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Meet the Southampton-based Shoestring Entrepreneur Stimulating Sustainability

Get to know Tom White, owner of staple shoelace supplier BBoyLaces, as he discusses the company, consumerism and the climate.

BboyLaces strings in Superstars
Photography Aaron Banaticla and Dave Lurky. Images Courtesy of BboyLaces Gallery

Following a business endeavour in selling sneakers under the moniker of MrShoeShotta, Tom White set up BBoyLaces in 2011 in a mission to supply the UK with shoelaces. Now, he’s joining the effort to save the world.

Tom had been manufacturing and selling unbranded laces since 2007, but later made of it an enterprise which has reached all corners of the world. Regularly exporting premium shoelaces worldwide - from New Zealand, to Colombia, to South Africa - BBoyLaces has become a prestigious accessories outlet amongst sneakerheads the world over. The Jam Master Jay-inspired entrepreneur comments on this, humbly stating “the BBoy movement is a real global culture”. When asked what goals he has for the Southampton, England-based business, Tom affirms “the goal was achieved early on - simply to provide higher quality fat laces at affordable prices”. As a line on the company’s website states, BBoyLaces was started ...when a sneaker collector decided he’d had enough of lacing hi-grade kicks with lo-grade laces. He adds: “it’s always been a product-led venture."

Since opening the business nearly 8 years ago, however, the world has changed dramatically. Consumerism is at an all-time high - 1,130,000 metric tonnes of clothing being purchased in the UK in 2016 and 20 billion pairs of shoes being manufactured worldwide every year. “Over-consumption is a massive issue”, the shoelace visionary observes. “The amount of people with far more shoes than they'll ever need is pretty obscene, particularly when there are plenty of people surviving with no shoes at all”. Speculative, he continues: “But this is the result of the capitalist system - we are brainwashed into thinking we need to consume as much as possible and compete amongst our fellow peers, bigger is always better, we always need more, et cetera, et cetera. I think it will always be the way unless there are massive changes to the way we live and care for humanity as a whole."

Providing one tonne of t-shirts for direct re-use - for example, by donation to charity shops or resale online - can accumulate to a net greenhouse gas saving of 13 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to a 2011 report by . It is also becoming of greater popularity to donate homeware like old vacuum cleaners, speakers and so on as well as shoes, clothes and children’s toys to charity shops. Tom White evaluates this, and explains his theory. “Donating old shoes to those in need and using recycled materials is a big step”, he notes. “But unless the demand reduces then there will always be brands producing more and more items. This obviously applies to all markets, not just sneakers, so I wouldn't say it is a bigger concern than other areas and, of course, people should be free to collect [and] wear what they choose - it is the mindset that needs changing. With more education on the environmental impact of mass production and less pushy [or] exploitative marketing and promotion maybe people can learn to realise when enough is enough!”

Over-consumption and over-production is not only causing problems when discarding, but also whilst producing. Pesticides and genetically modified cotton seeds produced in the US are poisoning farmers in India and corporatism has allowed for the same conglomerates to monopolise the appropriate medications. In addition to this, it is now believed that up to a fifth of all industrial water pollution is caused by the dyeing and treatment of textiles according to . When asked what he does to play his part in the sustainability effort, White replies: “I've sold natural hemp and cotton laces for many years, alongside the BBoy Laces Earth Positive T-shirts. These are made by climate neutral manufacturing processes with environmentally-friendly ink prints, and packaged in a paper bag”. The brown paper wrapped hemp laces are created from a renewable source in hemp. Hemp plants also have a high energy yield which is ‘similar or superior’ to most energy crops in Northern Europe, as stated in a 2011 journal publishedby Elsevier. According to , hemp products are 100% biodegradable.

Another severely negative culmination of industrial humankind’s negligent behaviours that Tom comments on is the dangerously high level of ocean pollution caused by plastics. Plastic is the most common type of marine litter worldwide, now counting for 80% of marine litter, with microplastics now residing within the ice of the Arctic. We know Tom White speaks for a lot of up-and-coming or underground retailers when he says “I'm also committed to reducing plastic in packaging as much as possible, although this is proving difficult with such a limited budget”. With things such as recycled paper finally beginning to find an equilibrium in price with their ‘conventional’ counterpart, it would be good to also see alternatives to single-use plastics be as sustainably priced for independent outlets as they are sustainably manufactured for mother nature. A lack of education on the topic in low income countries (LICs) leads to the most inexpensive suppliers in developing countries around S.E. Asia still favouring non-biodegradable plastics. “It's real frustrating that sustainable options are much more expensive."

Press release, Adidas x Parley
Press release, Adidas x Parley

Certain larger retailers, however, have no trouble covering the cost. Adidas have been collaborating with Parley for the Oceans, an organisation dedicated to addressing and reducing the threat imposed by plastic pollution to our oceans. Creating a range of clothes and shoes including their popular Ultraboost model using recycled plastic ocean waste, Adidas and Parley have found a way to promote the cause in an extremely high-profile marketing venture. The BBoyLaces owner and founder comments on the collection critically, stating that he’s “a bit skeptical”. He explains that “normally when you see big brands doing things like this it is because they are looking to capture new markets and give the impression they care, rather than actually addressing the real issues and their own manufacturing processes and morals. But taking it at face value it is a very good idea and anything that helps clear up the ocean plastic and reuse those

resources is a positive step. I hope things like this do become a norm rather than a gimmick in the future.

“I'm not a fan of the shoes themselves,” he adds. “I like old school style models, and perhaps this is the hardest bit: convincing people that the environment is more important than fashion. Again, that is a long-term major overhaul in the way we live. I used to sell sneakers and stocked the Adidas Originals Grun - ‘green’ in German - range a while back, 2008-10. They used recycled materials to re-produce their traditional designs, which seemed to work well in my opinion, although it died out fairly quickly so perhaps it wasn't the commercial success they'd hoped."

So how could the sneakerhead community work together to decrease the negative impacts the industry is having on the environment? “I think if huge sneaker collections become socially unacceptable, rather than revered, then it could help us move forward positively. Perhaps a bigger emphasis could be put on quality rather than quantity. Maybe a completely carbon-neutral collection could become the new holy grail!”

The United Nations released a report in October 2018 warning that there’s just 12 years to take the necessary actions to limit global warming at just 1.5° in order to avoid global catastrophe - a report that’s accelerated efforts discussed in the Paris Agreement of 2016. By 2030, at the current rate humans are going, the world will have only 60% of the necessary natural resources to sustain the lifestyle we’re comfortable with.

“At present there is a big conflict between profit and morals. Big corporations are always going to put money first, so I think legislation will play the biggest part in making the major changes required. If companies and consumers are physically restricted from buying [and] producing environmentally damaging products, along with social changes and evolution regarding what's acceptable, then I hope we can find a happy medium where we can look fresh and protect the natural world too!”

20mm XL fat laces in Adidas Superstar 80s, BboyLaces Gallery
20mm XL fat laces in Adidas Superstar 80s, BboyLaces Gallery

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