by Colleen Ward
Shoes are one of the toughest items of clothing to produce using principles of environmental and ethical sustainability. Leather is, of course, animal skin, produced under less than uplifting circumstances. It has an enormous environmental footprint that is a result of how the animals are raised as well as the tanning and dying processes. The most common alternatives to leather include various kinds of plastic and synthetic rubber, all of which are petroleum products – also with a huge environmental footprint.
Brands that are deeply committed to sustainability are making progress, and the more successful ones are delivering with a sense of style as well. With eyes on the future of shoes, Veja was launched in 2004 by two friends and business partners, Francois Ghislain Morillion and Sebastien Kopp. A minimalist style and the use of sustainable and ethical materials are at the heart of the Veja brand.
The word ‘veja’ means ‘look’ in Portuguese. According to Kopp, they chose it because “It means to take a look around yourself; look at what’s behind the product; look at how things are done, because it matters. It also stands for transparency: We want customers to see the the possibility of buying while knowing the story and production behind the design.”
VEJA’s B-mesh Uppers Made From Recycled Plastic Bottles
One of the sustainable materials Veja uses is natural latex, produced by tapping wild rubber trees in the Amazon basin. The process doesn’t damage the trees; instead, it actually gives the forest value as a perpetual future source of rubber, helping prevent further deforestation. And by giving local Brazilian rubber tappers employment, it keeps them from environmentally destructive work, such as cattle ranching. According to Wired, “every rubber tapper preserves up to 1 square mile of forest … in stark contrast to the pollution caused by manufacturing synthetic rubber” from petroleum.
Veja’s newest experiment with sustainable materials involves making shoes made from post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. It takes about three plastic bottles to create the material for a single pair of shoes. Veja also uses cotton that is both organically grown and fair trade certified.
Another unusual sustainable material Veja is using is the skin of farm-raised tilapia, which is normally just waste once the fish have been processed for food. Instead, the skin is vegetable-tanned, dyed, and sewn into a patchwork fabric. Morillion says he first saw tilapia shoes while exploring a flea market in Brazil and knew he wanted to use the material. “I went to visit the farm and fell in love with the story and the people.”
VEJA’s Tilapia Fish Skin Esplar
Sustainable Business Practices
One result of its fair trade and sustainable principles is that it Veja’s cost to produce a pair of shoes is typically five to seven times as much as conventional brand-name shoes made in Asia. The company has kept consumer prices competitive by eliminating the advertising budget, typically a huge expense for Veja’s competitors.
Another source of waste and unnecessary costs is unsold inventory. At Veja, there is none! They produce just enough stock to fill orders received for the next six months. According to Morillion, “Not having extra stock means retailers have to think and order in advance, because if they do not, they will not be able to sell our sneakers.”
What happens when Veja’s shoes are worn out? The next step is addressing reuse and recycling when its shoes reach the end of their useful life. “Right now, we’re working on applying a cradle-to-cradle model, where one product becomes another that becomes another that becomes another with a minimum energy footprint,” Kopp said. “We know it is the model for the future.”
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