Tucked away in the Italian Alps is the small town of Tyrol. The autonomous region, sandwiched between Austria, Switzerland and Italy, is most famously known for its trilingual inhabitants — and apples. Home to over 8,000 family farms, Tyrol is the largest exporter of apples to all of Europe. And while the apple market has sustained the province’s ranking as one of Europe’s most wealthy areas, it has also contributed to tons of apple waste each production cycle.
For Casey Dworkin, founder of sustainable shoe company Sylven New York, this trash turned into treasure. “Apple leather is made from organic apple waste out of Italy — and it mimics leathers beautifully!” she said of Sylven’s favorite material. "The cores and skins of the apple waste are taken and transformed into a pulp, which is then bound into a fabric for structure. The result is an imitative material that structurally holds many of the same properties as a traditional animal leather while remaining completely animal-free.”
Vegan leather is a sensitive subject in the sustainable fashion industry. Some believe the leather alternative, which is often made from a variety of plastic and plant materials, is as innovative as it gets, while others see traditional leather as an ethical byproduct of the meat industry. According to Casey, neither are perfect — but both can be done sustainably. "There are issues with both vegan leather and leather in general. We can’t say with certainty that either is right or wrong. We make responsible decisions when it comes to both,” Casey said of her company’s approach to the vegan leather controversy.
Casey founded Sylven in 2017 as part of her mission to redesign the luxury footwear industry. “I worked in the footwear industry for my whole professional career, and there weren’t many innovations,” she said of her inspiration. “I was watching these brands produce, produce, produce, and the reason they were producing was to sell. But what was their greater purpose? What was the meaning behind it?”
For Casey and her Sylven family, sustainability is at the crux of everything they do. “Sustainability is an undefined term. For us, it’s about resource usage from start to finish. When I’m designing a product, I consider everything from how it should function to how it’s shipped, and every micro decision in between,” Casey explained.
Step one for Sylven is considering and evaluating the most useful, efficient and sustainable materials. “Materials and components are something I’m super passionate about. It’s what helps differentiate us as a brand,” Casey said of her focus on ethical material usage. To this point, apple leather is the most exciting material they work with, but their commitment to sustainable materials goes further. Their rubber soles are made from “off-cut waste,” excess rubber which would otherwise end up in a landfill that is melted down and reused to create a regenerated rubber sole. In addition, their leather is tanned through a process incorporating organic substances derived from tree bark, spruce, oak, and various plants which makes the finished product biodegradable. As well, their vegan linings are made from renewable resources such as corn, grains and seeds.
Step two is ethical manufacturing. Sylven’s factories are family owned and operated in the Tuscan region of Italy and employ local artisans who are keeping centuries’ old traditions of shoemaking alive. And step three is packaging, where Sylven ensures that each item is packaged using recycled materials and plastic-free alternatives.
From start to finish, Sylven considers how they can make the best shoe for their customer and the planet alike.
While Casey designs with sustainability in mind, she acknowledges that all of her customers may not share her passion — and that’s ok. "I have two different customers. One of my girls is super eco-conscious. She’s discovering us because she’s been searching for alternatives in the fashion space. The other is fashion conscious and wants a beautiful pair of shoes.” Casey acknowledges that in order for Sylven to succeed, their products need to be both sustainable and fashionable. And this intersection, she hopes, becomes the new industry standard.
Sustainably-made items tend to come with a higher price tag, which often excludes many from purchasing. “It’s tough for me because I exist in the luxury space, and luxury fashion is inherently inaccessible,” Casey said on the topic of price point. "I struggle with sustainable fashion, and fashion in general. There are ways to be sustainable and there are ways to access sustainability. Not everyone can afford $500 shoes and that’s where education comes into play. I want people to take care of what they have. Longevity is sustainable.”
Ultimately, the most sustainable items are the ones you can wear time and time again. And while the fast fashion industry relies on our endless consumption of cheap items each season, we’re learning the hard way the toll this is taking on our environment. When you shop sustainably, and the cost comes at a higher price point, you’re investing in an item that is made from what would otherwise pollute the planet, by trained artisans who are paid a living wage, for a product that will last for years and years to come.
“What makes a fashion brand the fashion brand is that the product connects to people naturally. My dream of dreams 10 years from now is that I just get to be a footwear brand and am able to be inherently sustainable,” she explained of her hope for sustainable practices to become commonplace.