Small Business: Sneaker company YY Nation launches zero-carbon certified shoes

Jeremy Bank talks to Rahul Bhattarai about his footwear company YY Nation, which he founded three years ago in Wellington.

What does your business do?

YY Nation is a sneaker company on a mission to reduce waste caused by the footwear industry. We have just launched our first collection that is Zero Carbon-certified, including four classics, comfortable sneakers made from ethically sourced materials including pineapple husk ‘leather’ and algae.

Our footwear collection is priced from $168 and $198.

We are proud to have launched with the lowest carbon footprint sneaker in the world. Our Nimbo shoe is made with bamboo and an algae sole, which has a carbon footprint of 5.45kg CO2e.

We pre-sold about 1,000 pairs since October last year, but we do have the manufacturing capacity to produce more than 1,000 pairs a week. It just depends on the demand.

What was the motivation for starting it?

I was with my family in Hawaii three years ago and my daughter and I were walking along the beach where I windsurfed about 20 years earlier. She noticed all these tiny blue fragments on the sand that I could see were bits of plastic. There was rubbish including old shoes everywhere, which concerned me enough to think that in one decade all this pollution happened.

It made me question what the environment would be like for future generations, and what I could do to help this situation. There is so much waste involved in the footwear industry (more than 625 million pairs of shoes end up in landfill each year), and I had the knowledge to try and disrupt the traditional process. That’s how YY Nation began.

What’s your background?

I come from a family with three generations of footwear expertise. I have been involved in the fashion and footwear business for over 25 years, with a broad knowledge of manufacturing, e-commerce and retail.

How big is the team today?

We have grown to a team of 12, made up of eCommerce and marketing teams based in New York and New Zealand. Our research, design and production team are in New Zealand and South Korea.

How was your business affected by Covid-19?

We had travel plans disrupted to visit our manufacturing partners, supply chain issues and long lead times. Our initial manufacturing plant had to close permanently due to Covid-19, which was really sad. We then had to protect and move our investment and tooling to a new location virtually from NZ. Shipping has certainly been delayed too.

We had to cancel our Auckland photoshoot just as the country went into lockdown, and quickly pivoted to shoot the campaign in New York.

Also, the January volcanic eruption in Batangas, Philippines, at the pineapple farm, destroyed a lot of raw materials – this was not Covid-19 related, but additional adversity nonetheless. In business, we have had to learn to adapt to whatever comes our way.

How long has your business been around?

Our research and development started over three years ago. We went through a lengthy accreditation process for our carbon zero rating, ensuring every step of our process was as sustainable as possible.

In September last year, we launched our Kickstarter campaign and quadrupled our target in just a few weeks.

We are thrilled to have officially launched on November 23 at in the US and NZ.

What’s your focus for the next 12 months?

Our focus, for now, is the launch in the US and New Zealand. We will need to learn quickly and refine our company to grow. We are excited about the innovative sustainable shoes we are developing.

What are your long-term plans, and where do you see the brand in five years’ time?

In five years we want to have a global, sustainable business that makes a difference to the environment, that sets new standards and disrupts the conventional way things are done.

It’s early days, but we have a global network and a lot of inquiries from various markets.

How does your business stand out in comparison to other businesses in the market?

We use classic silhouettes in our designs – a versatile casual sneaker that isn’t too trend-focused, which in itself can create waste. We also use a broader selection of materials that are used for the purpose, such as pineapple husk as a leather alternative.

How are you marketing it?

We are a direct-to-consumer brand through -our main focus is digital channels and social marketing.

What does the competition look like in this market?

We see our sneakers as almost a ‘gateway’ for those that care about sustainability but perhaps haven’t ventured into this space in footwear just yet – they still want something that looks good and is comfortable.

Brands that damage the environment in the street and lifestyle categories are our main competition. Our desire is to provide an alternative option for people who want to make sustainable, conscious buying decisions.

What advice would you give to people who are thinking about starting their own business?

It is the little decisions each day that count; continually commit yourself to your vision, search out solutions to your questions, connect and surround yourself with people that support you, people that have the expertise you don’t have, people who believe in your vision and go for it! There is always a way through, even when the challenges seem so big.

Persevere, it is worth it!

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