Welcome to Environmental Superheroes – Aku. This is the second in our series identifying outdoor brands that are setting the standard for others to follow. We hope you find it interesting, educational and inspirational.
That well known superhero Spiderman once said ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and, of course, he was right. Anyone in a position to influence and guide the way others act surely should be the best role model possible. For manufacturing companies this is especially important in relation to their ethos of environmental protection.
Peak Mountaineering is a tiny fish in a very big pond and yet we always aim to do our best. We are well aware that most of our operations have a negative environmental impact. So we try to balance that as much as possible by demonstrating and influencing good practice whenever and however we can. The bigger fish can have the same ethos and yet spread their message much wider.
In the outdoor industry some fish do more influencing than others and we think they should be celebrated and applauded. Of course, companies may simply push their good environmental practices as a marketing tool. It is usually easy to see those that are genuine in their intentions. These are the ones we are interested in. So, in this occasional Peak Mountaineering blog series we celebrate those Environmental Superheroes. Those companies who, like Spidey, take their great responsibility seriously. Our first dip into this pond was a portrait of Nikwax (please check that out here). This time around, we want to shine a light on Aku. Welcome to Environmental Superheroes – Aku.
Aku are based in a small Venetian town in the famous Italian footwear making district of Montebelluna. The business was founded by Galliano Bordin who was himself the son of shoemakers. Many in this community are immersed in the shoemaking industry. It has even become particularly known for making top quality options for mountaineering, trekking, alpine and cross country skiing. From a young age Galliano learnt this craft. It was natural that he would eventually start manufacturing his own products.
With this Aku was born in the early 1990’s. All these years later, Aku is still a family business managed by the Bordin family. They now have over 400 employees and their products are sold in over 30 countries. Even with growth, quality manufacture is still their lifeblood.
Sustainability is also in their DNA. Aku say ‘we feel part of a single ecosystem, social and environmental, we feel responsible for its balance’. Their aim is to not only produce excellent footwear, but to do it in a way that minimises the impact of production. They also want to encourage other to have the same ethos.
With this in mind, it was great to sit down with Giulio Piccin, Aku’s Product and CSR Manager, at our recent visit to the Outdoor Trade Show in Liverpool. We talked for 45 minutes, but it was one of those conversations where time flew by. Giulio is both a man on a mission and a very inspiring character. Please read on to find out a little of what we learned.
By the time we met Giulio had already had a busy day. He was a focus presenter at the show’s Sustainability Breakfast (hosted by Rab who we hope to have as a future Environmental Superheroes subject). Even with a very early start, he couldn’t have been more willing to share his obvious passion for the future focus of Aku.
But, when I first asked about Aku’s future sustainability goals he quickly corrected me. Aku see their focus as of manufacturing responsibility. No manufacture is sustainable as there is always an environmental cost. Producers should instead look towards being responsible.
So, Aku refer to responsibility. The responsibility to seek ways to reduce the impact of manufacture. Also, to influence both consumers and others in the industry to do the same. With that in mind, they are focussed on how they can achieve those aims both within manufacture and through visibility and education.
Durability & Multi-Use
A key to minimising the impact of product consumption is to keep products in use longer. Aku have always aimed to produce the best quality products available. If, for example, a boot or shoe can walk 2000 miles before retirement rather than a 1000, there is clearly a reduced impact for that product. Even better if that worn out sole can then be replaced and the product kept in use longer.
It also helps if consumers need less products. Aku have a wide range of products available, but a growth area are multi-use options. If you can have a pair of boots or shoes suitable for a few activities, that is a winner environmentally and financially.
Similarly, if the materials that make up the product have less environmental cost, the product has less impact. Aku have therefore looked in microscopic detail at the impact of all the materials they use. In 2018 they became the only footwear sector company to have calculated and certified the degree of environmental impact of a shoe. Using a calculation process developed by the Swedish research institute Environdec and the International EPD System method, Aku can determine the level of environmental impact of the entire life cycle of the shoe.
This method assesses everything. Production and acquisition of raw materials and semi-finished products. It also considers transport, factory assembly and packing. It even looks at disposal at end of use. This data has led to many manufacturing choices. For example, they made a move from acrylic to water based adhesives when the research showed them to be a more responsible choice. They won’t shy away from decisions that reduce impact providing the durability isn’t compromised. Out of interest, the shoe they certified in 2018 was the Bellamont Plus model which we reviewed here).
Of course, there is no point in having all this data if the information isn’t easily available. Aku have added a Product Traceabilty Sheet to each product in their range. They also have detailed information on their website identifying each element of their responsibly commitment. Potential purchasers have detailed information to inform their choices. Aku even produce an annual Responsibility Report available via their website. Here is their 2022 report.
But Giulio said this process went beyond consumers. They also shared this with those manufacturing their products. This allowed them to highlight best practice and challenge areas of concern. It was about being completely transparent at every stage. This also benefits the factories they work with. If a producer can go to other potential customers and show the low impact of their manufacture, they are both educating other companies and have a marketing advantage.
They also believe in the power of collaboration. For example, Aku are members of the European Outdoor Group. This is a collective of brands and retailers whose vision is to do ‘profitable business in a way that gives back more than they take’. Aku see great power in brands working together. Please read more about the European Outdoor Group here.
They also work with a variety of partners and support various initiatives. One we discussed is the European Outdoor Groups #ItsGreatOutThere program. This looks to be a great way to get people having responsible outdoor adventures from an early age. Please have a read about it here.
The final part of our conversation with Giulio focussed on the role companies like Aku have in educating the growing number of people seeking recreation in the mountain environment. This is responsibility too, and Aku are all in.
This is about sharing knowledge on how to protect the environment. There is loads of information about this on the Aku website. There are stories to inspire as much as factual information. It has never been easier to be informed.
Aku also have ongoing efforts to inform users about responsible equipment choices. Interestingly, that isn’t always easy. Giulio talked about customers going into their Italian store who are faced with choices. For one example, they may need to choose between real or synthetic leather. The evidence suggests some won’t choose the synthetic option as they don’t think it will be as durable even when product testing has shown it is. Brands need to make sure buyers have all the facts to back up their choices.
The Journey Continues
This Environmental Superheroes – Aku account is really only a snapshot of our conversation. Hopefully it still shows some of the key ways Aku are acting as responsibility superheroes. What we can’t easily show is the glint in Giulio’s eye as he discussed their progress so far or the serious look as he talked of the future journey. We applaud Aku and are privileged to share details on their journey so far. We look forward to follow its future twists and turns. Please do explore the Aku website here to find out more.
Hopefully you have enjoyed this Environmental Superheroes – Aku blog post. We will be sharing more in the near future. We have also been privileged to work with Aku for many years. During that time we have tested various Aku products and hope they are of interest. As a few examples, our review of their Alterra Lite Mid GTX boots is here. Their Rock DFS GTX approach shoes is here. We also put their Tengu GTX boots through their paces here and their Alterra GTX boots here.