Sébastien Kopp and Francois Ghislain Morillion are what you might call conscientious sneakerheads. They’re the type of guys who have a closet full of kicks, but feel guilty about it. “We couldn’t be really proud of the sneakers we had because of where they were made and how they were made and with what materials,” says Ghislain.

So a decade ago Morillion and Kopp did what any rational shoe-lover in their moral conundrum would do: They started a shoe company. The two Frenchmen founded Veja to make eco-friendly shoes that don’t look like eco-friendly shoes. Veja has been around since the early 2000s, but you’ve probably never heard of it because it’s only now selling sneakers in the US. The company is based in Paris but works mostly out of Brazil, where most of its suppliers operate and its shoes are made.

But shoes weren’t the inspiration for Veja—at least, not originally. In the early 2000s, Morillion and Kopp were recovering business school graduates who realized they were far too idealistic for the world of business deals and bottom lines. They launched an NGO with the goal of helping big corporations adopt more ecological business practices. At the time, “sustainability” was a buzzword corporations loved to throw around. The problem was, most of them couldn’t back up their claims.

Morillion and Kopp saw an opening. They figured they could consult for big French firms, taking stock of their “sustainable” practices and highlighting opportunities to reinforce them. The guys traveled the world meeting small-scale commodity producers, who told them about the issues they faced in a global market. After a year, Kopp and Morillion returned to Paris and showed the corporations their findings. “We came back and gave our beautiful report and realized they really didn’t care about it,” Morillion says.

But the trip had a major impact on them. While traveling in Brazil, Morillion and Kopp noticed something interesting—a canvas and rubber volleyball shoe that was popular in that country. “It was a very democratic shoe,” Morillion explains. “It was simple.” The guys wanted to create something like it, using the small producers they’d met during their year on the road. Veja’s first shoe was a canvas sneaker with cotton from a small family farm in Ceará, a state in northeastern Brazil. Today, the company buys more than 30,000 pounds of fair trade cotton every year from more than 320 families.

The rubber, too, is from Brazil. Every sole is made from wild rubber tapped straight from trees in the Amazon. The practice, in which a liquid latex is extracted from trees, allows tappers to sustainably harvest rubber without damaging the trees. It’s estimated that every rubber tapper preserves up to 1 square mile of forest—this is in stark contrast to the pollution caused by manufacturing synthetic rubber in shoes.

Many of Veja’s sustainability efforts take the form of a “if this, then that” scenario. The way Morillion and Kopp see it, if they can pay locals a higher wage to harvest natural rubber, people will have more incentive to continue tapping rubber instead of pursuing lines of work (cattle farming or wood extraction, for example) that contribute to deforestation. “In our case we don’t have a factory in between that buys and processes rubber,” Kopp says. “Each rubber tapper processes it.” Veja then buys the rubber for $4 a kilo. “Regular rubber on market sells for less than a dollar,” he adds. “That makes a huge difference.”

The founders in Brazil.The founders in Brazil. Veja

The design of every Veja shoe begins with a careful consideration of available materials. Since 2005, Veja has expanded to use materials like skin up-cycled from farm-raised tilapia that’s 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,”he says. “That’s basically always how it works—design first and then to get to the reality of it.” For its most recent shoe, the company found an industrial partner in Sao Paolo that extrudes polyester from recycled plastic bottles. Every upper is made from three bottles.

Veja is far from the only company making sustainable shoes, of course. Kick a rock and you’ll hit someone peddling eco-friendly kicks. Adidas, for example, recently showed off a prototype with an upper made from recycled plastic ocean waste (Adidas is developing a way of using that same material in a 3D-printed midsole). And there are enough vegan shoe lines to outfit legions of Phish fans. The difference is—and it’s more important than you might think—Veja’s brand of eco-friendly doesn’t look eco friendly. The company may have environmentally conscious beginnings, but most people don’t buy shoes for their backstories. People buy shoes because they look cool. That cool factor has been a boon for Veja, which doesn’t have much in the way of a marketing budget. (As The New York Times noted, Veja is “Paris’ favorite sneaker brand that you haven’t heard of.”)

Kopp explains that, because of its fair trade philosophy, Veja shoes are typically five- to seven-times more expensive to manufacture than brand name shoes made in Asia. But the company keeps retail prices low by shunning advertising. (The business model is similar to that of American Giant, whose “perfect” hoodie became so popular through word-of-mouth the company struggled to keep up with demand). Kopp says it’s taken nearly a decade for Veja’s manufacturing partners to understand the unorthodox business practice of spending so much on materials that could be purchased for far less money. It’s even earned them a nickname. “In Brazil they call us the Francais locos,” he says. “That means ‘the crazy French.’”

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