If sustainability is important in deciding what you wear on your feet, French brand Veja may just have the most ethical kicks around.
There is nothing about Veja’s stylish sneakers that immediately clues you in to their ecologically minded construction. Their clean lines and minimalistic details are on trend. Some are inspired by classic 1980s runners or high-tops, and there are even wheel-fitted ones that recall the era’s old-fashioned roller skates.
But make no mistake about it; every component of Veja footwear has a story. The cotton comes from an organic farm in Brazil, where workers don’t have to worry about harmful pesticides poisoning their villages. The rubber is tapped by people in the Amazon using traditional techniques. The brand tries to use the most sustainable uppers possible, including the skin of the tilapia fish and a leather-like material made from curdled milk. Even the way the shoes are boxed, warehoused, and shipped is unconventional: Veja partners with Atelier Sans Frontières, an organization that helps people who have been incarcerated or are otherwise struggling to find work, to employ workers to prepare orders.
The 14-year-old brand is proud of the radical way its sneakers are made—and wants to show consumers just what that commitment entails. Today, Veja is unveiling a new website that traces every material used to make the shoes all the way back to the growers that harvest the raw materials. No other shoe brand is offering this kind of transparency.
Veja first exploded onto the French market in 2004, where it was quickly embraced by luxury department stores like Le Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette, whose buyers loved the idea of cool sneakers whose components were entirely traceable. Veja’s founders—Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion—have been very deliberate about growing the brand slowly, so that they can stay on top of their supply chain. So, it has been slowly making forays into the U.S. market, with the shoes popping up at retailers like Barney’s, Reformation, and Amour Vert, among 150 stores worldwide. And over the new few months, it is planning to continue expanding stateside with its collection of sneakers that retail for between $50 and $150.
“We’re really conscious of not wanting to grow too fast,” Kopp tells me. “That’s when you start to make compromises with your supply chain and make decisions that harm people.”
Kopp and Morillion are not your typical entrepreneurs. Even though their business rakes in $20 million and sells half a million pairs a year, they didn’t set out to launch a sneaker empire or create hot new styles that would drive sneakerheads to distraction. Veja was born out of a mid-twenties existential crisis.
Back in the early 2000s, Kopp and Morillion had just graduated from college in France with degrees in economics and philosophy, respectively. They had left school with idealistic dreams of making the world a better place. But when they surveyed their career options, they were disappointed by how hard it was to work for an organization that was really making a positive impact in the world.
They shifted gears, with an ambitious plan to launch an NGO that would help large companies create more sustainable supply chains. For a very low fee–just enough to cover travel and a modest salary–they said they would go into the field to analyze their supply chains and offer suggestions about how to improve them. They managed to sign on 11 clients including Kering and Carrefour, traveling to investigate their factories in 15 countries, including China, India, Peru, Bolivia, and Vietnam. “We were kind of disappointed by what we saw in the field,” Kopp recalls. “These companies were talking a lot, but not doing a lot. And many were resistant to change.”
After two years, they were so frustrated with the work that they quit. They ultimately decided that they needed to find a career that would be personally satisfying. They adjusted their expectations. “We decided that we didn’t need to transform the world,” Kopp says. “We just wanted to be part of something that was making a small difference in the world. But what could we do? We were 25 years old. We knew nothing about nothing.”
Then, one day the answer came to them: Sneakers.
Kopp and Morillion spent their lives in sneakers. It was clear that they had become the dominant footwear of their generation. And it was also clear to them that there were many problems with the way that sneakers were being made, particularly by huge sportswear corporations. In the ’90s, brands like Nike and Adidas were often in the news because of the labor violations that were taking place in their factories. And after just a few short years studying supply chains, they realized that sneakers were made of materials that were highly polluting to the environment.
“We had to learn about each component that was used to make a sneaker,” Kopp says. “There are only three: leather, rubber, and canvas, which is made from cotton. And we decided we would find the most sustainable version of each of these raw materials.”
With $5,000 of their savings in their pocket, Kopp and Morillion went on an adventure throughout the developing world, looking for safer materials to use in their new sneaker collection. They discovered that if they lived humbly, it was relatively inexpensive to travel around South America to do this work. “We stayed at cheap hostels,” Kopp says. “In fact, we still don’t stay at luxury hotels when we travel to Brazil, which happens a lot. There’s a lot you can do when you don’t need to spend a lot of money on travel and lodging.”
It was in Brazil where they found a collective that produced organic cotton, which is still rare. “Cotton is a very vulnerable crop,” Kopp says. “Most farmers need to use a lot of pesticides so that their harvest survives, but that means a lot of pollution and the possibility that their [drinking] water will be poisoned.”
The pair found a group of rubber tappers in the Amazon who cultivated wild rubber, to use in making the sole of the sneaker. Not only would using rubber help employ these people, but rubber is biodegradable. “We discovered that many sneakers use plastic as their sole, but when the wearer is done with that sneaker, that plastic ends up in a landfill and does not decompose,” Kopp says.
Of course, they were still left with the problem that they didn’t know the first thing about shoe design. Rather than hiring an expensive designer, Kopp decided he would just teach himself the principles of how to create a sneaker. “We had taught ourselves everything at that point,” he says. “We had figured out what it took to manufacture a sneaker and how to build out a supply chain. We had taught ourselves Portuguese to be able to speak with the local workers. Why couldn’t I just learn how to design a shoe? When you’re 25, you believe you can do anything. And maybe you can.”
Kopp’s designs are inspired by vintage sneakers and are generally minimalistic. Veja sneakers are identified by the “V” that is built into the pattern on each side. When they brought their shoes to market, starting at little trade fairs, buyers were instantly intrigued. The designs were popular, but so was the crazy story that Kopp and Morillion told. Their first run of 2,000 sneakers were quickly snapped up by retailers, Kopp says, and they asked for more shoes. But given Veja’s unusual supply chain, it was not so easy to make more quickly, so the founders told the buyers they would simply have to wait. The next season, they doubled their production, and that has been happening every year since then.
Veja would probably have grown faster if it advertised. But from the very beginning, Kopp and Morillion have been opposed to buying fancy ads in magazines and on billboards. The brand spends a lot more on raw materials than their competitors, since they are purchasing from small, independent vendors, rather than from middlemen selling on the open market, where the commodities cannot be traced. Kopp estimates that the cost of making a Veja shoe is several times higher than at one of the big sneaker corporations. So Kopp and Morillion’s solution was to cut out advertising, which is very expensive, and would force them to either increase their prices or drive down the price of the raw materials they use.
Despite this, Veja has cultivated a sizable fan base around the world. Many customers buy the shoes primarily because they love the aesthetic. In fact, a proportion of buyers don’t even realize the shoes have such a fascinating backstory. But this doesn’t bother Kopp. “We have never done advertising, so it’s not like we were trying to shape the consumer’s understanding of the brand,” he says. “And anyway, we started all of this because it made us happy. It doesn’t matter if anybody else understands our mission.”