the alchemy symbol for earth and the name itself is an acronym of the classical elements of Water, Air, Earth and Sun which defines our manufacturing philosophy of combining science and natural materials.
Any tech in the shoes that you want to add? They look fab, like a retro throwback with a modern edge.
Thanks! They are inspired by a collection of sneakers from the 1970s Damian had been hoarding. And our ambition is simple, to create shoes you’d want to wear whatever was under the skin.
For years, you were part of this humble website, moved on to taking steps (no pun, etc) to creating a better atmosphere for ocean goers, how important is this issue to you?
We’re in it together right? None of us are immune from the long term impacts of climate collapse and pollution. I’m not holding myself up as a person of environmental virtue, I’m a sinner, and so many people are living so much better and cleaner lives than we do.
But our system is locked on capitalism, nothing is going to change that, and I think it can be the agent of its own change. Will it happen fast enough? I have no idea, and things don't look great - but I believe in the ingenuity and adaptability of our species. We are survivors and survival is the thing we might have to get really good at again pronto.
Where’s your favourite surf spot and what about it makes it sing?
There’s nowhere like home and knowing which corner will most likely spring some promise. So a few places in Cornwall or Devon when the water is warming up from winter, the banks are pristine, but the crowds are still low and the days are getting longer. There’s hope in the air and anything is possible.
Like what you see? You can donate the Kickstarter here.