It is obvious to anyone reading this issue of Running Insight that a plethora of new running shoes is coming down the pike and with all of the choices consumers will soon have the question arises: What to do with their old, worn-out running shoes. One solution: Send them to GotSneakers, a Miami-based sneaker recycling program whose dual goal is to reduce waste in landfills and provide shoes to those who need them most. 

Founded by two childhood friends, GotSneakers was born in 2016 as an organization with the aim of disrupting the typical clothing donation model. Today, the company has reused and recycled up to 2.5 million shoes and has prevented an estimated 75 million pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. 

Sneaker recycling programs have grown in popularity over the past decade as sustainability has become more important to consumers, although the history and inspiration behind GotSneakers runs much deeper than recent trends — its story stems from CEO and co-founder Steven Salstein’s upbringing and family business.

He is a fourth-generation salvage, used clothing and shoe jobber whose great-grandfather (a tailor) and grandfather (young entrepreneur) started Bay Rag Corporation in New York City and migrated to Miami in the late 1960’s re-creating a business around the buying and selling of excess clothing and footwear. That business grew and in the late ’80’s began to focus on assisting small and large retailers reposition reusable inventory out of domestic distribution channels and into secondary markets around the world. Then more change took place.

“In 2011, we lost a large customer-returned footwear program that we held for 23 years,” Salstein explains. “The program produced around three million pairs of shoes annually, so it created a significant inventory void within our business.”

As a result the initial idea behind GotSneakers was to create an additional source of supply to offset the loss of such a large quantity of footwear and continue to provide its customers around the world with quality footwear at affordable prices.

From there, Salstein decided to take his family business model up a notch and create a consumer-driven brand backed by digital marketing tools and the software systems needed to operate in today’s tech-driven environment.

Taking It To The Next Level

None of it would’ve been possible without his partner and best friend of 30 years, Eric Mesa, who is the co-founder and COO of GotSneakers.

“I approached Eric in 2016 with an idea to collect used sneakers to export to our existing customer base while compensating with financial reward to the domestic community,” Salstein explains. Eric was working with a medical tech company at the time, but he was intrigued with the idea and the two shared a similar vision. They officially started GotSneakers in 2016 with the concept of disrupting the donation model — Goodwill, Salvation Army, shoe drive companies, etc. — by offering the community a simple, free and financially rewarding alternative for their used sneakers.

Unlike other clothing donation and sneaker recycling programs, GotSneakers incentivizes people to participate by offering cash payments for their donations rather than tax credits. Individuals can get involved by shipping their old shoes to GotSneakers directly, signing up for a fundraiser kit to set up their own sneaker drive or by donating them at their favorite retail locations — all while getting paid for their contributions.

“We believed offering a free program with cash payments rather than tax receipts would be a compelling value proposition for people looking to extend the life of their unwanted sneakers and avoid or prolong putting them in a landfill,” says Salstein.

With more brands pushing for environmental initiatives and the use of recycled materials, it might seem that new products are not creating nearly as much waste as they did 10 or 20 years ago. While this may be true, Salstein says the footwear industry still has some ways to go and before achieving higher standards for sustainability.

“Although the footwear industry is pretty tight, there is truly a lack of collaboration and standards as it relates to sustainability and end-of-life recycling. Brands are hesitant to share information with each other,” says Salstein. “There is also a stigma or stereotype against resale. End of Life Recycling is not an easy process — it requires heavy, expensive machinery and more R&D to create and develop a functioning solution at a low expense that can breakdown footwear into reusable parts.” 

The Retail Benefit

Even with its challenges, the benefits of sneaker recycling programs can be significant to both retailers and the customers they serve. Retailers can partner with GotSneakers to elevate their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) by integrating the recycling program into their store to help recycle their extra inventory and give customers a physical location to donate their old shoes as well. 

“The retailers (400-plus) that we work with across the country are a very mixed and diverse group who all use sneaker recycling as a way to engage their customers and community in a variety of different ways, with the common denominator being the environment and making a difference in the lives of others,” explains Denise Blomberg, director of strategic partnerships. “So many of them donate the compensation they receive to groups that they are passionate about.” 

To that end, GotSneakers provides retailers with an opportunity to further the connection with their customers and identify the values that will keep them returning to their stores and making new purchases while purging their old items. However, choosing which retailers to partner with is equally as important to GotSneakers in fostering that sense of community and ensuring that transparency is available at every level of the business. That’s why the company prioritizes data and reporting as a key contributor of its success. 

“Because of our mission and our mantra of being a zero-waste organization that promotes a circular economy, we provide reporting back to our partners about the environmental impact that they’re making with their sneaker contributions,” Blomberg adds, pointing out that many of them use that data that they get to show their customers, “hey, look at what we collectively did this last month in our store!”

Similarly, retailers enjoy working with GotSneakers because of the effect sneaker recycling has had on their stores and the direct impact it’s had on giving back to their local community. A South Dakota-based retailer, 605 Running Company, located in Sioux Falls, sees the benefits as trifold — collect sneakers to raise money for the community, elevate GotSneakers’ mission and drive sales in the store.

“605 Running Company has been privileged to partner with Denise Blomberg and GotSneakers,” says assistant store manager Derrick Ettel. “Our biggest initiative was implementing a donation drive leading up to and through the 2022 Sioux Falls Half Marathon: Skedaddle. We were able to accept donations to benefit a local family contending with medical needs for their two sons.” 

That effort provided GotSneakers with product to repurpose, helped a local family in need and drove traffic to the store. 

“I cannot overstate the impact that our partnership has had on our store and local running community while also serving GotSneakers’ global vision,” Ettel adds.

The Future of Shoe Recycling

Salstein predicts that there will be more recycling programs popping up within retail stores during the next few years.

“We see sneaker recycling programs becoming the norm in all footwear retail stores as recycling access points providing simple, easy access for customers to dispose of footwear that no longer serves them particularly but can serve someone else domestically or abroad, to avoid the landfill, and ultimately have an opportunity to be recycled into reusable materials,” says Salstein. 

“A branded high-quality made, used sneaker will always be more desirable than a poor quality, new non-branded sneaker.” 

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