Exclusive: Rothy’s pilots an in-store takeback program for worn shoes

Customers can return their old kicks at Rothy’s seven stores in exchange for a $20 same-day discount on a purchase.
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· 4 min read

Rothy’s is circling...

After committing earlier this year to fully circular production by 2023, the shoe company is taking the next step toward that goal: From today through October 24, Rothy’s will pilot its first-ever customer takeback program.

  • Customers can return their old shoes at Rothy’s seven stores in exchange for a $20 same-day discount on a purchase.
  • The company wants to upcycle 20,000 pairs of shoes by year’s end.

The goal is to determine end-of-life use cases for Rothy’s shoes, explained Saskia van Gendt, the company’s head of sustainability. (In preparation, Rothy’s experimented with 1,000 pairs of shoes in existing inventory— like damaged returns—to understand the pain points of footwear disassembly while preserving recovered materials.)

Here, van Gendt tells Retail Brew more about the thinking behind Rothy’s takeback pilot.

(This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

What does the next phase of Rothy’s circularity mission look like?

Scaling up the disassembly process, finding both recycling and upcycling solutions for all the materials coming out of that process, and also scaling the learnings from this week’s takeback program to make sure that all customers will have access to recycling options.

What does Rothy’s hope to gain from this pilot?

Engaging the customer is critical for achieving circularity at scale. Ultimately we will need the customer to participate in a recycling program by returning one shoe for recycling. The learnings from this week around how customers are engaging with the takeback program, how many customers and shoes are collected through that, the learnings from the incentives—is that the right incentive for takeback?—is critical for informing how we can take back at scale from the customer.

We need to be thinking about both incentives and reducing friction from customer participation all along the way in order to enable us to close the loop and achieve circular production.

How did you determine the $20 discount?

We knew it was important to have an incentive for the customer to participate in the in-store takeback program. We want to encourage customer participation, and having incentives all along the value chain will really be an enabler for circularity to happen.

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What’s the main business proposition of achieving circularity and using recycled materials?

We believe that sustainability is the foundation for a resilient business, and circularity is just the same. By breaking down old products and using twice-recycled materials in new inventory, you can cut costs associated with purchasing raw materials and decrease your reliance on outside suppliers, creating a more compact and nimble supply chain. We’ve already seen the benefits from our tight-knit supply chain and our wholly owned factory, which enable us to produce for demand and avoid the excess waste typical of our industry.

What was the biggest challenge in getting this pilot off the ground?

Designing a process that’s accessible for customers and manageable for our retail team members across our seven stores. To create a pilot shoe-takeback program required engineering a new infrastructure for Rothy’s: Collecting shoes at the stores, sorting and storing them, and then establishing a method for shipping them back to our recycling partner’s facility. All of this, of course, while managing business as usual.

This pilot will test that infrastructure, and will hopefully identify areas of improvement and opportunities for growth. The other big challenge is the unknown. We have no idea how popular this will be, and so we’re planning for the possibility of thousands of shoes, or no shoes at all.

What will it take to consider this pilot a success?

One of the main goals of this pilot is to glean insights to inform our full-scale recycling program. During the in-store customer takeback event, we will be learning about aspects like our consumers’ appetite for returning shoes, and identifying the right customer incentives, takeback logistics, and if there are any quality discrepancies from recycling worn shoes compared to the damaged returns from the first stage of the pilot. We’ll consider it a success if we’re able to narrow in on some actionable learnings that we can bring to the next phase of our recycling program.

Correction: This story was updated on October 18, 2021, to note that Rothy's has seven stores. An earlier version said it had six locations.

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