It seems that the fashion industry has finally woken up. Gucci’s scrapping fur; Russian entrepreneur Miroslava Duma is investing $500m (£379m) in sustainable innovations in textiles, such as leather that can be grown in a lab and silk spun by spiders. During Milan fashion week, the glitziest party of the week was the Green Carpet awards hosted by Livia Firth to celebrate the Italian fashion supply chain. And Matches Fashion recently announced it will be partnering with Firth’s consultancy firm Eco-Age “with the aim of placing sustainable and ethical practices at the heart of what it does”.
The problem with a lot of so-called “ethical” fashion brands is that, ultimately, they are producing more stuff we could all happily live without, thank you very much. And many of the brands who put sustainability first often overlook the fact that a product must be desirable, too. You have to want to wear it.
But in 2004, with just €5,000 and equal amounts of idealism and naivety, Sébastien Kopp and his business partner François-Ghislain Morillion, both just 24 at the time, set out to reinvent one of the most everyday, functional items, the trainer. When they launched their brand, Veja (which means “look” in Portuguese), “The aim was to reinvent a sneaker from A to Z,” says Kopp on the phone from his office in Paris.
Veja trainers are designed in the classic mould of minimal footwear. Simple, with a white base and a squash shoe-style sole, they arguable pre-empted the white minimalist trainer explosion of the last few years.
Wired called the shoes “the coolest sustainable sneakers we’ve ever seen”. When H&M’s newest retail brand Arket opened its doors on London’s Regent Street in September, the appearance of Veja’s £95 trainers signified that this was a business with a slightly different remit – one where the labels hint at a more transparent supply chain, and the jumpers are made from recycled cashmere. Veja have become the holy grail – a sustainable fashion brand that doesn’t look like one.
And they hold their own alongside the Célines, Guccis and the Nikes at the high church of cool, Dover Street Market. As well as Selfridges and Matches Fashion, Veja has just secured its latest stockist, Net-a-Porter. This past few months they have been spotted on industry types from model Nadia Araujo to fashion editor and blogger Lucy Williams, the sort of style mavens who would have been wearing Adidas Stan Smiths in 2015.
It was a smart move for Veja to focus on one core product, and to capitalise on the fact that its understated trainer is made using a better supply chain and more sustainable materials than its competitors. There are some other sustainable brands following the model, including Swedish Stockings, which makes, yes you guessed it, “conscious” pantyhose; and underwear brand The Nude Label who make everyday bras and knickers in Valencia, Spain. The Australian brand A.BCH concentrates its efforts on making beautifully crafted sweatshirts using the most sustainable resources with as transparent a supply chain as possible. These are all everyday garments we all need and wear. What’s smart is how they are made.
Kopp and Morillion chose to manufacture in Brazil because there was a good supply of wild rubber, organic cotton and factories where 80 percent of workers are unionised and pay is above minimum wage. They approached the business as though the raw ingredients were bananas or fairtrade coffee beans, working directly with 320 cotton farmers using agro-ecology methods that combine rows of diverse crops ensuring minimal soil erosion. They pay their cotton farmers twice the market rate. The 60 families of Seringeiros (rubber tappers) they work with are paid a premium so they don’t have to supplement their incomes by clearing the forest to grow additional crops or rear cattle. While Veja uses veg-tanned leather (using acacia rather than chrome), it offers many vegan alternatives, too, including uppers made from recycled plastic bottles.
And it has a business model that turns traditional economics on its head. Its shoes cost five to seven times more to produce than shoes made the usual way in Asia. One reason many brands find it difficult to switch to a more sustainable process and sourcing is because it impacts on margins too much. But for Veja it’s not about being the biggest, the cheapest or the most profitable. It doesn’t engage in expensive advertising or marketing campaigns, relying instead on word of mouth, and celebrity fans such as Marion Cotillard and Emma Watson. Nevertheless, sales in the first few years doubled and in 2015, sales increased by 30%. “Everybody likes it,” says Kopp. “It’s possible to make a company with equilibrium where the boss or owners of the company are not paying themselves like crazy and everybody is well-paid, and the minimum salary is high and the maximum salary is low – and it’s cool; everybody can live a very happy life with that.”
In Paris, the brand has a store, Centro Commerciale, which sells other carefully selected clothing and shoe brands as well as homeware. It’s been so successful that next month they are opening a second on Rue Madame on the Left Bank. “In the beginning, everyone said, ‘No one is interested, no one gives a shit,’ and today [it’s so busy] you can’t get in on Saturdays.”
It’s as though Veja is operating in some kind of alternate utopian universe, but one that is increasingly relevant in a world where brands are being held to account by their customers who want all the style and none of the dirty secrets. “It’s true, Veja is more than a shoe brand,” says Kopp. “We don’t want to be another Nike. We want to show if two friends with no background in this industry can do it, everybody can do it. We want Veja to be an example and we want to say to the other brands, with all the money you have, with all the knowledge you have, with all the power you have, you can do much more.”
Other trainer brands to know
The British brand, launched from a flat in Islington in 2006, aims to halt the damage that modern footwear manufacturing often causes to people and planet. These shoes are made without toxic solvents and with natural materials such as cork, coconut fibre, latex, organic cotton, pure wool tweed and chrome-free leathers. And let’s not forget its unlikely collaboration with Star Wars (you can buy Rey’s actual boots).
A British start-up launched in 2016 making baseball-inspired shoes using organic cotton uppers and natural rubber. The shoes are made in China but factories and supply chains are closely monitored. Part of Good Luck Shoes, a collective that donates shoes to refugees.
Starting out as the makers of the first fairly manufactured football ball in 2004, Ethletic has developed into a trainer brand. The German shoemaker uses Forest Stewardship Council approved rubber from Sri Lanka and manufactures in Pakistan as a way of improving the lives and working conditions of its employees.
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