The key take away at this point from all of Icebug’s climate work so far: Decarbonizing the supply chain should be the top priority.
For brands like us, with main production in countries that have a lot of carbon in the energy mix and a lot of sunlight (most countries in the World), installing solar energy closest to where the energy is used (that is: on the roof of the factories) gives a substantial and immediate CO2 emission reduction. This is a quick win in a strategic dimension. And we need to move fast.
📉 2015-2020: Cutting emissions 10-15% by switching materials and processes.
🏭 2019: Becoming climate “positive” by offsetting all historical emissions, plus unavoidable current and future emissions by 200%.
🙋 2020: Committing to the 1,5 degrees roadmap for emission reductions, starting by halve by 2030.
👀 2021: Publishing CO2 footprints and full product journey for all styles. Radical transparency to give customers the chance to make an educated choice and share date with the industry.
☀️ 2022 (planned): Getting solar roof top installed at factories in Vietnam. Estimated further cutting emissions by 15-25% on style level.
We started as beginners and are still learning. Our most important insight: Don’t wait for perfect to take action.
How we get a grip on things is by using the BUG-method:
1. Begin by finding out what needs to be done.
2. Use that knowledge to act.
3. Get out there and share it with the World!
Always seeking to get maximum impact. During the process, we build on and correct our knowledge, get a better grip on what needs to be done, take new, more appropriate action, maximize the impact of that…. And repeat. This work won’t end. We’ll keep striving to be a changemaker towards our North Star: A society where people can thrive on a planet in balance.
The real starting point for our sustainability awakening was hearing about the Earth Overshoot Day. That’s the day when all the resources that the planet can regenerate have been consumed for that calendar year. Back in 2010, it was still in August. In 2021, it was in July. This is unsustainable in the most basic meaning of the word: We can’t to go on like this. After July, we’re accumulating ecological debt for future generations to pay. With that insight, it’s impossible to be happy with business as usual.
But knowing that something must change, doesn’t automatically make it happen. There are always external obstacles to overcome. Often internal development is also needed – going deeper into your values and sticking to them in your work life too, even when it makes business more complicated. Being a miniscule player in the footwear industry, a dirty industry which heavily depends on oil as a raw material and with no scalable end-of life solutions, there was no quick fix for us to decrease our ecological footprint.
Since people need shoes to get outdoors, and Icebug’s foundational purpose is to empower and inspire people to get out more, just quitting was not an option. We had different opinions inside Icebug if we would really be able to drive change, or if we would have to wait for the global footwear giants to act and piggyback on their work. Finally, we determined that it was our responsibility to at least try. We made being a changemaker in the transformation of the footwear industry to become fully sustainable (meaning: operating in a way that can go on) our second purpose. We rolled up our sleeves and got to work: Identifying what materials and processes that made the largest impact and then addressing them in that priority. We investigated other options than the industry standard, switching to alternatives with less negative impact. (Spoiler alert: There are no environmentally friendly or sustainable shoes. Greenwashing check: When brands rave about special projects, compare that to the business’ total footprint).
Then, in the Summer of 2018, the urgency of the climate crisis struck close to home. On an intellectual level, we knew about it already, but this was the first time that we really felt it. One hundred days without rain in Sweden – unheard of in our wet corner of the world – and forest fires started raging. The forest is where we played as kids and still spend time nearly every day. It has always been there, and we never even questioned that it would always be around. Now that didn’t feel very sure anymore. We figured that there had to be some hack we could use to move faster. We decided to become ''climate positive''. And pledged to be so by 2020.
Getting on an aggressive timeline and committing to our ''climate positive'' pledge by putting it on all shoe boxes created a very interesting energy inside Icebug. Equal parts pride and anxiety. We were taking a leap into the unknown. We didn’t know how much emissions our products caused, nor what it would cost to offset them. But committing got the entire organization involved. It ended up being much easier and much cheaper (too cheap to drive any action by itself, in fact) than we had expected. So, we didn’t wait for 2020. Tnstead, we compensated well ahead of schedule in 2019, all estimated historical emissions since the start of Icebug in 2001 and 200% of emissions caused from 2019 forward.
After having done the offsetting through the UN carbon offset platform, we were contacted by the UNFCC and the Climate Neutral Now initiative, who wanted to give Icebug recognition as the world’s first ''climate positive'' outdoor footwear brand.
''We do still offset 200% of the emissions we cause, but that feels more like something everybody should do than a real achievement''
Getting ''climate positive'' was a really big deal for us back then. With what we’ve learnt since, not so much anymore. In the process, we understood that for “climate neutral” or “climate positive” to have any real value, it must have three parts: measuring your emissions, reducing what you can (and at least in line with what the best science stipulates), and offsetting only the unavoidable emissions. Measure and reduce are more important than offset. We do still offset 200% of the emissions we cause, but that feels more like something everybody should do than a real achievement. It’s like when you’re walking in the forest. You don’t litter; but if you find some thrash, you pick it up. If we can decrease the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and help others cutting their emissions, indeed we should. But our first job lies in cutting our own emissions. And to be able to get on the roadmap to halving latest by 2030, you have to know the baseline.
Our first measuring was rudimentary, based on the LCA (full life cycle analysis) of one of highest volume, and most representative, styles. We realized that there was very little footwear CO2 emission data to compare with. Without benchmarking, it’s difficult to know if you’re doing well and where to focus for maximizing improvement. With this new grip on what needed to be done, we took action to measure with more precision and amplifying impact by applying radical transparency: Sharing our climate and sustainability data both end consumers and the footwear industry to speed up the learning industry wide.
Starting from the Spring 2021 Collection, we are putting our CO2 emissions front and center of our product presentation as well as opening up the supply chain, showing the entire product journey to let customers and colleagues follow our footprints. As we drilled deeper into our emissions, what we were suspected was confirmed: Switching to lower impact materials (recycled, biobased) was only reducing our overall footprint by 10-15%. To reach a 50% reduction, our energy sources in production must be changed to non-fossil based.
This led us to our next action: Co-financing a pilot project to install solar roof top energy at Tier 1 apparel and footwear factories in Vietnam. We have now seen the case studies, and for our factories, solar roof tops can supply up to 66% of the energy the factory needs. This translates to total emission reductions of up to 25%, and about 20% on average, for an Icebug shoe produced in that factory.
Moving further up in the Icebug supply chain, there remains a lot of carbon related emissions, particularly in the making of midsoles. This will be an important thing for us to focus on next. In the textile industry, there are still a lot of coal fired boilers. To phase those out would be a big win.
Scaling roof top solar energy at factories drastically reduces emissions with immediate effect. It’s also a great financial case. The factories in the pilot project can chose between investing themselves and have a return on investment of 6-7 years – after which they get the electricity for free for the remaining at 10-15 years facility life-time – or sign a long-term agreement to buy the energy generated from the roof top solar, not needing to make any investment and have clean electricity at least 15% cheaper from day one.
Zooming out from Icebug, we can see how scaling this program would have huge impact. Vietnam has a lot of sunlight which means that efficiency is very high. Why hasn’t this change happened already? The main obstacles are worries about regulations, lack of contacts and expertise in solar rooftop, and the capital need for the up-front investment. When we found a program that solved all of this, there was initially still some reluctance. The power of business as usual is not to be underestimated.
We can’t afford business as usual because that would bring us to a climate disaster. Never in history has any energy source been as cheap as solar is today. In the outdoor and footwear industry, we need to decarbonize our supply chains without any further delay. If you’re a brand that works with factories that has a lot of fossil energy in the mix (Vietnam has about 70%, and coal has kept growing) this is the cheat code and where you’ll get most effect. Changing materials for lower impact options has a cost increase and a lot of trade-offs (i.e. lower durability for recycled materials, land use for bio-based materials) and it took us more than five years to get close to 15%. By installing solar roof tops very close to where the energy is used, we can reduce our emissions by more than that in just one year - and lower energy costs!
We’re absolutely fine with doing our part and some more. But we’re also acutely aware that just us changing is not enough. When it comes to the climate, what everybody does affects everybody. We share one atmosphere. Energy production is at the core of CO2 emission and the single most urgent thing is to phase out coal.
To break the power of business as usual, friction needs to be introduced. A proper price on carbon at €100/ton has a great chance to be a catalyst for change at scale.
Apart from taking responsibility for our own footprint, trying to lead by example, sharing progress, and supporting environmental organizations financially by our 1% for the planet commitment. We also use our platform to say that as a business, we support what’s most needed right now:
Give us a level playing field with new rules. Put a proper price on carbon at €100/ton. Give us a global carbon tax now.
/David Ekelund, co-founder and CEO, Icebug