Wear These Shoes Without Leaving a Carbon Footprint

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According to the World Economic Forum, 85 percent of textiles go into landfills every year — enough to fill the Sydney harbor annually. To combat all the pollution caused by the fashion industry, we need to shop for sustainable, eco-friendly brands. Mary Sue Papale, the founder of BENDY by Ashbury Skies, recognized this early on. In 2017, this Girl Scout alum and former fashion industry professional created a modern, comfortable, planet-friendly women's shoe that’s become a favorite, especially among travelers. 

"That boulder blocking the road might lead to a win you'd never have had without it."

“After spending my entire career in the shoe business, I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with how most big brands shoes are made, and what they’re made of,” Papale explains to CircleAround. Papale’s shoe line follows three principles for creating a product: 

  • Have a low carbon footprint 

  • Source from transparent companies with ethical business practices, like fair worker wages, and no child labor

  • Handcraft the majority of the shoes locally (in her case, California)

“We did all of the above,” Papale states. “Without sacrificing comfort, style, or versatility. Our next project is developing a new bottom from sugar cane. Our current bottom is oil based. When this launches, we will offer a renewable outsole that is carbon negative. We strive to reduce our product's carbon footprint in all our design decisions.”

Here are four things she learned while building a sustainable fashion brand.

1. Positive Change Is Always Possible

“It’s never too late to be the change to a problem you see in the world,” Papale encourages. 

While working in the fashion industry, she was on a sourcing trip to China, where she visited a kidskin leather tannery. Adjacent to the tannery was a purple lake, she recalls; the tanner had been dumping toxic chemicals into the lake, with no regard for the environment, the safety of the workers there, or the people that lived in the local village.

“I was young in my career and this was such an exciting trip for me and I witnessed this environmental tragedy. I came to learn that this was a standard operating procedure in the fashion industry at the time. I created my company because I wanted to offer an alternative way for women to shop.” Papale built many of her sustainability principles from experiences like this.

2. Be Flexible When Trying to “Stand Out”

Building a unique product in an oversaturated market, especially in the fashion industry, has no shortage of challenges. “If you are truly pursuing your dreams, at some point you will have to dodge and weave or pivot or shift — and probably more than once, like I did.”

“Fast Fashion is a beast, and I took it on. If people laugh, or not enough investors believe in your dream, let them go ahead while you get back to figuring out your next step.” Papale explains how positioning BENDY to take advantage of a shift in the fashion market paved the way for her success. It has certainly paid off. “Our most exciting moment was when we were written up in Fodor's Travel as being a top, stylish, comfortable shoe for travel!”

3. See Problems as Challenges, Not Roadblocks

According to Papale, constraints are often the very thing that leads to the best breakthroughs. “That boulder blocking the road might lead to a win you'd never have had without it,” she states. 

She explains that one of her brand’s biggest challenges was trying to convince people that her target demographic desired a new kind of shoe. “There were those who thought we were niche, and that women didn't care much about sustainability,” Papale tells CircleAround. “They were wrong!”

Papale goes on to explain that, in her research and experience, “more and more women, especially younger ones, are aware of the sustainability challenges our planet faces and their buying habits are starting to show it.” As a result, her company has been able to provide a product that serves the exact demographic others thought wouldn’t care. “Our biggest reward is when women buy our shoe and then purchase it in multiple colors, because they are so comfortable and our core values resonate with them.”

4. Reach Out to Others in Your Industry

One of the most important aspects of Papale’s company is the partnerships she has developed and maintained with the businesses that help produce her products, from start to finish. “A better future is going to take more of us working together in collaboration, not competition,” she explains. She’s grateful for the people who helped her at just the right time and didn’t ask for anything in return. 

“If you have the opportunity to do that for someone,” she adds, “pay it forward.”

Tags: Start Up

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

CircleAround is owned by One GS Media, a subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA, and we make financial distributions to benefit the next generation of Girl Scouts. We strive to make the world a better place by supporting each other today and emboldening the women leaders of tomorrow.

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