People's Movement Eco-Friendly High Top Sneakers

Mark Wystrach, avid surfer and co-founder of the eco-conscious shoe brand People’s Movement, is nothing if not passionate about sustainability.

So much so, that during my hour-long conversation with him, we covered the California drought, trash in Bali, plastic litter, microbeads (“I don’t believe in good and evil, but that kind of stuff just pisses me off.”), environmental legislation, corporations (“These people are driven by greed, they don’t give a shit.”), and just about everything else that involves the environment. Our time spent discussing the shoes themselves? About three minutes.

I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing.

It’s clear that Wystrach has the passion and knowledge base to change the world, and his shoes are just a vehicle to get him and us to a better place. This would normally give me pause (environmentalists have an exceptionally poor track record in designing wearable items), except having looked through their fall offerings, I’ve found several styles to suit my taste and lifestyle, including the Marcos, a model-off-duty style tennis shoe in black, and the Macy, a chic black flat.

My favorite is the Marco Hi style, which I received in the mail* to see it in person and try out. I promptly field-tested them in the harshest conditions at Burning Man, covering them in alkaline dust for 12 hours of running around in the desert heat at a time. They held up nicely and kept me comfortably on my feet. What’s more, my boyfriend took to calling them, “those really cool sneakers.” A typical exchange went like this:

Men's High Top by People's Movement

Men’s High Top by People’s Movement // made from organic and recycled materials

Me: “Honey, could you dig my grey People’s Movement shoes out of the Burning Man bin? I need to wash them so I can take a picture of them for the blog.”

Him: “I don’t see them. Oh, you mean those really cool sneakers? Um, they are white at the moment. Playa dust.”

I took a toothbrush and dish liquid to them, set them out to dry in the sun, then put them back on to walk for five hours in the People’s Climate March. (So yes, the pictures you see here are after they went through all that.)

And they were an apropos choice for the march, and not just because the name fits. The materials used in their fabrication include waxed organic cotton canvas, water-based glues, organic cotton laces, natural dyes, nickel-free eyelets, and a custom MOVMT-Max insole. A portion of sales is contributed to 5 Gyres, a non-profit that enables systematic reduction of plastics through oceanic research, collaboration and action. Other styles use up-cycled plastic bags cleaned from Bali and California.

When I get on the phone with Mark Wystrach, he tells me he recently returned back from Baha, where he has been camping on the beach, and has been since hopping around stores on the East coast and West coast. He turns the conversation toward a reservoir he passed in California whose water levels are frighteningly low. Yeah, that awful California drought. I find this sort of discussion fascinating of course, but Wystrach knows not everyone relishes a good eco-discussion.

“All that stuff is very scary, and unfortunately you can turn people off. People would rather be ignorant than face the darker realities,” he says. “I wanted to start People’s Movement with my brother-in-law to do something fun and stylish and cool that stands for something.” Here he reiterates something I’ve been saying for a while. “Fashion does such an amazing job of influencing youth culture and setting trends. They have the collective attention of such large amounts of consumers, and there is so much potential if you just add a message.”

There’s a stunning array of issues we need to tackle, from bleaching of the reefs, to CO2 emissions to mass extinction. But looking around a few years back, Wystrach landed on plastics. “It wasn’t complex, but was just so stupid,” he says. “Someday we are going to look back and say, ‘Goddamn, plastics were a really dumb thing.’ Plastics are the most obvious threat to the environment, and the most unnecessary. We have the alternatives. I thought that starting a fashion company that stood for the fight against these plastics, that is where the inspiration came from.”

But he knows the shoes need to be attractive to succeed, pointing to Simple Shoes, the first sustainable shoe company other than Patagonia. “They ended up going out of business because their shoes were really ugly.” (Whether that is the reason or not is debatable–we may never know. Though yes, they were not attractive.)

Women's Flowered High Top Sneakers by People's Movement // organic and eco-friendly materials

Women’s Flowered High Top Sneakers by People’s Movement

I was curious about why People’s Movement sources some of its plastic trash from the ocean off of Bali, and he told me a sad story that illuminates a question I had when I was there: why is there so much plastic on the beach, including plastic-wrapped offerings?

Seven or eight years ago, Wystrach was there working with the ethical jewelry company John Hardy. One morning he showed up to Pdang Pdang beach after a rainstorm and found a team of lifeguards burying what he estimates was a ton of plastic in the sand. But as Wystrach tells it, it’s not their fault–they just don’t fully understand how un-biodegradeable plastic is, and they have yet to incorporate a culture of throwing trash in receptacles into their habits.

“Unfortunately, the surfers are in some way responsible for this. They brought the tourism and the Western way. It’s ingrained in their way that everything is biodegradable, the synthetic age just hit them 25 years ago.” And up until then, because everything was made from bamboo and other natural materials, you could just toss it to the ground when you were finished, no problem. Obviously, that is no longer the case. “Bali is a microcosm for what is happening globally,” Wystrach says.

So he formed a friendship with some local Bali guys who were cleaning up plastic bags and recycling them, and when Wystrach and his brother-in-law started People’s Movement, they took over the business, making wallets and upcycled materials for the shoes and launching the company in 2012.

He admits, however, that his company is not perfectly sustainable. It’s not the most eco-friendly thing to ship the recycled plastic over from the other side of the world. So he’s partnered also with the H2O Trash Patrol in California, and he’s talking with a group in Mexico. Their shoes are made in China, because they couldn’t find anyone to produce them affordably–though last year 70% of the line was produced in Mexico.

The shoes come in recycled cardboard with naturally dyed boxes, with a jute and cardboard hang tag. “It didn’t take a huge amount of R&D,” he says of the sustainable packaging. “We used common sense. If all the fashion industry stopped using those plastic tags, it could make a huge difference.”

“I’m looking at the beach right now,” he tells me. “I know if I walked across the street, I would find huge amounts of plastic.”

You can buy People’s Movement shoes at what seems like every surf shop ever, at Moo Shoes in NYC, or online at Nordstrom.

*They sent a pair to me for free to try and keep.