Climate change solutions for consumers typically are held to be home solar power systems, energy storage systems, electric vehicles or hybrid gas-electric vehicles, energy-efficient appliances, better home insulation, net-zero construction, and so forth. Broadly speaking, food waste is not at the top of such lists. Food waste does contribute to climate change and significantly. Producing and transporting food generates CO2 and placing food waste in landfills causes methane to be generated. Methane contributes to climate changes many more times than CO2 — once source says 28–34 times more.
Solar power, wind power, energy storage, and electrified transportation might be more interesting or exciting — some people really like their EVs — but food waste is a challenge we should not overlook. Food waste might not seem like such a ‘big deal’ to the unaware, but just consider this little factoid: “If food waste were a country, it would be third only to China and the United States in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.” For those of use who are trying to reduce our climate change impacts, food waste is another important consideration.
Jesse Tran and Son Chu, the founders of Rens Original, answered some questions about their shoes made from waste coffee grounds and recycled plastic pellets for CleanTechnica.
How did you have the idea to recycle and repurpose coffee waste to make shoes?
Jesse Tran: Coffee wasn’t our original idea. The first shoes we ever created were made from 100% organic cotton, but after some months we were not convinced by the design and we realized we needed an alternative. We didn’t launch them to the market, but we showed it around to our friends and experts and the feedback wasn’t great, so we went back to the drawing board.
Son Chu: Choosing coffee stemmed from its worldwide waste and design capabilities. Our signature coffee yarn helps cut the amount of methane-producing food waste that ends up trapped in our landfills while providing a material that is UV-protective, odor-fighting, moisture-wicking, and quick-drying.
How does coffee waste contribute to climate change and what can be done to reduce or eliminate its impact?
Jesse: When we started, we actually realized that only 5% of the coffee waste in the world actually gets recycled. Coffee waste is a bio waste, but it produces a lot of methane, which is about 32 times more potent than CO2. So what we do here is simply extend the life cycle by repurposing it for alternate use.
There’s an interesting connection between Vietnam (where we were born) and Finland (where we have lived for the past 10 years) — Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer globally, while Finland has the global largest coffee consumption per capita.
How do you convert coffee waste into shoe materials, and which materials do you make from the waste?
Jesse: The raw materials are sourced locally from Vietnam and the neighboring countries, China and Taiwan. Our supplier collects it from convenience stores and big chains there.
After you drink the coffee and throw the coffee grounds away, we actually mix it with recycled plastic pellets made from used water bottles. We then create something called coffee polyester yarn. The upper part of our shoes is made from this material.
The same coffee polyester yarn that we use for the upper part of our sneakers is included in our newest product, the Elemental Hoodie that we just launched on the 29th March, available in our websites in the US, the UK, and the EU. This is our first apparel collection and we wanted to include our signature materials for it. Made from 43 cups of coffee grounds and 12.5 post-consumption plastic bottles, the hoodie also consists of 40% of bamboo viscose.
Were you concerned about climate change before you learned about the coffee waste or did you learn about the waste and its impacts and then develop the desire to take action?
Son: In the market, sustainable products are really popular. What we see as a problem is that those products are not made for young people. The way that they are selling the products is like: ‘Hey, use us or else the planet is going to die.’ We don’t like that approach. We want to be a brand where we make sustainable products, but they are cool, they have amazing functions and people can actually use them.
Before you founded Rens, did you have business or startup experience? How did you fund yourselves initially?
Jesse: Rens started as a conversation between me and Son about the environmental impacts of the global sneaker industry and the less-than-stylish sustainable options on the market. I worked as CEO and Founder of Factory Finder, an online platform that connected European fashion brands with sustainable suppliers in Vietnam and China, and Son was one of the youngest developers at Zalando, Europe’s largest ecommerce company. We combined our sustainable and innovative talents to tackle our mission of creating a stylish and durable sustainable sneaker.
What is a quick snapshot or summary of lessons about creating a business with a sustainability focus, so far?
Funny enough, we launched our Direct-to-consumer webstore right before the pandemic went south in early 2020. That was probably one of the most exciting and challenging experiences of the entire process, navigating the brands through the COVID era. Production was delayed, logistics was heavily interrupted, and we struggled to deliver the products to customers in time. However, at the end of the day, we managed to weather the storm and grow the brand´s global presence via our own webstore and Zalando with our biggest markets including the US, Germany, Finland, and the UK.
Rens started as a brand for the community as we launched and financed our first product — the world’s first coffee sneakers — on a crowdfunding platform. For our second launch, NOMAD performance sneaker, we went back to our roots in Kickstarter. We were able to design from the feedback of our backers from the first campaign, who specifically asked for a sneaker made for sports activities. Launching the second model on such a crowdfunding platform allows us to keep developing community-focused products while letting our customers participate in the creation process, and that’s very exciting.
Sustainable materials are way more expensive than synthetic ones and that had been a challenge for us, as we want to offer products that are environmentally friendly but affordable for young people. Choosing Kickstarter and pre-order for our launches also helps the sustainable focus, as we only produce under demand cutting energy usage and material waste.
Rens only uses GRS, FSC, and RCS certified materials from the first step of the production until the last-mile shipping in order to reduce climate footprint and it’s not easy to find the right partners and suppliers that comply with these credentials.
How many shoes have you sold so far, and is your business growing?
Son: Since we launched we’ve sold over 30k pairs of sneakers in more than 100 countries around the world. So far, we’ve been able to recycle over 750,000 cups of coffee and more than 250,000 post-consumption plastic bottles. Now with the creation of our first coffee waste hoodie, the recycled materials will continue to grow.
Jesse: We see Rens becoming the global leader in sustainable athleisure from Europe. The current and future Rens’ offerings will be made from waste-based materials and packed with innovative technologies. On top of that, together with the new hoodie, the first 2022 lucky customers will receive a hoodie NFT in our aim to enter the digital space. These NFTs are built in Polygon, the most sustainable blockchain alternative and their energy usage will be completely offset with our partner Aerial.
What are your plans for the next several years?
Jesse: We will continue our mission to promote sustainable fashion through technology and innovation. The launch of our exclusive limited run of NFTs alongside our Elemental Hoodie Collection shows how we are able to drive innovation in both the physical and digital space simultaneously, whilst also building on our sustainability credentials. We wholeheartedly believe that this is just the beginning of a MetaPhysical revolution in sustainable fashion and have ambitions to see Rens products in every single corner of the real world and the metaverse.
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