It is great that UGG is launching a fully plant-based footwear collection to celebrate Earth Day and be more environmentally friendly. However, one thing that I do want to highlight is that this sustainability program is only a small part of the entire company. It seems to me that majority of their shoes are not made with the same materials that are used in their Neumel Natural shoes. My question is if UGG really wanted to become a more sustainable brand, why is their sustainable footwear collection only a small part of their company? I felt that these Neumel Natural shoes should be sold normally in UGG and not sold as a part of a special program. Once again, accessibility is also another major issue that UGG fails to address. Once again, their plant-based footwear costs $140 and many people, like me, cannot afford to buy it unless it is on sale. Even then, if sustainability is something that UGG really wanted to promote then their Neumel Natural shoes should be cheaper than their regular shoes so that more people can buy them. Anyways, it is always great that UGG is using more sustainable and environmentally friendly materials in their Neumel Natural collection but it would be great if UGG itself becomes a fully environmentally friendly and sustainable company, without the need for special collections.
For some context, UGG has a history of animal cruelty and non-vegan-free products because they used shearling to make their boots. Shearling is, “a yearling sheep who has been shorn just once, and a shearling garment is made from a sheep or lamb shorn shortly before slaughter. It can take dozens of individual sheepskins to make just one shearling garment” (Peta.org). Unfortunately, more than one sheep is involved in the process of creating shearling, and many times, it is dyed sheep wool with its skin attached to it. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? As a consumer, I did not know that my old UGG boots contained shearling because I just saw them on the shelves, liked them, and purchased them. Therefore as a company, UGG has the responsibility to inform their customers of their practices and the materials that they use to make their shoes. Oh, but then no one would buy them if they did. Anyways, it seems that after PETA and news sources called UGG out for using shearling, it seems that they have changed their practices. Maybe. This year, they launched the Neumel Natural, which is a footwear collection that is completely plant-based, and the Feel Good sustainability initiative to move towards a more environmentally friendly future.
The materials used in the Neumel Natural shoes are 45% hemp, hevea rubber sole made from natural latex, and Tencel™ Lyocell certified by FSC and PEFC. Hemp fiber is something I haven’t heard of so I did a bit of research on it. Hemp fiber is actually collected from a plant called the Industrial Hemp Plant. Fibers collected from Hemp plants were actually used in a lot of furniture and clothing in the past before the cotton industry overtook our clothes. It is an environmentally friendly and sustainable fiber because it is both biodegradable and organic. To me, hemp seems like a more sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to cotton. Additionally, the material natural latex stood out to me because what exactly is natural latex? Natural latex is actually a type of sap collected from rubber trees for UGG boots. Since it is a pure plant-based source, at surface level it seems that natural latex is a sustainable material to use but there are underlying issues with the extraction process and worker treatment that we will address in the other sections. Another specific issue with natural latex is that some people have serious allergies to it. Lastly, Tencel™ Lyocell is a fabric that is made from wood and they use 50% less water compared to cotton, don’t need to be washed as frequently as cotton, and are biodegradable. All of which seems sustainable and environmentally friendly to me. But of course, we also need to understand the production methods and labor practices to get the full picture. Also, another point to keep in mind is that these sustainable materials are only used in their Neumel Natural shoes and not the hundreds of other shoes that UGG is manufacturing. Therefore, when thinking about the sustainability of the company, I think that UGG itself is not an environmentally friendly company but the Neumel Natural shoes are.
There are various production methods involved in obtaining the materials used in these Neumel Natural shoes. For instance, hemp fiber is harvested from industrial hemp crops. These crops don’t require much use of chemicals, and pesticides because it is “naturally resilient to disease and pests” (GetGreenNow). Therefore, industrial hemp crops are sustainable to farm because it doesn’t use as many chemicals as other crops such as cotton and soybeans. Furthermore, hemp is not a water-intensive crop because it does not need much water to grow compared to cotton, which is a highly water-intensive crop. Also, hemp doesn’t require much space to grow which helps with deforestation because trees don’t need to be cut down to grow hemp crops. But I also wonder if that will change when more companies start mass-producing hemp fibers. But that will be a future concern when more companies start considering harvesting hemp fibers instead of cotton.
Moreover, natural latex is sourced from Hevea tree saps and there are many steps involved in this sourcing step. But one specific step that I focused on was the growing process of Hevea trees. The issue with Hevea trees is that it is mainly produced in one area. An article written by Frontiersin.org stated that “around 90% of natural rubber is produced in Asia, with Thailand and Indonesia being the most important rubber suppliers (supplying more than 60% of the world’s natural rubber)” (Kids.Frontiersin.org). This shows that natural latex production is mainly dependent on one area which is dangerous because it could lead to a shortage of supply if one of Asia’s or Thailand’s crops are damaged. This is also not a very sustainable method because one area is constantly used for tree growth and sap collection compared to other areas.
Tencel™ Lyocell, the last fiber material used in Neumel Natural, is sourced from eucalyptus trees where the natural wood is chopped up, grounded to a pulp, and then dissolved with a dissolving agent such as amine oxide. The mixture is then woven into fabric. The processes involved in the production of this fiber are sustainable and environmentally friendly because the dissolving agents are often reused, eucalyptus trees grow back fast and the fiber production is also not water-intensive.
While researching these production methods for Neumel Natural shoes, I also remembered that other UGG shoes that are not part of their sustainable collection are not produced in this way. This promotes a false sense that UGG is a sustainable company when it really isn’t because these Neumel Natural shoes are the only ones being sourced this way. I believe that their other shoes don’t go through the same production methods because they are not part of their sustainable collection. Therefore, it is important to note that UGG itself is still supporting unsustainable production of their shoes even if they have a sustainable collection going on right now.
It is very unclear who makes these fibers and who is involved in the overall harvesting and production process. But I did some research on how labor-intensive and hard it is to farm these materials. According to MIT, “Hemp harvesting was extremely labor-intensive [...] Traditionally, Hemp was processed by hand which was very labor-intensive and costly, not lending itself towards modern commercial production” (MIT.edu) which is why cotton eventually replaced hemp fibers even though hemp had so many benefits. There were no machines to replace the labor that hemp farmers did in the past, hence why cotton became so popular. There is no information provided on the labor practices and how UGG treats these farmers working on hemp farms.
Additionally, I also found a Decker’s Public Statement that UGG provided on their website to address human trafficking and other worker issues, and to my surprise, it was only one page with basically no details on the types of work that they did to prevent these issues. There is a statement that UGG made on their website called the Deckers Public Statement summarizing their goal to ensure safe working conditions. Unfortunately, this statement alone does not provide much insight into how UGG treats their farmers, and the program only “helps ensure” the working conditions so, UGG itself should still uphold their highest working standards. As customers, we have no idea what their labor standards are and what standards they hold themselves to. What’s even more disappointing is that I can find this exact PDF of Decker’s Public Statement when I search the name on Google. It seems to me that any company can just copy and paste the link on their website and pretend that they care about their workers. I am hoping that UGG also launches another program to address the issue of their workers and supply chains so we know how they are treated.