#RetailEXPOVC: Vivobarefoot on regenerating retail to save the planet

For Galahad Clark, CEO of running eco-shoe company Vivobarefoot, sustainability starts with a simple question: is what you're selling improving lives?   

“If it is not, then you are just fundamentally filling the world up with more crap,” he tells Essential Retail in a live interview at the RetailEXPO virtual conference.

That question prompted Clark to drop other projects he was working on in 2012 and focus on building Vivobarefoot. He is the a seventh-generation member of the iconic family-owned Clarks brand, so knows a bit about the footware sector. 

His company now has a £40 million turnover and 20 stores across Europe, most of them franchises. Around 80% of its business is direct to the consumer. 

If retailers can meaningfully say why “does the world really need this right now?” the next step is achieving a complete map of their supply chain processes. “Then I think the elephant in the room in the fashion industry is end of life. Clothing and shoes in particular… de facto end up in landfill or get badly downcycled.”

But ensuring fully environmental and ethical practises remains a challenge for everyone, including his own company. “We are a long way from sustainable nirvana, so to speak.” 

The shoe industry is moving in the right direction, with some of the biggest players such as Nike and Adidas doing a lot. “But the percentages of truly sustainable products they make are still tiny… It’s more they are doing the wrong things righter rather than doing the right thing,” he says.

“Primark and H&M are massive retailers with large sustainability departments.. but I’m hard pushed to see anyone really doing it well on a systemic level,” he says.

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Technological change 

Clark agrees that sustainable options can be an expensive option for both businesses and consumers but he believes there are reasons to be hopeful. “The amount of energy and innovation that is occurring is exciting,” he says. “We are surrounded by exponential technologies.”

For example, Nike has open sourced the software it has developed to map its supply chain. Vivobarefoot is also using technology to get a clear view of the source of its products. Meanwhile blockchain is playing a role in bringing greater transparency.

“It can be extremely confusing as to what is sustainable and what is not. We have that in our business too.” For example, natural products like bamboo gain attention as a sustainable option but involve a lot of chemicals to treat.   

“[Hopefully] we’ll get to a point manufacturers won’t manufacture a new product without it first meeting new [Life Cycle Assessment] standards... which will be calculated through software programmes.”

Greater automation will also lead to more localised manufacturing. “No one has really succeeded at that yet, but it will only grow.” 

For Clark the ultimate ambition is to stop using the word 'sustainability' entirely. “It’s not really aspirational… we’ve got to a point where it’s not enough to just ‘sustain’ where we are at.” A better word is “regeneration,” he says.

Once retailers stop talking about sustainability, the battle will be half won.

“The goal for [our head of sustainability Emma Foster-Geering] is she makes herself redundant within our organisation in the next three years.” He says its ambition of having those practises so embedded they are just business as normal, should be an industry-wide goal. “Get brilliant people and leadership to come in and ultimately make them redundant!”