They say people always meet twice in life. And sometimes that happens in a particularly amazing way. In her twenties, Wildling Shoes founder Anna spent some time in Ecuador for an internship. There she met Bolier, who at the time was working at the Ministry of Environment. They kept in touch for years. In the meantime, while Anna founded Wildling Shoes with her partner Ran, Bolier became a professor of forest ecology* at the Universidad Estatal Amazónica. Then Anna and Ran came into contact with Mr. Itoi from Japanese manufacturer Itoitex about the production of the legendary Tanukis made from his patented washi – and he had begun sourcing the raw material for it, namely fibers from the Abacá plant, in Ecuador. You can already guess what happened. The story behind abacá and washi is a story about long-term relationships – and these four people, alongside many other personalities, play important roles in that story. But let’s start from the beginning.
How abacá is made…
Washi doesn’t exist as a raw material. It is derived from the fibers of certain plants – our special Wildling Shoes washi is made from the Abacá plant, which grows, among other places, in Ecuador. To make the material durable enough for shoes, the abacá (content: 75%) is mixed with one quarter polyester. Roughly speaking, the manufacturing process can be summed up like this: The leaf sheaths surrounding the plant are removed from its stem and then sent by ship to Japan – the place where washi was invented and is still produced today. The dried fiber is used to make paper. This paper is cut into fine strips and twisted around a polyester core. That is how the yarn invented by Mr. Itoi is produced – and from that yarn, the fabric for the production of the Wildling shoes that feature washi is then woven in Portugal.
Foto: Image: Cherie Birkner; model: Tanuki Niji
... and everything that goes with it
An important part of the work at Wildling Shoes involves making our supply chains transparent step by step, and finding opportunities for greater sustainability and regeneration. “We have certificates that verify that the raw materials are organically cultivated,” explain Anna and Ran. “But since they don’t explicitly cover social occupational standards, we asked some questions in Ecuador.” However, since it wasn’t possible to establish direct contact with the growers, Wildling Shoes had to rely on the various processing stages to exchange information – and since abacá is part of a huge paper market that involves much larger quantities than Wildling Shoes needs, responding to our questions was hardly at the top of their priority list. In other words, transparency wasn’t exactly the order of the day when it came to the working conditions of the farmers in Ecuador. What’s more, cultivating the Abacá plant is also hard physical work – so it was all the more important to stay on task in this regard. That’s where Anna’s old friend Bolier comes in. His research revealed that the issue of social occupational standards on Abacá plantations faces problems at the structural level. But Bolier immediately had an idea about how to put the cultivation on new regenerative footing in the future.
His proposal: to create a separate, experimental project to achieve 100% transparency and fair working conditions. But how exactly? Here’s why the Wildling Shoes value of radical collaboration is so important. It led to the establishment of a large-scale project, whose coordinators met for a kick-off meeting way back in July 2021. Since then, the focus has centered on finding and bringing together the stakeholders needed for realization – all while staying flexible.
Image: Nora Tabel | Wildling Shoes; model: Pamir
The initial idea was to manage the cultivation and harvesting of the crops themselves – “together with indigenous communities, within traditional ’chakra’ agroforestry systems, and in collectively owned processing plants that would alleviate the physical labor,” Anna explains. Among other things, “chakra” systems focus on avoiding monoculture farming, which likewise serves to help communities survive in the region – even in the face of today’s challenges, such as climate change. A great deal of coordination and research is required to make that happen. Bolier and his colleague Marco have assumed this task on site. In late summer 2022, some members of the Wildling Shoes task force will travel to Ecuador in person to assess on location what specific options might be available. “We realize that it’s a long-haul flight,” notes Anna. “But improving the supply chain is just too important.” Everything has to be a good fit for this big project – and verified by Wildling Shoes for compliance with its own values and regenerative commitments.
Work on the project is also progressing transcontinentally in Japan: “In the meantime, Mr. Itoi is experimenting with new grades of fiber.” Working with the Product team from Wildling Shoes, the aim is to ensure that the remaining polyester content can, at best, be replaced with biodegradable alternatives (and that even more Wildling minimal shoes can be produced from washi. Spoiler: Have a look in the shop!). These are all key steps to ensure a fair supply chain at every level going forward. So there’s a lot more to come. We’ll be sure to tell you about the next milestone, the Wildling Shoes visit to Ecuador!
*Forest ecology, livelihoods, bioeconomy, and carbon storage through land use
Headerfoto: Nora Tabel | Wildling Shoes; modell: Tanuki Niji