Brand Spotlight: VEJA
Veja was born out of the idea that there has to be a better way to make a product. A more economical way, one that doesn’t waste, use harmful materials, or require immoral working or living conditions.
This may sound like the fantasy of a typical 20-year-old who just wants to save the world. Actually, that’s exactly how it started.
Founders, Sebastien Kopp and Francois-Ghislian Morillion were recent college graduates with degrees in economics and philosophy, who at 25, found themselves discovering, firsthand, the evils of globalization, after visiting a Chinese factory and seeing the poor living conditions of the employees. It was heartbreaking to say the least and the men decided, then, they had a bigger purpose. To make a product that doesn’t sacrifice moral integrity just to make a profit.
Now this sounds like a big, seemingly impossible, feat for two young gentlemen who admit that, at the time, they “knew nothing about nothing.” And it was big — but not impossible.
First on the list — decide what product to make that has an impact on the world but is also something they could create, and create well.
The gentleman landed on the idea of sneakers for three major reasons: one was that they simply loved sneakers. They recognized that they used them everyday and they were an important part of their lives. They discovered their passion for stylish, well-made shoes.
Secondly, they were were a part of their identity. In the 90’s, sneakers were a symbol of the generation in which they grew up. They were no longer just athletic apparel — they were being taken to the streets, and being made fashionable. And this industry was only going to continue growing.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the gentleman were interested in the economics of it all, as it was clear to them that advertising was the highest cost to companies in the industry. In fact, for large sneaker brands “70% of its costs goes to advertising and communication. And only 30% goes to raw materials and production.”
This was where the men started to see the light. If they could forego advertising they could invest that same money towards more economical (and more expensive) materials and procedures and produce a shoe that costs the same as the big brands, so consumers are still willing to buy.
The men began in South America — Brazil specifically — because here they would have access to both the raw materials and factories that protect their employees.
Their mission was to reinvent the wheel in some way. They wanted to take an everyday product, that had already set the standard for production in its industry, and turn it upside down. They needed to start at the beginning, as to have the clearest path forward in producing the most economical product they could. They needed to start with the raw materials.
This is when the men found themselves in the Amazon rain forest, among communities that live in a peaceful coexistence with the environment around them. Instead of destroying the forest, they live in harmony with it.
This may sound cute and sweet, but it’s not the easiest thing to stroll into a foreign country; a remote community, and start throwing around ideas. Rather than see this as a road block, the men welcomed this as a hurdle they had to simply get over, using a heavy dose of humility.
“At first, it is a bit complicated, we’re gringos who barely speak Portuguese, and we are in the middle of the jungle. Everyday gives us 1000 reasons to lose hope, but we keep going.”
From this persistence in not giving up, the men formed a relationship with the community and began to harvest wild rubber from the rubber trees. This became the soul of the sneaker. But literally, this rubber represents 40% of the sneaker soles they’ve made since this discovery. So, pun intended.
The men continued this trend and partnered up with an organic, agro-ecological cotton farm by the Atlantic coast that actually results in richer soil for the farmers, after cotton harvest, rather than harming it. (Big win.)
Next stop, they headed to South Brazil to a manufacturing company where workers are working proper hours and 82% are unionized. Here is where they decided to manufacture.
Lastly, they linked with a social reintegration organization that takes over logistics, right in the suburbs of Paris. This non-profit organization helps those who are vulnerable when it comes to finding a job, some who have been previously incarcerated, and provide social stability.
A few years later, the men began using leather that is 100% vegetable leather tanned and even started using the fish skin from tilapia, which is usually wasted. They also discovered a factory in San Paulo that was developing a fabric that is made entirely out of recycled plastic bottles.
Yeah, so I know what you’re thinking — these guys are saints. They have learned how to create a sneaker that is made from recycled, eco-friendly materials, and made out of factories that don’t sacrifice proper working conditions to make a dollar.
But what really makes Veja stand out from all the rest — as if you needed another reason — the men continue to hold themselves under the microscope. A sort of heightened transparency, if you will.
In 2009 they created a section on their website called Limits, which shows everything they’re doing wrong — like how up until 2015, they were able to use vegetable tanning for their leather, but since then cost and quality has forced them to turn back, and are now using leather that meets REACH standards and regulates the amount of chemical substances used in production.
“Everything we do wrong, we post it, we publish everything. And we love it. And that’s precisely what we’re going to continue doing in our future projects; keep improving, step by step, and stay faithful to what we are and to what we’d like to see happen in the world.”
If you’re reading this and find yourself in awe of these two men — first, same here. And secondly, use this admiration to motivate your own purchasing power. It seems like a small step in just buying shoe with an ecofriendly message. But when you realize what an impact this one shoe makes on the environment in which it is produced and the people it employs and communities it builds, it actually feels like with a simple purchase, you are making a quite big social stance.
I ask myself, why should all the importance for organic products be based on food? Even though were not putting it in our mouths (hopefully), doesn’t it still affect the environment around us and people who make it up? It does. These men have just made buying shoes an environmentally conscious decision and that’s important to recognize.
I know what I’ll be wearing this season. Yeezy who?