Powering the Green Movement

Sustainable players say price matters more than ever before.

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NEW YORK — The recession hasn’t dampened consumers’ appetites for sustainable footwear, but in today’s challenging climate, the right price is even more essential.

“If consumers are going to make a purchase, they don’t want to feel guilty about it,” said Monica DeVreese, brand manager for Simple Shoes, a division of Goleta, Calif.-based Deckers Outdoor Corp.

“Eco-friendly footwear has gone econ-friendly,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group.

According to NPD research, consumer interest in green footwear has held steady, at 18 percent of shoppers, for the past three years — and that’s good news for companies in the field, the analyst said. Cohen said the “passionate and personal” component of footwear — and the brand-loyal and product-centric nature of the market — has made it a key area for customers looking to shop green.

“This is what I tell my clients: Eco-friendly product is important,” Cohen said. “It’s not the first card to play, but it’s an important card to play.”

Gene McCarthy, co-president of the Timberland brand, agreed. “Because of the economy, [green is] less of a crusade and more of a sensibility for consumers,” he said. “But it’s a distinctive characteristic.”

While companies continue to bank on green products, some retailers said they aren’t moving as much merchandise.

David Zaken, owner of the New York-based David Z chain, said consumer interest in green features dipped when the economy began to sink. “It’s all good when the economy is good, but when the economy is bad and people are losing jobs, the bills and the stomach are the most important [things],” he said. Interest in sustainability, he added, is like a wave: “And like a wave, it comes and passes.”

Still, other retailers are reporting an upswing in sales despite the downturn in the economy. San Francisco-based EcoCitizen is one of them. Joslin Van Arsdale, owner of the boutique, said the recession has hurt nearly all retailers, but traditional non-sustainable stores in particular. “[That] market was already oversaturated with designer labels,” she said.

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