Wellingtonian Jeremy Bank comes from a family with three generations of footwear expertise, beginning with his grandfather Cecil, who opened Banks Shoes in Lower Hutt in 1938.

Taking things a step further, Jeremy has created a zero-carbon-certified footwear brand, YY Nation, which uses leather alternatives, including bamboo and pineapple husk, to make his shoes. In November, he launched the Legacy Footwear Collection, which featured what was, at the time, the world’s lowest-carbon-footprint sneaker. His ambition is to make the company carbon negative this year.

Footwear is a competitive category, even in the sustainable part of the industry. What motivated you to start YY Nation?

Three and a half years ago, while on a trip to Hawaii with my family, I was on the beach with my daughter when we noticed blue microplastic waste in the sand and even old shoes washing up.  Seeing first-hand such a beautiful place being affected by pollution made me think, What will this be like for my children’s children? Because of my background, it made sense that the way I could best contribute was through what I know: footwear. From there, I set out to create the most sustainable footwear brand. 

Was the initial Kickstarter campaign a hard slog, or were people keen to jump on board?

We launched the Kickstarter in September 2020 with a target of $22,000. We reached that so quickly that we quadrupled our target, and in just a few days had achieved crowd-funding of more than $80,000 from 498 like-minded consumers, as well as sold close to 1000 pairs. I have never asked for capital, but as the story about YY Nation began to spread, various people I knew recognised the potential and asked if they could invest. These people share the same values and bring excellent business skills, and their advice along the way, as well as their financial contributions, has been invaluable. 

Has the amount of money you’ve had to sink into research and development (and I guess this will be ongoing) been difficult to reconcile with YY Nation being a startup?

What we forecast in terms of R&D, and everything required to launch YY Nation, has ended up costing us three times as much, some of which can be put down to the pandemic. It has not been an easy road to launch, but the R&D has been an essential part of YY moving towards achieving our vision. We don’t want to be yet another footwear brand contributing additional waste; we want to be sure that what we’re developing and selling is better than what already exists in the market, otherwise there is no point.  

You’ve got some well-established competition, particularly Tim Brown’s Allbirds. What makes YY Nation good enough to take this brand on?

When it comes to sustainability in footwear, the more people trying to tackle this massive challenge, the better. All competition is welcome. What sets YY Nation apart is our broader selection of materials – for example, pineapple husk “leather”, the patented spinning technology that makes the materials incredibly strong but amazingly comfortable (and avoids toenails cutting through uppers) – and our classic silhouettes that you dress up or down. 

A pair of YY Nation Cirro shoes coming off the production line. Photo: Supplied.


You’ve launched online in New Zealand and also in the US, which is a pretty big market to aim for in the first instance. As a startup, what targets have you had to meet to sell in the US?

Our launch strategy was to test and prove our concept and then move fast. We ran the Kickstarter campaign to raise capital, but also to identify which markets might be most interested in what we were planning to launch. We had interest and orders from more than 20 different markets but had great support from the US, hence our decision to launch there as well as in New Zealand. At this time, we are focused on targeting a niche market within the US while we learn. We have a great team based in New York who provide the e-commerce marketing and sales focus. 

You said of your first collection that “these are the worst shoes we’ll ever make”, which is pretty brave in terms of PR and marketing. Can you talk about your approach to brand and marketing?

I say to my team these are the worst shoes we will ever make, because we don't have all the answers yet. We will need to continue to question and innovate, looking for better ways, and our shoes can only get better.   

As a brand, we will always communicate in a way that is honest, bold and upfront. We have a major global challenge that has to seek change. I was proud that on launching YY Nation, we had the lowest-carbon-footprint shoe in the world at that time, but we will keep looking to do better.

What has been the biggest triumph in the business so far?

It has been such a journey to get to launch. We’ve faced a pandemic, a factory closure, and even a volcanic eruption. When the Taal volcano in the Philippines erupted in January 2020, the ash covered the pineapple plantations from which we source our pineapple husk to make eco-leather materials. This damage cost the farmers approximately $15.5 million in revenues due to lost crops and set back our first shoe production by months.

But there was a pinch-me moment a week after launch when a Wellington woman who had purchased a pair for herself and loved them so much ordered a pair for every one of her staff as a Christmas present. That kind of validation is pretty great.  

And what has been the biggest challenge or failure, and what have you learned from it?

We had a stitching issue with our bamboo fabrics which delayed the final production by four weeks. During that time, I could see the global freight situation was deteriorating. When our production was finally ready to send, the shipping rates escalated by four times our original pricing. To compound this issue, we could not get space on vessels and our freight ended up staying in South Korea for an extra five weeks.  This cost us our original launch date. While we had to accept the situation, we have made future plans that include holding additional inventories of both materials and sneakers, along with rolling production. This will continue to be a challenge, so while we are growing as a startup, we are building flex in our reserves and business model.

What does the footwear industry need most right now?

There’s lots of positive change happening, which gives me great optimism for the future. One area that still needs changing, though, is the amount of cheap oil-based plastic waste used in footwear. But given the urgency and the scale of pollution, the problem is bigger than just the footwear industry. I believe within each industry there are opportunities now to make improvements, no matter how small, to reduce, innovate and design out waste and we will hopefully see some amazing advances in the next few years.