They don't advertise, they don't use sweatshops and they don't trade on their morals. Meet Veja: the ethically and ecologically grounded sneaker makers that are leading by example.
The pressures of overheads, the stiff competition of the market and the shifting desires of your customer base are a demanding set of challenges for any business. But in the sneaker game, the pressure cooker's arguably hotter, and the competition fiercer. But one brand is managing to usurp the established rules of play, and is doing it without trading on its ethical conscience or its ecological credentials. Oh, and it's turning a profit too.
That company is Veja who have adhered to fashion's golden rule of relevancy, yet whose businesses model, perhaps by its very existence and the fact that it's succeeding, has actually begun to question the founding principles of how a fashion business can work. Their latest release, a new Marble version of their low cut Esplar silhouette, combined with the launch of their leather-plastic hybrid B-Mesh material (made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottle fibers) is perhaps further proof that it is both succeeding as well as continuing to innovate.
"Influencing the debate is not our primary goal. We simply want to set an example," says Sébastien Kopp and François Morillion, the two French founders and childhood friends who began Veja just over 10 years ago. "We met at school when we were 14 years old, and became best friends during high school and university," explains Kopp. "Today, we are like brothers."
The word 'veja' is a literal translation of the Portuguese-Brazilian for 'look' – "It means: 'look beyond the sneakers, look how they are made'," explains Morillion. "It means it is possible to turn the world inside out, to start something where everybody earns a decent income, from the organic cotton producers to the stores that distribute the shoes."
Veja's model is founded on an ethical footing at every stage of the business: from sourcing and the production cycle, right through to packaging, distribution and even the energy the company's French headquarters use (ENERCOOP (a cooperative of green electricity), rather than EDF, the French national nuclear supplier). In the Amazon Rainforest, they work with a collective of rubber tappers (Seringeiros, currently numbering around 60 families) for the wild rubber latex used in their soles. Pesticide-, GMO- and fertilizer-free organic cotton is harvested from the north-eastern state of Ceará before being bought at a fair price from the ADEC collective – a group of cotton growers in Tauá, north-east Brazil – which is then spun into canvas for the sneakers. The final products are then assembled near Porto Alegre in factories where working conditions and wages are higher and fairer than the industry standard for the country. Even their European warehouse and logistics network works with Ateliers Sans Frontières, an organisation that aims to rehabilitate ex-offenders, drug-users and others who've struggled in life through employment. ("They're better than FEDEX or UPS!" enthuses Kopp.)
On Veja's website, their approach is labelled as a 'project', but it is more like a well-oiled machine. "We started Veja in 2004 in a crazy industry we knew nothing about, but we stepped in with humility," says Kopp, before Morillion takes over: "People are often amazed by what we’ve managed to create," he says, "but we don’t do a lot, we just connect the dots between amazing projects to create a great sneaker."
The project began following the pair's travels around the world. They spent two years in South America, Africa and Asia working on or observing a variety of social, ecological and economic projects and processes: solar panel ventures and black empowerment programs in South Africa, supply chain production in China, as well as orphanages and social projects in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. "Finally we realized that globalization was already a fact. It was everywhere," explains Morillion. "We also saw a lot of things that the Western public don’t see and, frankly, don't want to see." Kopp adds: "We saw the dark side of globalization."
This has informed their approach even further. Veja refuse to build up stock so they only produce on orders dated for the next six months, ensuring stock doesn't accumulate and materials aren't wasted. They also refuse to use advertizing, but this has actually won them plaudits as well as high-profile ambassadors in the process, such as French actors Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as celebrities like David Beckham. With advertising now the biggest expense for all the big players in the sneaker game, "we decided to eliminate advertising in order to bring a shoe to market that, at the end of the day, would cost the same price for the customer," explains Kopp, referencing how expensive their sneakers are to produce.
"Word-of-mouth is the most powerful form of advertising," he adds. "And despite everything that people told us, it worked!"
This last point could be applied to most aspects of what Veja are doing. "We prefer to develop strong roots rather than to grow quickly and become a tall but very fragile tree," says Morillion, before adding, after a short pause: "There are a lot of projects and companies following this path actually: Patagonia, Bleu de Paname, A Kind Of Guise, Knowledge Cotton Apparel... And more. There's lots of new players in the sneaker game now that are following us. Even the big ones are doing more and more," he smiles, "even if they still have a lot of work and catching up to do."
Veja also have a physical presence in Paris through the Centre Commercial store. Meanwhile, their latest release, a low-cut Marble Esplar sneaker, was launched with Colette, Paris, and forms part of their latest collection. It's been labelled a women's shoe by Colette, however for Veja, "a cool kick could be worn by a man or a woman." In comments that tap into the current post-gender movement, Veja argue that "style is ultimately important to us, and style for us is not a question of gender. Style is universal."
What's their greatest achievement so far? Both Morillion and Kopp agree that the ability to continue working with the same small, independent Brazilian producers from when they first started back in 2004 is a major accomplishment. "There were a few guys at the beginning but the success of the project motivated even more farmers to join the organic farming team," enthuses Morillion.
Kopp adds: "For us, to work and to plan for the long term with the same partners as when we started is proof of our strength. Also, seeing hundreds of people write to us every day saying “thank you" and saying that it's cool that we exist is also pretty nice to read."
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