Eco Innovation

Oceanworks Takes Action Against Plastics

California-based Oceanworks is a "plastic action platform." York Athletics (right) is among the brands it has partnered with.

Plastics are the most common form of marine debris. The footwear industry has a role to play, on many levels, in working to keep the ocean free of plastic. California-based Oceanworks is tackling this issue with a multifaceted approach.

Described as “a global marketplace for recycled ocean plastic materials and products,” Oceanworks is a “plastic action platform” that partners with brands (including footwear companies) to measure their plastic footprint, fund plastic waste removal, find sustainable alternatives and track supply chains from shore to shelf. The aim of the platform is to help keep the ocean clean by making it easier for brands to take action against plastic pollution.

It was started five years ago after founder and CEO Rob Ianelli had started his own sunglass brand called Norton Point that debuted the use of ocean plastics in eyewear.  He witnessed first-hand the challenges of navigating the fragmented, disorganized ocean plastic sector. Oceanworks was founded in an effort to do something to close the gap on supply and meet consumer demand at scale. 

Oceanworks now provides an entire framework through a global network of collectors and recycled plastic suppliers.

Guiding Principles

We asked Ianelli what the main principles are that should be guiding footwear brands when it comes to eco innovation and moving towards a more sustainable future.

He says, “Brands realize the importance, both socially and economically, of taking critical steps toward creating sustainable products. While that is easy to agree on, every organization must evaluate its appetite and ability to execute against those intentions.”

Ianelli notes that the difference between intention and action often comes down to “preparation for the process as well as preparation for navigating the inevitable barriers that will be encountered when considering or implementing sustainable practices.” He adds, “Advancing any sustainability initiative further than the whiteboarding stage almost always requires support at the executive level and may even demand board buy-in.”

For footwear brands, garnering leadership’s support is particularly important when the proposed practices require changes to design, production, sourcing or the bottom-line economics. “To ensure leadership’s support, it must be established as a company-wide priority and integrated into the overall corporate strategy,” Ianelli says. “Management should also be made aware of any financial implications of a sustainability program. Whether it’s a change in the cost of goods sold and any corresponding pricing changes—or simply a modification to existing procurement agreements or relationships, there must be full transparency. It is important to avoid surprise ‘gotcha’ moments that may stall or permanently stymie the initiative.”

Working with Footwear Brands

Reef, York Athletics and Sperry are among the footwear brands that Oceanworks has worked with. 

“The world has a massive plastic problem on its hands; and unfortunately, there’s not a single source for this dilemma,” says Ianelli. “New plastic is overproduced, waste is mismanaged, and it’s not being recycled nearly enough.” 

He points out that today’s consumer increasingly wants to purchase sustainable products, and footwear is no exception. Brands are taking notice through the inclusion of post-consumer recycled plastics (PCR) into their products. 

As a Plastic Action Platform, Oceanworks helps its brand partners navigate the expected barriers and can also help amplify the positive environment impact of their efforts.  

Despite good intentions, there are three primary challenges that brands often encounter, says Ianelli: 1. Material Expertise, 2) Sourcing and Supply Chain Transparency, and 3. effectively communicating their sustainability efforts. 

1. Material Expertise 

Some brands don’t possess an abundance of in-house expertise surrounding the universe of material options. Oftentimes this expertise is outsourced to manufacturers, who at times might have resistance to integrating PCR (or supplier contract obligations) that could stymie efforts. Collaborating with a trusted network of reputable sustainable material partners can help bridge this gap. 

2. Sourcing and Supply Chain Transparency 

The PCR value chain can be disconnected and murky and it can be difficult to source and validate the origins of materials. This is especially true as it applies to reclaimed, at-risk plastics. Because of the challenges facing design and sourcing teams, the learning curve is very steep. That’s where companies like Oceanworks  can step in, applying its network of materials and material expertise to assist brands in bringing their sustainability goals to reality. 

3. Communicating Sustainability Efforts 

When a brand makes strides toward sustainability goals, most-often they choose to share those successes with their customers. “When brands partner with Oceanworks, they are able to easily navigate the potential pitfalls of inaccurately communicating their efforts,” says Ianelli. “Whether done intentionally or unintentionally, these mistakes can be costly for a company’s reputation as well as the bottom line.” He notes that brands need to effectively communicate their efforts while accurately reflecting the work that’s being done, allowing consumers to be confident in purchasing products.