Havaianas puts foot forward towards sustainability

Thong footwear brand's GM shares the customer impetus driving its latest business partnership and brand efforts

Five years ago, Havaianas Australia general manager, Tom Nolan, would have said maybe one out of 10 of the people calling into his company’s contact centre would have been asking about recycling the company’s iconic rubber footwear.

“In the last two years, it is about seven out of 10,” Nolan tells CMO. “The percentage has gone through the roof. Australians now, and especially the younger generations, are just so focused on this topic.”

Like many brands, Havaianas has found itself challenged by customers who count sustainability equal to other brand attributes such as design and quality. For Nolan, that change has required innovative thinking, as the natural rubber used in Havaianas’ products does not lend itself to curb side recycling collection.

“We have always had a recycling option, but we have never held ourselves as an ecofriendly and sustainable brand because we produce a product that doesn’t break down all that well,” Nolan says. “But what we do hang our hat on is that they are made from rubber, and they are very long lasting. The quality is there so when people buy a pair, we hope they last a lot longer than your plastic version.”

Knowing he needed a better answer, however, the importer has now entered a partnership with specialist recycling company, TerraCycle, to turn old Havaianas into soft fall matting for use in children’s playgrounds.

“We like to partner with people that are the best in their field, and that is what we think TerraCycle is,” Nolan says. “We are the experts in rubber thongs and they are the experts in recycling and reusing consumer goods.”

The free program enables Havaianas owners to either send their worn-out footwear back to the company or drop them into a dedicated recycling bin. So far, 38 bins have been distributed to retailers around Australia. The goal is eventually seeing them in around a quarter of the 800 stores where Havaianas are sold.

“This is very much a soft launch to work out the logistics of how quickly those bins fill, how quickly they can get back to us and how quickly we can get new bins out,” Nolan says.

Aside from the bins themselves, Havaianas is also spreading word of the program via its website and social channels. The hope is that with an estimated one in 10 Australians owning a pair of ‘Havis’, the program will divert five tonnes of old footwear from landfill.

Another question still to be addressed, however, is the impact owners of other brands might have on the program.

“Havaianas are pretty special in that we actually use natural rubber,” Nolan says. “A lot of other surf brands and discount department store thongs are made up of EVA, which is a foam. So at the moment we are purely just collecting our brand. But if someone throws a pair of something else in there it still goes to TerraCycle and TerraCycle will find a home for it and recycle it properly anyway. And hopefully they will buy Havaianas to replace them.”

While Nolan says the parent company has not traditionally trumpeted its green credentials, that is changing too, as it brings new products to market. The company is producing sneakers in Brazil made with 70 per cent recycled materials, while the traditional ‘Havis’ thongs also getting a green makeover.

“There will be several new product lines that are using minimum 50 to 60 percent recycled rubber, to the point of trying to get to a 100 per cent recycled product,” Nolan says.

“I remember being a young kid working in shops and selling thongs and it was all about new colours and the brand and this and that,” he adds. “Now, speaking to people, I have never seen it [environmental interest] at this level.

“If we do a product night, or any time we are talking directly to staff our consumers, it is almost the first question they are asking.”

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