The Interview: Ed Temperley, co-founder, WAES footwear

WAES

WAES is the world’s first zero-waste, plastic-free, 100% biodegradable sneaker brand – launching to the market now amid the coronavirus crisis. Co-founder, Ed Temperley, says it was already all systems go when they recently received their first delivery of stock to sell direct-to-consumer via the brand’s new website, so they will push on despite the obvious limitations of launching during a lockdown. Remaining upbeat, Temperley talks us through the brand’s ethos, strategy and outlook

Where are you based and how did your partnership come about?

We’re based between Devon and Porto in Portugal, so there’s two sides of the company. I am based here, while my old friend and business partner, Damian Quinn, is based in Porto where we do our manufacturing. The company was originally formulated in Devon, and we’re both big surfers – usually on a daily basis – so the current lockdown is extra difficult to contend with. It’s very much a 50/50 partnership, and we’d been wanting to do something together for a long time. Damian is a cobbler, and has been for 20 years. I was working on different projects, including a surf company called Magicseaweed – the world’s large surf forecasting company. There we built a direct retail model, starting up and selling the likes of Forth Surfboards, which is the UK’s largest surfboard brand, and a few other brands to support our direct retail. We sold the company about four years ago for £13m, of which I was only a minor part of. Then I got connected back to Damian. We spit-balled a couple of ideas of what we would like to do, and this is it.

How did you start the process?

We were running around visiting factories and going through materials books, and we originally conceived the brand in a slightly different format, because we wanted to make a more accessible shoe, which were to be as eco-friendly shoes as we could possibly make them, but for a lower price. As we went through all the materials and processes, we ended up with the shoe that we wanted to make, which is the shoe we have now. A no compromise, plastic-free, compostable product – which you simply can’t do cheaply. Going through what’s classified as eco-friendly and the regular eco products out there, they are just not eco – or even close to being. They will be 5-10% natural product, based in a plasticised matrix that allows you to market a product as being eco. There’s just a lot of nonsense around supposedly eco shoes.

WAES

What does WAES stand for and how much are the shoes?

WAES stands for the basic four alchemy ingredients regarding the building blocks of life, so water, air, earth and sun. Our vegan plastic-free shoe retails at £130, and our leather shoe is £190, so they are not out of this world expensive, but they are top level for a street shoe.

What have you decided to launch your brand now in such strange and challenging times?

We’re a start-up and we were already going. We sought initial funding through Kickstarter and raised £40,000 just before Christmas. So, we had to manufacture and deliver those shoes. We had a pre-order process running over the last couple of months before we actually got them manufactured. They rolled off the production line in Porto three weeks ago and are now in our warehouse in Bolton. The pre-orders have now gone out to people and reviews have been great, so we’re moving. We could stop and shutter the company and wait this out, but there’s reason to do that. There’s no government help for us, this is our livelihood – so we have to go forward. We have no choice in the matter, as no-one is going to come and bail us out. There’s no help for start-ups.

Are there plans to wholesale your products going forward?

We’re selling direct to consumer as the margins aren’t really there, though we are in talks with a couple of very well-known high street retailers. But the margin isn’t there unless we want to push the price up. Our shoes cost £60-plus to make, because it’s such a time consuming and expensive process, so if you’ve got a retailer who wants a 2.8 margin, as a lot of the big high street retailers do, then there’s just no profit in there for us.

WAES

Are your shoes really the world’s first zero-waste plastic-free 100% biodegradable sneakers?

Yes, they really are. You can chop them up and chuck them in your compost when you’re done with them, or you can return them to us and we’ll dispose of them. The idea is to create a fully circular product. There are 24 billion pairs of shoes made every single year, which is enough to go around the world three hundred times. And not one of them is recyclable. Imagine that mountain of 24 billion pairs of shoes being made every year, predominantly out of plastics that are going to hang around for 500 years. It’s not just that, as you walk in shoes your shoe soles scuff down and that creates yet-more environmental issues. We’ve been working with the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, and they’ve analysed the residue of micro plastics and discovered all the sources of micro plastics in the environment. Number one being car tyres and then paint. But the seventh biggest source of micro plastics in to the eco-system is shoe sole abrasion. It works out as 109 grams of microplastics per person – straight off the street, then in to storm drains and then out to sea and in to rivers and everything else. So, it’s a big problem.

Who is your target market?

Pretty much anyone who cares about the environment and who likes good-looking shoes. They are also incredibly comfortable. By using such thick and luxurious materials that we have to use as you can’t get cheap materials that are eco. The natural rubber soles and the insoles that we’ve made, are basically blended in a giant soup blender to create a kind of aerated insole, which makes the shoes so comfortable.

What are the shoes like style-wise?

The aesthetic is a sort of retro throw back to a 1970’s tennis shoe for the first collection. In fact, the leather shoe is called ‘The 1970’ and the vegan option – which is the same style but using different materials – is called ‘Hope’. So, it’s two shoes of the same style, one out of organic cotton and one out of metal-free organic tanned leather. They both have the same insole and sole. At the moment it’s a unisex last, just smaller and bigger sizes – like a Converse really – but we are also going to do more gender specific collections moving on.

WAES

How are you taking the offer forward?

This is stage one, then we’ve got new styles down the line. Coronavirus dependent, we’ll be teasing the new styles in the late spring and dropping them in the summer. They will include new colours, as well as a new high top and a runner. We just launched our new website last week. It’s now a fully-fledged retail platform. The old website was just a basic pre-order website, but people were just finding it via word of mouth, social media and news stories, and ordering the shoes. Instagram is a really great showcase and that’s been our primary driver. We’ve got about 4,500 followers, which is not bad for a little start-up. We’ve also been in The Telegraph and The Times. In fact, fashion editor Adrian Clarke called our shoes the most comfortable he has ever worn in The Telegraph. We’ve had quite a few good bits of press, which has been nice because it’s a completely unique product. It’s been really heartening as people have been really getting behind it, and are willing to buy it and support us. They can see that there’s something there. Right now though, it’s a bit strange selling a product for the outside, when everyone is locked up inside.