Behind the Scenes of Payless’ Zoe & Zac with Summer Rayne Oakes

Last year, eco model and environmental activist Summer Rayne Oakes launched a line of eco-friendly footwear and accessories with Payless called Zoe & Zac. Given its success in terms of media coverage, we thought it was important to explore what exactly her role is with this mega brand, and the reasons why she chose to work with them. After all, Payless is not a brand synonymous with sustainability and we were curious as to what the company is doing overall in terms of corporate social responsibility.

What is the extent of your relationship with Payless?

Summer Rayne Oakes: I work as a sustainability consultant, largely reviewing product materials, processes, packaging, non-profit partnerships and provide guidance to the overall corporate Sustainability Task Force, when necessary. What I really love about working with Payless, is their willingness to work as a partner in the Zoe & Zac program and beyond.

What areas are you specifically working with them to make improvements?

SRO: I’ve been specifically tasked to work with their team on the Zoe & Zac shoes and accessories line, which focuses on the use of more environmentally-preferable materials like organic cotton, linen, hemp and recycled materials – from rubber, wool, PET and recycled cardboard. I was involved in Zoe & Zac from the very beginning of the concept and my work with Payless involved everything from mission, messaging, and continued new ideas and innovation. This important work on Zoe & Zac has made its way into other initiatives, and I’ve also helped provide input and counsel to the overall company on the structure and dynamics of their sustainability team. In fact, this week I am heading back down to the company’s corporate headquarters in Kansas to give three presentations on varying subjects.

Are you aware of what Payless is doing as a company in terms of corporate social responsibility?

SRO: I am most equipped to talk about the corporate social responsibility initiatives as it relates to Zoe & Zac, however, I’ve been kept relatively up-to-date on corporate-wide initiatives. Collective Brands (parent company) and Payless have been honing in on a range of initiatives – from printing on recycled materials and waste recycling to transportation efficiencies and charitable giving. One of the most exciting initiatives for me has been their progress in transportation, which is a big slice of the pie since they ship to nearly 4,500 stores. Collective Brands has become SmartWay certified, which is the EPA’s initiative to make freight transport operations cleaner and more efficient. More than 80 percent of their transportation carriers are SmartWay certified. That’s equivalent to taking more than 30 million metric tons of CO2 and 200,000 tons of NOx emissions out of the environment. To put it bluntly – that’s about 12 million cars off the road. But it’s an uphill environmental battle. As an aside, that’s 4.7 million short of how many vehicles were sold in China last year alone.

As far as Payless goes on the transportation front, the company is now transporting approximately 80 percent of their inbound deliveries from the port to their distribution centers by rail. This is up from 60 percent last year, which is an incredible jump in efficiency.

Payless also has a long history of charitable giving – ranging from special programs (e.g., supporting breast cancer awareness, higher education scholarships for minority youth, tree restoration, among others) to annual events. They are probably most known for their Payless Gives Shoes 4 Kids shoe giveaway. For two years now, at the holiday season in November and December, they partner with about 750 localized non-profits across the Western Hemisphere (in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and in 10 Latin American countries where there are Payless stores) to distribute $1.2 million in free shoes to children and families in need. Payless has also partnered with The Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees campaign, which has committed to planting 100,000 trees. Last year’s program raised $200,000 and will plant 200,000 trees this year. Payless expects this year’s program to be equally as successful.

Does Payless have plans to phase in more eco friendly styles?

SRO: We want to focus on great shoes and accessories and are concentrating right now on quality as opposed to quantity. We’re still learning a lot about the materials, especially on the accessories front, so in the next few seasons, you’ll see about eight principle styles in women’s and girls’ shoes and about 4-6 accessories, which will also include handbags.

Has the Zoe & Zac brand inspired the company as a whole to source sustainable materials and ethical manufacturing in any of their other brands?

SRO: I haven’t followed up on what’s happening with the other brands under Payless, but I believe it is safe to say that Zoe & Zac and the greater sustainability initiatives happening on the corporate level have informed, if not influenced, a number of decisions – from printing, recycling, and using recycled materials.

What is Payless doing about waste and recycling?

SRO: In terms of waste, Payless donates all of their sample shoes to Soles4Souls, which then gives them away to needy children across the globe. They also have a recycling program in all of their corporate and business unit offices, which include Topeka, KS; Lexington, MA; and Englewood, CO. As far as shipping, Payless ends up reusing 45 percent of the corrugated boxes that come into their distribution centers. The inbound shipping boxes from their global manufacturing partners basically get reused to ship shoes to their stores. The rest of the 55 percent corrugate is recycled and all of that cardboard is 70 percent recycled content. Obviously increasing efficiency, reducing waste and using more recycled content is the goal, but it is a work-in-progress.

Payless manufactures their shoes in China, including the Zoe & Zac brand. Have you visited the facility in China where these products are made?

SRO: Absolutely. It was one of the first requests I had when I came on board. The experience was particularly informative. It showed me how much the manufacturing facilities are very much partners in the whole supply chain, as opposed to just some external foreign facility. For instance, one family-owned and operated facility was almost completely dependent on Payless for business and support, and that’s not taken lightly by the [Payless] team. It’s not the most efficient facility, being older, but Payless feels as if it’s their responsibility to work with them to get them there. On a whole, Payless has helped institute a number of changes in the facilities, like the use of tolulene-free materials, non-solvent based cements, and proper ventilation. This is in part due to their long-standing relationship and philosophy with their manufacturing partners, which is absolute key in instituting change. You need to know someone is there for you for the long haul to feel incentivized to move in the right direction.

As far as auditing – I feel as if the team is always at the facility, but proper auditing happens four times per year, and covers issues including: health/safety, labor, and environmental concerns. The Labor issues are in accordance with the latest China Labor Contract Law, which was instituted by the Chinese government in February 2008.

There are other initiatives that Payless is involved in, like the FDRA Overseas Labor Practices initiative, which essentially is a driver in standardized compliance requirements and inspections for the footwear industry. There are also a number of other cool initiatives that are coming out from other trade industries in the coming months, which I’ll be sharing with the team.

And finally, why Payless as opposed to another footwear company?

SRO: Payless approached me about two years ago and I have to say that I was deeply impressed on a number of fronts that made it a no-brainer to work with them. Looking back on it I realize that all of what I mention below is still true.

  1. The conversation I was having was with their C-Level executives, meaning that the programs would be taken seriously and gain traction company-wide.
  2. The team was enthusiastic – not only about the prospect of working with one another – but also at the prospect of implementing change. Nothing is more fulfilling than working with enthusiastic, passionate people.
  3. They were eager to answer questions, and if they didn’t know the answer, they were happy to find out who did.
  4. They had already shown initiative by creating a Sustainability Task Force and instituting baseline data points to show progress.
  5. They were interested in working with me in a vertically-integrated capacity, which means I wouldn’t just be asked to front a brand, but be working with it through-and-through. Personally, that is a much more fulfilling role for me, and allows me to exercise working with companies that truly share my core values.
  6. They take my advice! And the advice of their customers! I can’t tell you how emotionally satisfying that is. And finally,
  7. They are a company that reaches a wide demographic, not often focused on environmental concerns, so it really ties back into my core focus of reaching a new audience. I love that.