Ecco and the Vertical Integration

Last month, to celebrate their Walk In Style Awards, Ecco Shoes sent me to Copenhagen to attend the ceremony and check out a bit of Scandinavian design. But before Copenhagen, a couple of dozen international journalists and I were taken to the small town of Tonder, on the mainland of Denmark where Ecco’s head office is located, and then to the nearby town of Bredebro, to the Ecco factory, to find out a little bit more about where the shoes we were celebrating actually came from.

Thanks to the outsourcing of manufacturing, often the brands you are buying are disassociated from the various elements that go into the actual assembly of the product you’re purchasing. So, when it comes to a pair of shoes, the leather they’re made of may be tanned by one company in Indonesia, before being shipped to another factory, owned by an entirely different organization in China to be sewn, before being transported to a third place, owned by yet another manufacturer to be finished-off, before finally being shipped back to the company that commissioned the pieces’ production.

Because of this extensive network of outsourcing, it can be difficult to follow the chain of how a product actually goes from being a pile of raw materials to a product to buy off the shop shelf. Outsourcing is common amongst brands as it requires far less of an initial outlay – and less up-keep – than owning the factories in which your products are manufactured internally. However, with this lower cost comes a significant downside – it can be very difficult to monitor exactly what’s going on inside all the independent factories you’ve contracted to construct your product, which means if something is going wrong from a quality control, or workers’ rights point of view, it’s much harder to pick up on.

Despite the significant difference in cost, there are still some companies that own their entire production process, from textiles creation to product manufacturing. This model of business is called Vertical Integration, and it is a core aspect of Ecco’s brand philosophy.

Because Ecco is a vertically integrated manufacturer, making not only shoes, but the leather the shoes are made from too, it allowed us to explore their production process from cow through to shoes.

“The thing you have to remember about leather is that, there are farms all over the world, but the cows, sheep or whatever animal you’re using, it usually isn’t raised for its skin,” Ecco’s CEO Dieter Kasprzak explains when asked about how the brand go about sourcing hides to tan. “These animals are being raised for food,” he continues, “so the skin is always a by-product.”

This by-product is sourced through an extensive network of ‘hide dealers’ who liaise directly with farms to acquire animal hides and establish the quality and price of the hides. Once these hides have been purchased, they are shipped to a tannery, where they can be transformed into a leather that won’t decay rapidly like untreated animal skin does.

Tanning leather takes place in four separate stages. First the hides must be prepared for tanning, then the tanning process itself takes place, followed by re-tanning, and finally finishing.
When a hide is first procured, it is cured with salt to prevent decay from occurring before the tanning process can take place. From there the hides are chemically treated to remove kerationous matter like hairs and nails. The hides are then treated with salts and other chemicals that help along the tanning process.

There are three different methods of tanning that are commonly used today, vegetable tanning, which utilizes the tanin from which the process got its name, mineral tanning and tawning, which uses alum and aluminum salts.

Mineral tanning is the most efficient and common tanning method, and results in the softest, most stretchable leather. This process involves treating the hide with chromium. Once treated, the resulting leather is a pale, blueish colour, and for that reason it is known as “wet blue”. From there, the leather is treated again with dyes and chemicals so that it is the desired colour and softness, before undergoing a process of finishing to get the right kind of feel and texture.

“As you might know, we are not only manufacturers but tanners,” Kasprzak offers.  “We are the third largest tanning company in the world. Our idea is that in every place we manufacture, we also have the material supply and all the technical details you need around there too, so there’s no need for things to go long distances in the process of being assembled. The only long distance we have to shift the shoes is to deliver them around the world.”

As tanners as well as manufactures, Ecco also supply leathers to a number of different companies, including high-end brands like Coach and Louis Vuitton. “We have some customers around the world in Europe and China who buy our leather, we believe that to get some input from other companies is good for us,” Kasprzak explains of this side business that sees the brand creating leathers to the specific briefs and trends of other companies.

At the Ecco factory in Bredebro, we are taken into a room where hundreds of leather hides hang in every conceivable treatment and colour-way, from a gleaming, stiff gold leather with a hint of crackle, to butter-soft suede in subdued shades of grey. Although Ecco’s own design does not focus on “those elaborate rich designs with a lot of gold and so on,” the brand is occasionally briefed to create leathers of this sort. “You get some challenges when you work with others,” Kasprzak says.  “This allows you to grow your people and educate them.”

Once the leather has been treated and finished, it is time for it to be cut into the components that will eventually form a shoe. Even shoe designs that appear quite simple can actually be incredibly complex, with each part, from upper to lining forming a piece of the puzzle. Sneakers are particularly detailed, with some comprising up to fifty individual pieces of leather in a variety of different colours and finishes. This is all cut using a special laser-guided machine that projects the patterns to be cut onto the leather and trims them at an incredible speed. The green lit-lasers projected across the leather as the pieces are cut is amazing to watch. It looks at once sci-fi and a little old fashioned, as the hi-tech equipment interacts with the organic material.

Because most shoes are such complex items, the sewing process often involves a considerable amount of hand finishing. The leather is sewn using large-scale, industrial machines that are strong enough to penetrate through the tough hide. Sewing a single shoe can take a long amount of time, depending on the style, even for an expert manufacturer, and there are some elements of the product that can only be completed using the human hand.

Ecco’s factories across China, Thailand, Slovakia, Portugal and Indonesia employ best-practice labor policies. With everything from buzzing blades to fast-running sewing machines, strong health and safety regulations are very important in a shoe factory, as is the fair compensation of labor.

Sole Train
The process for manufacturing a high-heeled shoe and a sneaker is very different, because the sole of each product is so different. The way a sole is attached varies depending not only on the style of shoe, but the company that makes it. Ecco’s plastic sneaker soles are created using highly specialized direct-inject technology that sees the sole directly fused to the upper, without the use of glues or stitching. For high heels the process of attaching the sole is one of cementing to the upper while it is stretched over a last. For something like a pair of stilettos – which often have metal or wooden sole-components, this process is different again. Generally, factories will specialize in creating just one kind of shoe.

Time Well Spent
The process of creating a shoe, from the design room where the style is decided, to tanning the leather, cutting it to shape, sewing it and finishing the item off, particularly given the need for hand-stitching, is incredibly labor intensive, and each shoe has hours of work in it. This is something that’s very easy to forget when you are shopping for a new set of kicks in-store, but it’s always worth keeping in mind, especially when you are looking at the price of the pair you are buying. It is impossible to make most shoes – good quality ones especially – without spending a lot of time on them, so if the shoes you are buying are especially cheap, that means the people who have labored on the footwear cannot have been fairly compensated.

A well-made pair of shoes are an object of beauty, not just for their aesthetics, but because to get there, they must have passed through many pairs of hard-working hands. New shoes are certainly a treat, but they shouldn’t be treated as easily disposable.

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