Jesse Tran: Coffee Waste Sneakers

According to a study conducted by Quantis International, footwear production is responsible for about 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or 1.4% of total global climate emissions. The negative impact of athletic footwear in particular includes problematic waste stream and labor practices, as well. So what can you do when you want to be responsible but you need new kicks? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with the founder of Rens Original, Jesse Tran, about his company’s unique method of manufacturing shoes from spent coffee grounds and recycled plastic. Then, we revisit our discussion with independent journalist Brett Simpson as we imagine a world without traffic cops.

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Jesse Tran  0:26  Me and my co-founder we are from Vietnam,which is one of the largest coffee producers in the world while Finland consumes the most coffee in the world per capita. And so that is like a great marketing message and we just combined them and created Rens’ Coffee Shoes

Narrator 0:43   According to a study conducted by Qantis International footwear production is responsible for about 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or 1.4% of total global climate emissions. The negative impact of athletic footwear in particular includes problematic waste stream and labor practices as well. So what can you do when you want to be responsible, but you need new kicks. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with the founder of Rens original Jesse Tran about his company’s unique method of manufacturing shoes from spent coffee grounds and recycled plastic. Then we revisit our discussion with independent journalist Brett Simpson as we imagine a world without traffic cops.

Alex Wise I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Jesse Tran. Jesse is the CEO of Rens original and he joins us from Helsinki, Finland. Jesse, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Jesse Tran  2:00  Hey, Alex. Hey everyone, thanks for having me today.

Alex Wise 2:04  So, what makes Rens original shoes unique from a Nike or Adidas sneaker they might buy in a sporting goods store, Jesse?

Jesse Tran  2:14  Yes. So like I think that is to start like with the brand. So, like, you know, we started Rens as like a sustainable brand for the young consumers. So all of our products actually made from sustainable materials. And so, currently we have two product lines and and so both are shoes and they are like you know sneakers made from coffee waste and recycled plastic. So, I think that it is a really cool combination you know of like coffee ways and functionalities with the size for the young people. That is where this is how we you know, we tried to build our brands to be.

Alex Wise 2:55  And explain the origin of this idea was wrens the first to come up with this idea of taking coffee waste and applying it to the shoe industry are there other companies that have done something like this?

Jesse Tran  3:08  So as far as we know so we had a first one that that do something similar to like something like this you know, I think that there are a few companies do something quite similar to us afterwards. But of course you know, we had our first one but of course before us I think that there are a few companies that you know use like coffee scene scent and but you know, like different parts of our coffee waste. So for just to be clear, our coffee waste is the newest coffee grounds after you boil the coffee and then you throw the coffee grounds away. We took it and mix it with recycle plastic polyester and create something called Coffee polyester yarn. So we are the first company that use this coffee polyester to create like sneakers.

Alex Wise 3:58  And which part of the sneaker uses this coffee polyester yarn, Jesse?

Jesse Tran  4:03  That will be the upper part of the sneakers. So the upper part like 100%, let the use it from this coffee polyester yarn. So in between the upper and then what do we call in our industry, the lining, which is the inside of the shoe, there’s another layer. And that layer is purely made from recycled plastic. And that is like nano-waterproof layer.

Alex Wise 4:30  And why don’t you talk about your involvement in this. You’re originally from Vietnam, but you came to Finland 10 years ago. Why don’t you explain your background and how you got involved in Rens?

Jesse Tran  4:43  Yeah, so yeah, so I was born and raised in in Hochi Minh City. The largest city in Vietnam. Used to be called Saigon. And yeah, I came here as like a foreign student. Actually both me and my co founders. We are originally from Vietnam. So we were not born in Finland. But we have lived here for a long time. And we have in both of us, we are like sneakerheads. And we have very strong experience in manufacturing, as well as E commerce, you know, marketing, and we want to use our experience to create something that you know, fulfill our passion. And we, you know, like I said, we are sneakerheads, but we look around at that time, it was like 2000, in the end of 2017, the beginning of 2018, we look around in the market, and we couldn’t find, like any, you know, sustainable fashion brands that actually, you know, for young people are like, you know, to our tastes, which is like bold, and, and really hip, most of the sustainable products, they’re quite innovative, actually, you know, from other brands, but the selling points, I like, the way that the products look, like their marketing message, like the message that comes across is a little, in our opinion is a little preachy, and, you know, quite not very bold in our tastes. So that’s why we created Rens. So but we launched our product, we it took a while for us to develop our first product, which is the range original one. And it took us until like the end of 2019 for us to launch the our first product the shoe.

Alex Wise 6:30  And you said you have two models, why don’t you walk us through those, if you can?

Jesse Tran  6:35  Yeah, so the first model is like laceless shoes. And it is made from coffee waste, and recycled plastic and is also has like a waterproof layer. So this is like urban walking shoes. And you know, so But of course, like, you know, once we launched it in the end of 2019, it became like one of the most successful fashion crowdfunding campaign in Europe, we saw over half a million euros, I think it’s like, almost $600,000 in one and a half month. And, and yeah, and then we sold the most actually, to the US. And then you know, followed by Germany, the UK and Canada. And, and this is just the first generation we imagined, it’s just like a, and we designed it that way. It’s just like, purely like everyday use urban walking shoes. And then But then we realized that a lot of because of the you know, anti order and waterproof functions of the shoes, so a lot of our customers actually use it for like odd activities, like tracking, some even use it for dancing, you know, running and, you know, mostly traveling and some even use it to play sport, you know, we’re lifting in the gym badminton, so we decided that we would launch the second generation also made from coffee waste and, and recycle plastic, but it has also like lace, and in our proprietary like, Soul system that makes the SU really light and really bouncy for like high intensity activities. So the first gen is is a coffee shoe that is you know, for urban, urban, everyday use without lace, there’s no lace and the second one with lace and you know, from higher intensity activity.

Alex Wise 8:26  So, if you can explain a little bit more in detail of how you get the coffee grounds, and then what problem you’re solving with the reuse of these grounds, Jesse?

Jesse Tran  8:41  Yeah, to be honest, right, like, in the beginning, we didn’t, we didn’t come up with coffee shoes right away. You know, when we started this project in the beginning of 2018 was like, we spend like a lot of time on on the first material that we start to use it with was organic cotton, but that was not that sustainable. And it is also right you know, not super, super functional, functional. And so you know after quite a wide and we realize that there’s nothing special about the first prototype that we made. So then we found a coffee waste, and then we get back to the drawing board and come in and create the coffee shoes. And the reason we chose coffee waste material this one particularly is because of the functional functionalities that it has. So it has like anti or anti-bacterias on top of you know made from waste, and really sustainable and, and also from a marketing point of view is great for us. Because we are finished right? So we are based in Finland. And then we have a team of 20 people, all of us living in Finland and we have our headquarters here. But we also you know Me and Michael feather we are from Vietnam, and which is one of the largest coffee producers in the world. Why Finland consumes the most coffee in the world, per capita. And so that’s like a great marketing message. And we just combined them and created Rens coffee shoe.

Alex Wise 10:16  And let’s talk about the coffee waste itself. Was there a problem with the way coffee was being disposed of previously that you’re trying to address with repurposing it? Or is it just a product that was getting thrown away? And it’s better to reuse than to reinvent the wheel so to speak?


Jesse Tran  10:35  Yeah. So at first when we first encounter this, this material, right, like, we also had the same thinking, why, why why you, you know, you need to recycle these like bio waste materials. But then, you know, when we researched more, and then we realized that coffee was actually emit, like, metal and a lot, a lot of mittens, you know, when it decomposed in, in landfills, and, and methane is like, you know, 32 times more potent than co2 greenhouse gas. So he’s actually directly affects the, the, like, climate change and greenhouse effect on our, you know, on the environment. So this is actually quite a big issues. Because, you know, people usually associate like plastic with like, all those bad, but, you know, bio waste, you know, still contribute to climate change. And yeah, so we, we think that, you know, the material made from like waste that is like decomposing in the landfill. So it’s really cool for us originally, and then it has amazing function. So that’s why we created like the whole brand out of it.

Alex Wise 11:42  So I gather you get the coffee grounds themselves from convenience stores in China, but where are the shoes themselves, manufactured, Jesse?

Jesse Tran  11:52  Yeah, so currently, 100% of our products are manufacturing. We manufacturing them in Vietnam, where I’m from, but just to be clear, we are not only like coffee waste fashion company, we are also having like other materials that we have been working on. And we will soon release more product like more fashion categories, not only shoes, and made from other waste base materials, not only from our coffee ways,

Alex Wise 12:20  And where can Americans listening to this by Rens? Where do you direct people – just to your website?

Jesse Tran  12:27  Yeah, so currently, we have like our own warehouse in Illinois. So we have like a warehouse in the US as well, because this is our biggest market. And yeah, people can just go on like Rens to buy. But I think we we also like we will be soon available in some of the big department stores in the US, you know, starting first with like bigger cities. But for right now we have our own warehouse in the US and our own Shopify store that you can just go on and buy the shoes.

Alex Wise 12:58  Well, it’s called Rens original people can go to Rens to check it out. Jesse Tron Jesse, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Jesse Tran  Alright, thanks a lot, Alex. Thanks everyone, for having me.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise 14:08  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by journalist Brett Simpson. Brett, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Brett Simpson 14:14  Thanks so much for having me, Alex,

Alex Wise  14:17  You have a new piece in The Atlantic entitled Why cars don’t deserve the right of way the simplest way to make roads safer and reduce police violence at the same time. It’s very interesting. And a concept that I’ve kind of wondered about as we have more and more high profile police violence episodes unfold on our TV screens inevitably, every year almost every month, there’s some new video of police abuse and so much of it seems to be surrounding the traffic cop. Why don’t you explain why it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way in terms of our police force being our traffic cops.

Brett Simpson 14:59  Yeah, so This story centers around the city of Berkeley, which in July of 2020, you know, when there was this, you know, after following the, the killing of George Floyd there was across the nation, this movement toward rethinking and reimagining the police force and their, their prevalence in our lives. And the city of Berkeley was unusual in that, in its police reform, it really targeted the traffic cop. And in doing so, it actually really targeted police violence at its root. I mean, as we’ve seen, for so many black and brown drivers stops for minor infractions like a broken taillight or speeding, too often turned deadly. You know, we have Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, and most recently, Daunte Wright, those were all during police traffic stops, you know, in so many more. So I followed this initiative over the over the course of the year and the same time really looked into the history of traffic enforcement and how police power has really grown in concert with the prevalence of the automobile and the violence of the automobile on our streets.

Alex Wise  16:14  Yes, take us back 100 years, if you will, before the prevalence of the automobile and what role the Beat Cop might have had in a community versus that beat cop today driving around in on their motorcycle in their car and how they engage with the citizenry in a vastly different way.

Brett Simpson 16:34  Right, yeah, this is this is a really interesting kind of historical point that many of us, I think, forget. And that is that or maybe don’t know, and that is that. Before the car, ordinary citizens rarely came in contact with law enforcement. And in fact, law enforcement budgets were much smaller. And police bureaus were, you know, maybe a little more disorganized, they had reputations for being corrupt. This is something really well illustrated by historian Sara SEO, who wrote a book in 2019, called policing the open road. And she traced the origins in the development of police power, as something that was really a response to this automobile that was tearing through the streets, and in 1910s, and 1920s. So just taking a taking us back to, you know, maybe the year 1900, you had citizens that had a really a really well negotiated relationship with each other on the street where the street was a place of commerce of activity. Through you know, social interactions, you would see horses, you would see children, you would see cards, it was all a socially negotiated space, and one that, you know, police may or may not play a role in. But once the had these automobiles that were just bringing all of this speed and horsepower, they were wreaking havoc on the streets and police forces really stepped in to solve that problem and become that official that could help negotiate those power relationships. And that is something that actually started in Berkeley, the father of modern American policing, as he’s known now, August Folmer, was Berkeley’s first police chief. And he was the first to put he was the first to put cops in cars. And that was part of his vision for this new kind of cop who was was tasked with solving crimes. So that that origin story and the kind of the century of repercussions that August fulmar, you know may or may not have really seen coming was of interest to me as well that here we have Berkeley, which reimagined policing 100 years ago with all of these consequences in response to the automobile is now taking another shot at it and really looking to extricate the traffic cop.

Alex Wise  19:10  Let’s turn from August Fulmers’ solutions and look at a concerned citizen, if you will, Darrell Owens, who you spotlight in the piece and the solutions that he’s proposing to his city in Berkeley.

Brett Simpson 19:24  Yeah, so Darrell Owens, he’s really the member of a large coalition that is crosses, you know, many different disciplines, from climate and street safety activists to racial justice advocates, who are all kind of looking at the same problem, which is that there’s something in our streets that’s broken. We see police everywhere, monitoring corners, giving tickets to people on their bikes, and yet our streets aren’t getting any safer. We still have pedestrian injuries and just you know, car accidents all the time and so on. Darrell is something of a transportation nerd. And he was, you know, looking at the data and just seeing how, and he really, you know, he only rides public transportation, he, he rides his bike, and he’s seeing how cars are the root of both injury and violence for the ordinary, just ordinary people. But also, as a young black man, he’s he sees in his family and in his community, that cars are the source of interactions with the, with the police. So Daryl Owens, as part of this Burke dot coalition proposed shifting traffic enforcement, away from the police, to an armed department of transportation workers. So this is kind of saying the same people who maybe enforced the rules of the road are the ones who design them, and the ones who can kind of get at the root cause of the problems with the street. And so it’s a really kind of the way that Owens would characterize it just a simple, common sense solution, like, why do we need an armed officer trained with a warrior mindset to tell us that we need to update our license plate tags, it’s just it doesn’t make any sense. It’s, it’s, it’s a confusing allocation of resources. And it’s a source of violence that disproportionately affects black and brown people. And so yeah, the the proposal is kind of as part of a larger, a larger reimagining that eventually would furnish this Department of Transportation with workers who could target and redesign the highest injury corridors in the city. And you know, and do all of the really important transportation fixes that would hopefully reduce, at the same time, the power of the automobile, and the power of police in the city.

(Music Break)  22:13

Alex Wise 22:56  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking with independent reporter Brett Simpson. So Brett, I guess the people who would be against this change would say, well, technology has evolved where we can have speed cams, and we can update registration tags, etc. But that encroachment is also something that people fear. Where do we find that balance?

Brett Simpson 23:22  Right, yeah, this is something that I don’t even get to in my piece. But Mothers Against Drunk Driving did come out against the bill immediately. And I think that it is interesting to just acknowledge that cars are dangerous and drivers can be dangerous. And you know, we do need to address this danger. It’s really, you know, do we need an armed cop addressing this danger?

Alex Wise 23:45  What could a potential enforcement of drunk driving laws look like by removing officers? Is it possible?

Brett Simpson 23:54  Yeah, I think I think that’s a really thorny question. And it’s, for the for the vast majority of cases, whether it’s a speeding enforcement doesn’t change driver behavior. I think that the model would be that if there is someone driving recklessly, and so many of these police reform measures, as a civilian enforcer would be able to escalate to a police officer, and maybe then a police officer does get involved in the most dangerous situations or you know, like a car-jacking or, or a high speed chase, like all of those are things that can still be in the wheelhouse of the police force, and in fact, they’re, they’re essential and they’re well trained. They’re trained for situations like that. They’re not necessary for situations where someone you know, forgets to signal before they turn.

Alex Wise 24:45  So Brett, let’s look at it from the police standpoint. Well, how do police unions and units however, they addressed these new types of proposals to remove officers from face to face vehicular oriented interactions?

Brett Simpson 25:05  Yeah, I think this is a really interesting point. Because one, one key counter argument is, you take examples like Sweden and Norway, and that have these, you know, amazing numbers with, you know, not needing a traffic cop to enforce their safety. Yet, these not needing an armed traffic cop, yet these countries also don’t have such an armed citizenry. And so this argument like, well, if, if any, if any ordinary American might have a gun in their car, then yeah, you don’t you don’t know what to expect when you approach the window.

Alex Wise 25:46  So I guess the question is, should they be approaching the window in the first place?

Brett Simpson 25:50  Yeah, at the at the same time, and I and I did speak with many Berkeley, Berkeley officers, Berkeley and otherwise, for this story didn’t make it into the in the piece, but nobody, nobody likes being a traffic Enforcer. You know, it’s kind of maybe not nobody, but it just kind of seemed to be the the worst part of the job. And when you any, any cop can, can do that. And you know, or sometimes that will be there that will be there beat the rotation for a little while. And overwhelmingly, they talk about it with a sense of dread. And also it’s, it’s sort of a distraction from their really essential duties that they’re performing in society, which is investigating and solving crimes, and really where they should be putting their energy. It’s not about, you know, reducing headcount in police forces. It’s about how and where are these officers spending their time? And is there a better way to? Is there a better way to allocate that maybe if we start the conversation there with these current police forces, then that is a you know, a more maybe a more palatable conversation to the forces themselves. But yeah, it’s it’s certainly, I think, a thorny issue,

Alex Wise 27:21  And one with race right at the center, if you think about the policymakers versus the vulnerable populations.

Brett Simpson 27:28  Right. And I think that, you know, the goal to reduce ordinary citizens interaction with the police, which overwhelmingly disproportionately affects communities of color, I think, is a really great starting point for so many of these police reform proposals.

Alex Wise  27:49  Well, the piece is called “Why cars don’t deserve the right of way” – it’s in the Atlantic. We’ll link to it at seachange. Brett Simpson, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Brett Simpson  28:01  Thank you so much, Alex.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise – additional music by Chuck Mangione, Willie, Bobo and Red Simpson, check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.