The Cobbled Goods Collective: A Slow Fashion Platform for Unique Footwear
Today, we are joined by Ariel Fabbro, the founder of Cobbled Goods Collective, a slow fashion marketplace showcasing unique shoes from the most sustainable independent brands around the world. They call it ‘uncommon footwear, for the common good’. We’re excited that Ariel took the time to speak with Unsustainable Mag today to share his story.
Interview with Ariel Fabbro, founder of Cobbled Goods Collective
- Please introduce yourself and your business.
My name is Ariel Fabbro, I’ve been working in the sustainability field for about 7 years. I started with zero-waste management for community events, then got into corporate advisory work supporting the sustainability teams of some of the largest companies in the world. Recently I’ve turned my attention to working from the bottom-up with smaller organisations that are experimenting with alternative business models.
This is where I see a lot of energy and potential for a new economy that is more resilient and fair. My aim with launching Cobbled Goods is to contribute a small piece to this larger puzzle.
Before my professional career my passion was American football. I was fortunate to play for the University of Toronto and experience playing abroad in the German Football League. These days I stick to competing in flag football tournaments.
- What is your sustainability background and how did you get into the space?
I’ve always been resourceful, which is probably greatly influenced by my experience living on a boat for a couple years as a child. Resources are limited at sea, so we always had to be mindful of things like electricity and water use. I also had some formative experiences during that time.
Once we visited a beach that was littered with dozens of stranded dolphins. My dad tried to drag them back into the water, but they just beached themselves again. We later found out they were injured by dynamite fishing nearby. It’s definitely something that sticks with you, and I think these types of experiences played a big part in shaping my path through university.
For undergrad I was drawn to Global Studies, an interdisciplinary program focused on world issues. I followed that with a masters on the business side of sustainability which proved to be a valuable launchpad for my career.
- What inspired you to start Cobbled Goods?
I was looking for a new pair of shoes shortly after graduating with my fresh sustainability knowledge. I started looking online and it didn’t take long to find a whole world of alternative footwear. I bought a pair of fairtrade certified shoes and was sold on the craftsmanship. I also liked having something unique that no one else I knew had. I thought more people should know about what’s out there and they shouldn’t have to spend years studying sustainability to decipher which claims are genuine and which are greenwashing.
That’s where the idea came from to make the website. The tricky part was I had never made one before. So things moved slow, but I puttered away on it for a few years. Overtime I realised it was about more than shoes, it was about modelling new ways of organising our economy.
I started to envision how the footwear industry could be decentralised, something similar to the rise of craft brewing where many small players displace big business by embracing quality over quantity. I also realised this vision needed my full attention, and this year the timing was right to go full time on it.
- Where does the focus on independent brands come from?
In the beginning I was excited to find any company doing things differently, for example, using recycled or natural materials. But when big footwear brands started marketing their own sustainable sneaker lines, I wanted to draw a clear distinction from them.
What it boiled down to was ownership and control. The big businesses that dominate the global economy, including the fashion industry, put shareholders number one. This approach has a lot of consequences that go under the radar. It motivates them to use offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes, to artificially inflate share prices by buying back their own stocks, and to pay workers as little as possible. It’s hard to really get your head around how distorted things are. For example, it takes an overseas factory worker their entire lifetime to earn what a CEO is paid in a few days according to Oxfam.
I realised that going in the opposite direction meant focusing on small independent businesses that are not controlled by investors. And we’re not the only ones thinking along these lines. We’ve been really inspired by recent work from Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) which calls for a shift away from extractive business design.
- What are the main benefits of this approach?
The idea is when businesses are free from financial pressures to pursue growth at-all-costs they tend to make better decisions. For example, indie businesses tend to stay true to their mission, they don’t grow so big that they can influence governments or squeeze suppliers, and they don’t funnel your money into the pockets of Wall Street or billionaires who will use it to further concentrate their power.
- Beyond business design what do you see as the main challenges in the industry?
We’re working in a broken system with many big challenges, but I’d have to say greenwashing and the lack of transparency on how things are made and what they’re made from, is top of the list. Complex global supply chains have made us so far removed from the origins of the things we buy that it’s difficult to find out details about how they’re made. On top of this many sustainability certification schemes have been found to be unreliable.
- What is your process for selecting the shoes you showcase?
We have a set of 8 principles that we look for in a good pair of shoes. They are designed to root out greenwashing and promote restorative practices. The first principle is ‘Independence’. It’s the only one that is required because it acts to screen out traditional extractive business models like large corporations and venture capital fuelled startups. The remaining principles cover a holistic set of sustainability qualities from Safe Chemistry to Craftsmanship and Longevity. The idea is not to try checking off as many as possible, but to find where brands are doing great work and highlight that.
- What are some of the most unique brands you have featured to date?
It’s hard to choose, hailing from around the world they each have their own unique story. For instance, Lili Dreyer and her team in Copenhagen are working to scale textile upcycling. Their brand, VAER, is making sneakers out of old jeans and workwear.
In northern Italy, Nicola Masolini from RE49 is running a family-owned factory that has been upcycling since 1949 when it started out repurposing leftover WWII military uniforms. Today it makes footwear from old beach chairs, umbrellas, towels, tires, and sails.
Chandni Batra’s Indian label, A Blunt Story, is blazing a path beyond oil dependence. Her sandals are made without petrochemicals. Instead, the soles are made with a combo of rubber latex, cork, biobased oils, rice husks and straw – they call it UNCRUDE.
In Osaka, Japan a company called Loper is making DIY sandals that are resoleable.
And in Hong Kong there is FUSED – a company powered by one man and a 3D printer. Philippe Holthuizen prints futuristic mono-material designs from his home office. And he’ll give you a discount for returning old pairs so he can loop the material back into production.
For anyone that wants to see more innovators like these, they can visit our site – cobbledgoods.com. Over the next year, we will be adding many more.
- What are your future plans?
Our first priority is getting some traction so that people know there is a special place on the internet for discovering unique alternatives to mass produced footwear.
Longer term we plan to become a platform cooperative which means our website is owned and controlled by the people who use it, including brands, employees, and potentially other groups like shoppers, and workers along the supply chain. We take a lot of inspiration from Felix Weth, founder of Fairmondo, a German online marketplace, which has broken a lot of ground on platform cooperativism. There is a lot of room to experiment and many exciting projects to learn from.
Thank you so much for spending a little time with us, Ariel. We wish you nothing but success in your attempts to help decentralize the footwear industry.
For more information, Cobbled Goods’ website can be found at www.cobbledgoods.com.