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The Interview: Jessie Tran and Son Chu, co-founders of sustainable performance sneaker brand Rens

Andrew Thompson
23 September 2021

Rens Original was founded in 2018 by two Vietnamese Sneakerheads Jesse Tran and Son Chu in the heart of Helsinki. The two co-founders created innovative ways to combat a sad fact, that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. By utilising recycled products and by-products, Rens aims to prove that there is another way.

Rens NOMAD is the the first sneaker born in a Crowdfunding platform to be climate neutral from raw materials, packaging, production, transport, and waste. Specifically, Rens will work with Climate Partner to reduce and offset all the climate emissions at each stage of the process.

They talk to TheIndustry.fashion as the brand prepares for the imminent launch of its second waterproof coffee trainer.

Could you tell us about your exhilarating journey in creating the concept for the brand and what made you go down the crowdfunding route?

My co-founder Son Chu and I founded Rens back in 2018. We are both sneakerheads and we have actually known each other for quite some time. One day, we met up in a coffee shop and talked about our favorite topic: sneakers. We realised how there are so few options of sustainable sneakers that actually look good. Most of the time, sustainability equals sacrificing style and vice versa. That’s when we decided to create the pair of sustainable sneakers that not only we ourselves, but also sneakerheads we know, would want to wear every day. After months of trial and failure with different materials, we came across the innovative coffee yarn with all the cool functions and features. Turns out, where we met up was quite prophetic, the idea of Rens coffee shoes came out of a meeting in a random coffee shop.

We always knew that we wanted to create this for the community, and the world, and what’s best to launch a product on a crowdfunding platform? That way, we could get all the feedback from our backers and apply these changes so the customers can have something that would resonate with them. And that’s why we are back at it again with our second product launch, NOMAD. This launch has been designed specifically with the feedback our customers have given us since they started using our first model. They wanted to use Rens for every activity in their life but the Originals got their limitations in sports activities, and that’s why we are giving them a performance-focused sneaker now.

What’s your view on why your crowdfunding campaign was so successful?

I think the reason why our first Kickstarter campaign gained so much traction was that we provided something new and edgy to the world, which was also, sustainable.

Almost everyone in the world (or at least everyone that I know) consumes coffee, so using it as a material woke the curiosity of many. We were the first company to produce sneakers out of coffee, and that was definitely “a thing”. But coffee is not only a common drink. As a material, it has many innovative features such as odor-control, anti-bacterial, quick-drying, and UV protection that make it the ultimate material. Furthermore, Rens sneakers are completely vegan, light-weight, and features a 100% waterproof nanomembrane to maximize the experience of our customers.

What is it you did before becoming founders of Rens?

Both my co-founder Son and I moved to Finland from Vietnam to pursue our studies. After finishing my bachelor’s and while I was studying my master’s, I founded my first start-up Factory Finder which connected sustainable manufacturers from Vietnam and China with European designers and fashion businesses. That gave me the extremely beneficial opportunity and experience to expand my network in this field and get valuable knowledge in global manufacturing and supply chains. As for Son, he used to work for Zalando - the biggest fashion e-retailer in Europe - and he was one of the youngest developers at their Helsinki offices. We met when he applied to work in my team at Factory Finder, and he was one of the most talented developers that I know.

What is Rens’s mission statement and how do you go about implementing this message across to the public?

Our mission is to transform waste-based sustainable materials (which are widely available on the market) into exciting and innovative products and extend the life-cycle of these supposedly “trash”. Our R&D team constantly scouts and works with suppliers of new technologies in order to bring the most sustainable tech available for everyone.

How did the name Rens come about and what does your Sneaker Logo stand for? 

The word “Rens'' has two different meanings for us that are connected. In the Far East, Ren (without s) means the awesome feeling you get when you do something good for other people. In the west, “rens” is a word in the Scandinavian languages meaning “clean, unpolluted and pure”. This is what defines Rens: feeling amazing about doing good for people and the world around us. “Do good, feel good”.

The logo is a variation of a hashtag. It is the symbol of the emerging generations, our generation. We use it to join movements but also to start them and build something greater than ourselves. It connects individuals, communities, cultures, and ethnicities. This resonates strongly with Rens as we are a highly diverse and international team with 20 members from 11 different nationalities and four continents sharing the same vision.

Rens

Are you able to talk about what happens to your sneaker at end of life?

Rens are made from waste-based materials (used coffee grounds and recycled plastic from post-consumption bottles)—which in turn, extend the life cycle of those supposedly one-time-use materials. This helps to reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills, one step at a time (as you can see, we are not afraid to use puns).

Additionally, the design of the Rens is extremely minimalistic with very few materials utilised, which means less production waste overall. This also makes dismantling and recycling Rens sneakers easier and requiring fewer resources than most other options on the market. However, with the currently available recycling technology, we do not have an efficient recycling scheme yet, as do most other brands. That being said, we are continuously researching and looking for efficient methods and technologies to close the loop and realize our vision as the most sustainable sneaker brand in the world.

Could you tell me more about your distribution strategy and how this works?

We have been strongly focusing on direct-to-consumer sales via our webstore rensoriginal.com for the US market and rensoriginal.eu for the EU market. Additionally, we have recently expanded on various other e-marketplaces such as Zalando (Europe’s largest Fashion e-retailer) and The Iconic (Australia’s largest fashion e-commerce site). On top of that, we just launched on Amazon North America to tap into a new audience base. Our goal is to also become an omnichannel e-commerce sustainable brand with a presence in physical retail stores as we are expecting a post-COVID recovery in retail sales.

How bad do you think it needs to get before we've reached the point where these sustainable practices become common practice and the status-quo says enough is enough?

It’s hard to say. The massive plastic consumption that started in the 60s, 70s and the increment in consumerism took us where we are now. But I’m proud to say that we are using that consumerism to fight itself. It’s in our generation's hands to solve the mistakes of our elders’ generations, and sustainable practices such as using waste-based materials and upcycled materials, are the way.

Consumer behaviours change fast and there is a visible increment in the interest towards sustainability which many big corporations take advantage of. For us, sustainability is not a momentary boom, it is at our core and the base of our work. We don’t produce sustainable products, we produce edgy, techy, and appealing products that are, on top of it, sustainable.

A final question can you please talk about your vision going forward. What do you want to achieve in the future?

We aim to elevate our unique and proprietary sustainable manufacturing network to turn Rens into a world-leading sustainable brand. Our goal is to make use of more waste-based materials (bamboo, coffee, pineapple skin, etc.) and ultimately extend the life cycle of this supposed “trash”.

We see Rens becoming the global leader in sustainable athleisure from Europe. The current and future Rens’ offerings will be made from waste-based materials and packed with innovative technologies. My wildest dream would be to see a day when the world will run out of trash because society and the fashion industry have both understood the concept of sustainability and recycling.

 

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