R. M. Williams’ iconic boot has become the marketing centrepiece of a multi-strategy campaign to boost the retailer’s environmental credibility. By Lucianne Tonti.
R. M. Williams’ carbon boot print
Multimillion-dollar Australian brand R. M. Williams opens its campaign for the environmentally conscious buyer with footage of a distant mountain range and a voiceover: “There was an old man who lived in his boots.”
The campaign is pushing a sustainability platform that includes a promise to reduce the carbon footprint of its boots by 50 per cent by 2030. Given the number of environmental offences charged to the leather industry, the pledge is an ambitious one.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock farming is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, of which cattle farming accounts for roughly two-thirds. Not to mention the leather industry’s links to deforestation, desertification, toxic chemicals used during processing and animal welfare concerns. Its advocates describe it as a byproduct or co-product of the meat industry, since global consumption of meat and dairy products currently outstrips demand for leather.
“Hides will continue to be produced whether or not there’s a leather industry, because the economic value is so small in proportion to the rest of the animal,” says Angela Winkle, R. M. Williams’ chief sustainability officer. “But when we do our footprint accounting, we account for the agricultural footprint.”
The second frame of the campaign is a close-up of R. M. Williams’ iconic boot, the Craftsman, which is still made in Adelaide, where the brand launched in 1932. It’s a Chelsea boot with elasticated sides, a broad curve around the toe and a flat, stacked heel. The Craftsman was first released in 1966 to satisfy customers who wanted a boot they could work in and also wear around town. It’s made from a single piece of leather, a signature feature from the business’s earliest days when the design’s objective was to weather the worst of the Australian outback. The single seam at the heel ensures dust and water can’t infiltrate the leather, and makes for a more comfortable boot. The sole is welted and stitched on, which makes repairs easier.
The “Crafted for life” film draws on the tropes of Australia’s stockman heritage. We follow the “old man” through his intrepid youth: he hitchhikes, rides both motorbikes and horses, goes skinny-dipping in a creek, sleeps under the stars and stands shirtless in the rain. Despite the complicated relationship between agriculture and country, the boots are firmly anchored in and connected to the Australian landscape as the brand repositions its intentions to become a better caretaker of it.
The strategy to reduce each boot’s carbon footprint is multifaceted. There is a continued emphasis on circularity through the longstanding repair program for worn boots that is carried out at R. M. Williams’ headquarters. That’s alongside commitments to better manufacturing practices, such as efficiencies in cutting hides to reduce waste and a pledge to switch to entirely renewable energy by 2025.
They will also source all leather from tanneries with the non-profit Leather Working Group’s gold certification. For this certification a tannery must score at least 85 per cent in an audit that covers water and energy use, air and noise emissions, traceability, and management of waste, chemicals and restricted substances.
But the most interesting and critical piece is the company’s overhaul of how it sources hides, with a focus on traceability all the way back to the farm. This is aided by the deep pockets and broad portfolio of R. M. Williams’ parent company, Tattarang – which includes several cattle stations among its multibillion-dollar portfolio of assets.
One of these is the Western Australian farm Harvest Road, which Winkle describes as a potential partner doing “industry-leading work on pathways to carbon neutrality and measurement”.
Not all of the farms in these partnerships will be owned by Tattarang, Winkle says. R. M. Williams is looking to work with partners using any variety of regenerative practices to restore resources, biodiversity and soil health, rather than depleting them.
Winkle describes the work to prove that boots and bags can have a positive environmental impact as a “journey for R. M. Williams and the leather industry more broadly”. The goal has been mirrored by other luxury brands, including French conglomerates Kering and LVMH, both of which are working to train farmers along their supply chains in regenerative agriculture.
Professor Mark Howden, the director of the Australian National University Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions, says effective animal husbandry, sustainable grazing practices and efficiencies on farms “can lower the aggregate greenhouse gas footprint of products off that farm”. But he offers a “cautionary note” that soil carbon is “renowned for being difficult to measure”.
Megan Meiklejohn, a supply chain expert who works on the Land to Market program for the Savory Institute, says carbon can distract from other beneficial outcomes. “What we should really focus on is how these animals influence the land because they’re a tool for regeneration,” she says.
This means looking at the health of the whole ecosystem, which can be measured a couple of different ways, she says. The certification program developed by the Savory Institute looks at biodiversity, mineral and water cycling alongside photosynthesis and soil carbon.
These metrics can be observed on regenerated landscapes. Green plants and shrubs are indicative of photosynthesis and also store carbon. Biodiversity is present when there is a variety of animals, birds, insects, trees, grasses and shrubs. Healthy soil holds more water, making the ground cool to touch.
Although it varies geographically, the key to livestock benefiting the land rather than causing degradation is a system called rotational, holistic or time-managed grazing. Animals are moved around the farm in a tight herd, mimicking the way they would behave in nature to escape predators. This prevents them from eating any of the plants or grass right down to the roots and allows their excreta to be part of a natural cycle of fertilisation, so they are moving moisture around the landscape. It is particularly beneficial in arid environments.
Meiklejohn says regenerated landscapes are more resilient to extreme weather events, which is important in countries such as Australia that typically experience droughts, floods and fires. “That resiliency [is what] you should focus on rather than just this simple, reductionist idea of trying to eliminate carbon,” she says.
R. M. Williams was acquired by Tattarang and its billionaire owner, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, in October 2020 for $190 million. The former iron ore magnate’s more recent pivot to focus on sustainability and renewable energy has led to investments that could help R. M. Williams achieve their “boot-print” reduction.
One is his stake in one of the only plastic-free vegan leathers available – Natural Fiber Welding. Forrest also has investments in companies developing feed additives to reduce emissions from livestock: FutureFeed and Rumin8. Both rely on the compound bromoform, which is found in seaweed.
While these do reduce methane emissions, Howden says, they have “a few problems”. He describes bromoform as “a known carcinogen and also a suspected teratogen”, and cites concerns about the remnants of breakdown products. Bromoform is not a registered chemical product and he notes “significant” concerns about the welfare of the animals it is fed to. And since bromine is a greenhouse gas, he says “we need to be very careful about increasing emissions of bromine through widespread farming use that could actually make climate change worse”.
When these concerns were put to Tattarang, a spokesperson pointed to “extensive research into bromoform and its effects on livestock” undertaken by FutureFeed, “which was established by the CSIRO with investment support from Harvest Road Group, Woolworths and GrainCorp”.
As the film follows the adventures of a young man who “saw opportunity far and wide”, it seems to encourage parallels with Forrest himself, who grew up on a remote cattle station in Western Australia called Minderoo – the name he took for the charitable arm of his empire.
It’s tempting to push the comparisons arising from R. M. Williams’ sales pitch further still: sustainability, through a process of repair, is now clearly essential to the longevity of a boot, a business and the fashion industry itself.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2023 as "R. M.’s carbon boot print".
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