To the casual observer, the latest iteration of the iconic Chuck Taylor All Star sneaker probably looks no different than the hundreds of millions of other pairs of Chucks made from a design that’s remained almost unchanged for nearly a century.
But to Steven Bethell, the latest edition of Converse’s classic basketball kicks represents a giant leap forward in the evolution of sustainable fashion.
The Ottawa entrepreneur launched clothing reseller Bank and Vogue with his wife Helene more than 25 years ago. Today, the firm buys and sells about three million garments a week – enough to fill more than five dozen 40-foot shipping containers – from an operation based here in the capital.
Bank and Vogue acquires used apparel from charities such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill and sells it in 30 countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America and Eastern Europe. It also operates its own chain of used clothing stores, Beyond Retro, which has nine locations in the U.K. and Sweden and is poised to expand to Denmark.
The sustainable clothing movement has gained plenty of cachet in recent years, and Beyond Retro is no stranger to brushes with celebrity.
The store has been cited as a retailer of choice by such high-profile customers as British recording artist Adele, while fellow pop star Lady Gaga wore a pair of pants from Beyond Retro (and virtually nothing else) on a recent album cover. The chain’s apparel has also appeared on a half-dozen covers of British Vogue – including the June 2016 issue, which featured Kate Middleton decked out in a shirt and coat from Burberry, along with a hat from Beyond Retro, to celebrate the magazine’s 100th anniversary.
“The hundredth-anniversary (edition) of British Vogue – being on that is kind of like winning the Wimbledon of fashion,” says Bethell, explaining that the Duchess of Cambridge’s hairstylist is a big fan of the shop.
“We’ve been really lucky with the clients. The fashion gods have been good to us.”
From Bethell’s perspective, any extra publicity for the sustainable clothing movement is welcome. He says Bank and Vogue – which now employs a total of about 300 people at its Ottawa headquarters, retail stores in Europe and a sorting plant in India – is on a mission to solve what he calls the “crisis of stuff.”
In addition to reselling used clothing, the firm has also become a leader in “upcycling” garments – that is, remaking them into new merchandise, such as taking a dress and turning it into a handbag. The company says its Beyond Retro private label has diverted more than 600,000 items of clothing from the landfill by converting them into new products.
But it was a phone call to an executive at Converse a little over two and a half years ago that wound up giving Bank and Vogue its biggest opportunity to make a difference in the “upcycling” movement.
Bethell cold-called the head of the footwear manufacturing giant’s innovation lab, Brandon Avery, with a proposal. Converse was brainstorming ways of making a new line of Chucks out of recycled and repurposed materials, and Bethell pitched Avery on a plan to use recycled denim supplied by Beyond Retro in place of the shoe’s traditional canvas uppers.
“After our first call, he said, ‘Look, I get 50 emails and calls a month. You’re the one I answered this month,’” says Bethell.
“We just picked up the phone. The phone works great. A lot of people don’t use it anymore, but it still works great.”
The two firms soon reached an agreement that saw Beyond Retro sort and process denim from used jeans into material suitable for mass-produced sneakers. After considerable trial and error, they came up with a technique that can produce two pairs of Renew Denim Chucks out of a single pair of “post-consumer” jeans. The first run of the new shoes hit store shelves in Europe and North America in late August.
Bethell says the Converse deal is a significant breakthrough – not just for his business, but for the environment.
It takes about 1,500 litres of water to grow enough cotton for just one pair of jeans’ worth of denim, he notes, adding past efforts to reuse the fabric as everything from rags to insulation have failed to take hold.
“We’re taking something that really struggles to have a second life and really bring it up the value chain,” Bethell explains. “Doing the work with Converse has been fantastic because it’s a global brand and it pushed us to a global standard.”
Bethell believes the project will pave the way for future partnerships with other global manufacturers seeking to reduce their impact on the environment by repurposing fabrics and other materials.
“The third industrial revolution will be a society where we try to figure out how to reuse and remake and remanufacture things that we already have,” he says.
“How do we do it at scale, how do we do it globally, how does it fit into the supply chain? The Converse project, it’s not just about figuring out how to make a component for a shoe. To us, it’s figuring out a solution to this crisis of stuff and how do we repeat that at other levels and other places, and at scale and get consumer buy-in.”
While Bethell says the wholesale reselling side of the business still accounts for the “lion’s share” of Bank and Vogue’s revenues, he believes new opportunities abound in the push to bring new life to old clothing.
“I think it’s an important evolution of our business, and we’re doing it so that we can keep staying relevant,” he says. “As the market changes and as the circular economy comes in, what does the used apparel industry look like? That’s why we’re chasing these new projects.”