Knowing what we stand for – that’s a topic of growing importance at Wildling Shoes. While in the early days, the product was our primary focus, nowadays we speak of purpose, our Purpose: We ask ourselves what it’s all for. That might seem a little airy-fairy, but it has been an important process of self-discovery for us. In this post, Anna explains how and why Wildling Shoes has sharpened its inner compass.
We are part of the RE:GENERATION.
Nature thrives on sunlight
It lives from abundance, not scarcity
It adapts form to function
It encourages collaboration
It rests on diversity
It knows no waste
And draws on the power of finiteness.
(inspired by Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry).
If you want to solve a problem, take your cues from nature. To design a shoe that lets you move as naturally as possible, you’ll find plenty of answers there. How does a person actually walk when shoes aren’t restricting their movement? What natural shapes help to design a sole that is ergonomic and functional? A leaf or a wave shape? A grooved profile – like a magnified fox paw? Which materials create a pleasant, natural environment for our feet? One that’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer?
The model – a healthy ecosystem
The principles of nature do more than just help with product design. They can also be used to shape the entire company. This is a credo that American science writer Janine Benyus wholeheartedly advocates – and I believe that she gets right to the heart of what we should all be focusing on going forward. How should business and society operate when they are modeled on a healthy ecosystem? The principles that Benyus presents in her 1997 book Biomimicry have proven to be an essential yardstick for us. In a slightly modified form, they represent the inspiration, and indeed the very essence of our own credo and motivation.
You might be asking why we need flowery words about sunlight and finiteness to function as a business. After all, conventional business management states it pretty unambiguously: maximize profits, attract new customers, grow your market share. These are the parameters against which a company’s performance is typically measured.
But for us it became clear very quickly that conventional operating results were not a reflection of what drives us. Of course, we need revenue and profit to pay salaries and have the financial freedom needed for innovation. But intrinsic motivation is only derived from values, vision, and the question of meaning. They are absolutely fundamental to Wildling Shoes. To put it bluntly: Without Purpose, we may as well stop doing business.
More than a good product
Such clarity, and perhaps radicality, came only with time. Of course, values like sustainability and fairness were incorporated right from the outset, but at first it was largely about the product: We wanted to create shoes that would help maintain the joy of natural movement, revitalize our bodies, and keep us connected to the world around us. Nothing has changed as far as that is concerned. We want to feel the ground that supports us.
But it was from this very connection that a new sensitivity and a more mindful examination of what surrounds us evolved. And as the company has grown in size, so too has our shared sense of responsibility for what we’ve created together and the impact of our actions. With increasing urgency, we felt that our work had to be about more than building a good product. A well defined Purpose addresses the questions: Why are we even doing this? And where should we channel the money it generates? Figuring that out and writing it down took some focused work – teamwork. There was much debate and revision, in-house pitching and fine-tuning. After all, a Purpose belongs to the whole team. Everyone should feel comfortable with it, identify with it, and see it as an internal compass that helps us navigate through the choices of everyday life. In short, work that is meaningful. Work with a Purpose.
When everything matters
We wrote down our original vision in 2018: “From Move to Movement” was the message back then. Almost a slogan, open in its approach, but fitting given its upbeat spirit, we decided. One thing was clear to us: We want to harness the power of the community to set things in motion. But there was another thing that wasn’t clear: What do we want to set in motion in the first place? Where exactly could Wildling Shoes make a difference in terms of social transformation, and what are the issues that we want to focus on? Everything felt really important. Climate change, the circular economy, social inequity – with new issues such as diversity in the team, work-life balance, and ways to work together in a remote work setting emerging very quickly.
A feeling of overwhelm followed. Which issue do we, as Wildling Shoes, tend to first? What is our self-imposed mandate? For other businesses and initiatives, this point seemed crystal clear: For Ecosia, it’s all about trees. At Viva con Agua, it’s all about clean drinking water. There’s a great deal of power and focus in such clarity, and the momentum is easier to harness. Before long, not being able to say exactly what we were working towards besides the product felt like a shortcoming. Everything seemed important.
After that, it became increasingly evident that our supposed need to prioritize already held its own solution. A feeling took root: Yes, we really do want to tackle everything. Exactly this sort of broad-brush approach seems right, for the very reason that these issues are so complex and conflated. You can’t examine climate change without also addressing the social conditions; in other words, climate justice. Everything is intricately intertwined, which means that change needs to impact the entire system from multiple perspectives. That was an “aha” moment. If we as a company aim to consistently think in terms of circularity and act with a regenerative mindset, then that will inevitably encompass all the issues that have always been important to us. Committing to this, recognizing that we can’t do any of this on our own, and the desire to be a part of and help shape this movement is articulated in our Purpose: We are part of the RE:GENERATION.
Image: Wildling Shoes/Sarah Pabst
A single sentence set in stone has its advantages and disadvantages. It can easily sound pathetic. When I read something like “We aspire to greatness,” I think, “Okay, all right, keep your shirt on.” We decided to augment our rather laconic Purpose (Why does Wildling Shoes exist?) – with concrete action steps (How do we go about this?). And there, we could go into more detail. Because that’s the only way to translate our will, our striving for change, operationally within the team. This way we have both: consolidation and momentum. An excerpt from our purpose text:
We don’t merely want to minimize damage, but to have a positive impact with every step we take:
by running on renewable energy
by growing our raw materials in regenerative agricultural systems that create abundance
by rewilding ecosystems
by seeking radical collaboration and fair partnerships
by embracing diversity and complexity
by repairing and recycling our products and materials
and by understanding the limits of excessive growth
We want to create new trails by building bridges that are grounded in appreciation, empathy, and solidarity. And to do so together – because we are the RE:GENERATION.
Utopias are important
In this process, we have for the first time also explicitly defined a concrete objective to be realized in practical terms over the next five to ten years. It illustrates both internally and outwardly where we see the potential for Wildling Shoes to make an impact. Former German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, once said, “If you have a vision, you should see a doctor.” We see things differently. As for us, we have the vision of an experimental utopia.
Experimental utopia – what’s that all about? Simply put, we want to create a space where we can put new ideas into practice in order to see their impact. All with the burning ambition of changing business in a sustainable way and turning linear thinking into circularity.
I believe it is absolutely important to create utopias and to demonstrate to ourselves and others at laboratory scale what modes of fair and regenerative collaboration are indeed achievable. There is a tremendous amount of power that comes from thinking in pictures and visualizing through your own experience just how different things could be. So what’s to stop us from creating a safe space here at Wildling Shoes in which we can test new ways of living, working, and acting?
Outwardly, we want to encourage and spark momentum, to bring people on board. We want our experiments to yield translatable solutions, proof of concept for small-scale social and environmental innovations. We don’t want to think of ourselves as being on an island; instead, we want to align commonalities and points of convergence with others beyond the world of Wildling Shoes. Drawing inspiration – including external inspiration – is crucial for us.
Nature isn’t linear, it runs in cycles. What is clear is that we cannot build a closed Wildling Shoes loop. We want to co-create a diverse, complex, and resilient ecosystem that is delicately balanced with others – otherwise it won’t work. We see Wildling Shoes as a pilot project for regenerative corporate management. We embrace collaborative efforts to disrupt and reimagine old systems. In this sense – or to this Purpose: Consider yourselves welcome to join!
Header image: Sarah Pabst