At the core of conscious consumerism is a demand for a necessary empathy, an authentic understanding of how, where and by whom our clothing is made. In order to have the privilege as end consumers to wear the clothing, we must both acknowledge and respect the garment workers experience. The German footwear brand EKN Footwear is a pioneer within the sustainable footwear industry, operating under a policy of complete transparency, giving the consumer total autonomy to understand how EKN shoes are made. As the old saying goes, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”, EKN takes this one step further by inviting their customers to “walk with us”. Recognising that the footwear industry produces swathes of “poorly fabricated synthetic shoes, harmful both to the environment and the people involved” EKN manufactures environmentally responsible footwear that acknowledges both wearer and maker.
“We started the brand because I was looking for shoes that are made in Europe and from sustainable materials, but I couldn’t find any matching my style” – Noel, founder of EKN Footwear
Founding EKN Footwear
Observing a gap in the market, EKN’s founder Noel Klein-Reesink was motivated to establish a contemporary footwear brand that creates beautiful shoes whilst embracing a holistic approach to sustainability: each pair are made in Europe in fair conditions and manufactured from organic materials. It is widely acknowledged that founding a sustainable brand comes with a burden of responsibility (hence why fast fashion is superficially so much more enticing as a business venture) but Noel persevered, travelling to Portugal, Europe’s centre for sustainability, to discover how best to make his dream a reality. Whilst researching the best tanneries, understanding various manufacturing methods, learning about eco certifications and how best to run a successful business, one thing remained at the forefront of Noel’s mind: creating a shoe that made a difference. The first EKN shoe was released in 2011.
Handmade Locally with Care
The wide range of EKN models are produced in a factory near Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal, where the shoes are handmade by a team of around 70 employees. Aligned with EKN’s core values, this factory, and others with whom EKN collaborates, maintain excellent conditions for its workers. From fair wages to set mealtimes, these social standards set themselves apart from the harsh reality of standard practice within the fashion industry.
Collaborating with a Pioneering Tannery in Europe
Whilst EKN is increasingly working to incorporate vegan materials into its designs, the brand is devoted to mindfully source and treat the leather it does include. EKN works together with a Portuguese tannery, a factory in which the leather is treated, which has produced its leather without the inclusion of chrome since 1988. Chrome, like any heavy meal, has toxic, and therefore environmentally damaging, properties. Working with leather treated with chrome creates toxic wastewater that is harmful to the planet. As one of the first in Europe to resist working with chrome, the tannery has developed a process so non-toxic that the remaining water maintains a drinking quality post-production; The tannery uses this water to hydrate its surrounding agriculture. Distancing itself from the status quo is fundamental to the tannery, and despite these methods demanding more time and finances, the tannery upholds its highest standards in order to provide EKN with responsibly treated leather.
Next to sustainable leather, EKN incorporates a number of eco-certified fabrics into its designs. EKN works with soles made from recycled materials and recycled chloroprene rubber, which provide “responsive cushioning and long-lasting lightness when walking” (EKN). With styles for the warmer months, a sole of organically grown cork and recycled rubber is integrated into the design process, with upper materials stitched from organic canvas fabric. To further elevate a summer look, EKN presents its vegan leather and recycled suede sandal. Over the years the brand has worked to employ vegan leather over its entire range, with one of their most recent designs incorporating “recycled vegan leather, recycled mesh and nylon textile (based on used PET bottles)” (EKN). For a more classic sneaker, EKN combines high-quality vegan suede with organic denim for a timeless style that will weather the passing trends.
Deconstructing Stereotypes In An Ode to Mindful Living
Through their contemporary aesthetic and timeless design, EKN shoes deconstruct stereotypes often applied to “eco” shoes, instead proving that it is within the realm of possibility to create beautiful styles that don’t sacrifice on aesthetic.
Increasingly the fashion industry sees waves of brands marketing themselves as “sustainable”, the consumer is fed promises of 100% recycled pieces and vegan capsule collections but rarely do brands hold themselves accountable at every stage of the design process. EKN is an exception when it comes to traceability and accountability, their honesty policy reveals a truly transparent supply chain, which can be scrutinised at every turn, an authentic commitment to sustainability.
by Eliza Edwards