Wellington’s YY Nation may be following in Allbirds’ footsteps, but founder Jeremy Bank is fashioning his own path out of algae, bamboo and ‘pineapple leather’.
The Taal volcano in the Philippines has been erupting in fits since January 2020, spewing steam-laden plumes of ash into the sky. Pineapple farmers have seen grey ash blanket their once verdant plantations and an estimated 21,000 metric tonnes of pineapple have been lost at a cost of $15.5 million.
Another eruption in November 2020 pushed out production times for Wellington-based sustainable sneaker company YY Nation, as the volcanic activity affected about 60% of its supply of pineapple husks. It’s an unorthodox raw material for shoe-making but “pineapple leather” is just one of several innovations the startup is using, including New Zealand merino wool, bamboo fibre, bio-based castor oil, recycled rubber, algae and sugar cane.
The brand describes its products as “the worst shoes we will ever make” – meaning every new style will be a step up in terms of innovation and eco credentials. They say the “Nimbo” bamboo shoes are the world’s greenest sneakers, emitting 5.4kg of carbon dioxide (CO2e) across their entire first life cycle and beyond. The four-style range emits on average 7.1 kg/CO2e, marginally better than a pair of Nike sneakers (7.3 kg/COe2), a leg-up on Allbirds’ average of 10 kg/CO2e, and half the industry average of 14kg. But the record may have already fallen – competitors-turned-collaborators Allbirds and Adidas are already touting their new performance shoe as having their lowest carbon footprint on record, at just under 3kg/CO2e.
Sustainability is big business, especially for startups trying to gain a foothold in a red-hot industry dominated by established players new and old. The natural disaster was just another challenge for YY Nation (you say it “Why-Why”, by the way) to overcome, says founder Jeremy Bank, in a year where Zoom calls were held instead of in-person meetings, a new manufacturing partnership was formed after one of its factories went under due to pandemic-related financial difficulties, shipping costs tripled and timeframes doubled.
Still, in early November, more than a year after its Kickstarter funding campaign raised nearly $81,000 on the back of almost 500 supporters buying 1,000 pairs, the company reached a milestone in launching an online, direct-to-consumer (DTC) store selling New Zealanders and Americans one of four styles with price tags of up to $200. The website reflects its target market – ads feature young models in the late teens or 20s, photos from YY Nation’s Instagram page show youth wearing their new kicks, and a webpage invites “influencers” to join the brand and help spread the word.
Bank isn’t a newcomer to the industry – nearly a century ago, his grandfather Cecil started Lower Hutt’s famed Banks Shoes, which eventually grew to include the Shoe Connection brand before it was put into receivership in 2017. Bank, who led a group of investors, rescued the struggling business for $2.3m. A year later, he and his family noticed plastic waste and old shoes on a beach at a favourite windsurfing spot on the Hawaiian island of Maui, prompting him to question why the status quo couldn’t be improved on.
Comparisons to Nasdaq-listed sustainable footwear company Allbirds are inevitable – their stories are tied to New Zealand, they offer a similar product, share a profit-and-purpose philosophy, and have origins as DTC businesses. But with a team of 12 spread across Wellington, New York City and South Korea (where the shoes are manufactured), Bank says the industry’s old guard is in his sights.
I spoke with the co-founder about his competition, sticking around for the long haul and why YY Nation’s “best is not good enough”.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity.
How will you compete with Allbirds and how will greater competition benefit consumers?
Our competition isn’t so much Allbirds, it’s more in the traditional footwear space, the brands whose main drivers are generating profits for their shareholders – which is important, but that’s what drives their decisions around what they’re making and the materials that they use. Whereas for us, we can start with a blank canvas, from a sustainable-first philosophy. Every decision we make is about offering a product that is good for the customer, good for the planet. It’s a more holistic approach. There are a lot of people that want to wear sustainable shoes but there are just no options for them of the sorts of styles that they’d like. Our ambition is to provide a sustainable option for them.
Taking on the big traditional players like Nike and Adidas – are you building a business to eventually catch their attention? Will YY Nation be around for the next 100 years?
Look, I hope so, but only if it continues to do the right thing. Hopefully what it does is helps YY Nation to say, “Sustainable is actually possible”, and it encourages other companies to adopt those same processes. We can’t keep, as a planet, producing 460 million pairs of shoes that go to landfill every year made of plastic. That’s really shocking… there are other companies out there working on some of those [sustainability] programmes, which is great because the world needs more sustainable, better options so that it doesn’t become such a niche [and] that it becomes a better force for good in changing the industry and its impact on the environment.
What is your strategy for the US market?
We see ourselves as a fresh option and with a young mindset to disrupt the traditional materials that are used within footwear and provide a more sustainable option that our target want. It’s about utilising the channels that those customers are looking at, particularly around social media and other digital channels. We’re using Google Ads, social media, digital marketing, and we are generating a lot of good feedback from customers. We are a direct-to-consumer brand utilising e-commerce – and that’s our key strategy at the moment.
The amount of goodwill in “brand New Zealand” is something that YY Nation, Allbirds and other local companies can benefit from when selling globally. What else does your footwear brand have to fall back on?
What the initial Kickstarter [campaign] had was quite a New Zealand flavour but, actually, we’re a global company. [Our point of difference] is about continued innovation and coming up with better solutions. We see ourselves not just as a footwear company but also a science-led business of innovating new materials, better ways of manufacturing, better ways of producing footwear products, all of which can really change the course of traditional manufacturing. We’re really proud to have produced, in our first range, the lowest-carbon-footprint shoe across the industry. I think that says “we can do it” and “our best is not good enough, we can continually improve”.