In October 2016, Highsnobiety traveled across Brazil and deep into the Amazon rainforest with the Parisian sneaker company, Veja, to meet the people who make its sneakers. From the factory workers Veja employs in the south, to the families in the far north-west who score the rubber trees in the rainforest for the sneaker’s soles, the experience was awe-inspiring.
Yet it was also one that was grounded in reality. Even though the rubber tappers lived in the remote north-western state of Acre, they fully knew their place in the world and the global economic supply chain. It was an understanding that stretched from their homes in the forest to Veja’s headquarters in Paris, some 6,000 miles away. Their work literally sustains the forest by helping assign a real value to the trees remaining up rather than being cut down so that cattle can graze.
This is the essence of sustainable fashion. As long-held assumptions about our collective global future continue to unravel while the effect on the planet of several decades worth of hyper-consumerism finally seem to be resonating with people, words like 'sustainable', 'ethical' and 'transparent' are appearing more and more in the fashion world. From small-scale LA thrift stores to one of the world’s largest and most powerful clothing brands, everyone seems to be getting on board the sustainable business agenda bandwagon. After all, the fashion industry is a useful one to judge the state of the world as well as our own response to it. This is because of the high amounts of various natural resources the fashion industry uses, the several stages of production it takes to produce a garment, as well as all the differing types of labor the industry needs to carry this all off (capitalism only really kicked off with the industrial revolution of Victorian Manchester cotton mills, after all).
Yet Veja knows this and, as a brand, it has quietly operated a sustainable business model for the better part of a decade. In fact, it was the very reason why the company started in the first place. Yet it hardly ever talks about it. Why?
"In the concept stores, we don’t write on the walls 'ecological cotton'," explains Veja co-founder Sebastien Kopp while we’re sat in an air conditioned room in Rio Branco, the capital of Acre state where the wild rubber used in Veja’s sneakers is harvested. The temperature outside is well over 100°F.
A few thousand miles away, in the country’s more arid north east, lie the fields of organic cotton that Veja purchases at a fair market prices from farming collectives. Underpinning Veja’s total embracing of sustainable, fairer business methods, these collectives grow varieties of organic cotton and other harvests so that their land stays healthy. They also avoid the chemicals and pesticides that, when used intensively and with one type of harvest on the land, eventually destroy the soil making it unusable.
"If I was a consumer and was confronted with all that [information], I’d be bored within one week," continues Kopp. "If you put out a product from an aesthetic point of view and you care about it with the same weight as you care about the economic chain that created that product, then you don’t have to talk too much about the economic part. Especially when it's to people who probably don’t care. And the thing is, I don’t care that they don’t care."
Kopp’s line of argument may seem cynical, but it feels like it's one rooted in cold hard economics and a life at the front line of the sustainable business movement. Distrustful of advertising and marketing, he finds the way in which bigger brands communicate their ethical credentials as "cheesy" and "probably not true".
His beginnings probably have something to do with this. Starting his career with Morgan Stanley in Washington DC around 2000, this was also when sustainability was beginning to enter wider public thinking. He then moved on to analyzing large international companies' sustainable business projects alongside his friend and fellow (former) bank employee, François Morillion. Growing disheartened at the lack of real progress they saw in these projects, coupled with an inspiring meet-up with fair trade pioneer Tristan Lecomte (founder of the Alter Eco fair trade food company), the two then set up Veja in 2004 and 2005. Not exactly the background of a pair of hardcore eco-warriors...
"We call Veja the Horse of Troy because I honestly believe that 80 to 85 percent of people who buy Veja don’t know about the project," adds Kopp. I ask him if this bothers him but for Kopp, if the trade off is between getting Veja’s message out through modern marketing techniques or remaining quiet and letting the sneakers speak for themselves, he’d rather let his kicks do the talking: "Who are the people making the shoes that we all wear? Who are the people shipping and distributing them? Most people don’t know. We live in a world that is disconnected, the reality is that we don’t have a grasp on reality: the industry, the agriculture, the real world, it all disappears. I believe more in collective intelligence than pushing an agenda which only results in twisting the true story of what we’re doing as a project."
The word 'veja' is Portuguese for 'look'. Unfortunately the word was already taken and used by a conservative business magazine when Kopp cofounded his shoe label. In Brazil, Veja is therefore known as Vert, French for 'green'. Despite having a long tradition of shoe manufacturing (from 1980 to 2000, Brazil’s shoe manufacturing heartland in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul produced around 140 million pairs of shoes a year, with 60-70 percent destined for the US market), the demand for ethically made, ecologically sustainable products in Brazil is still very low. This is due to the high costs these products usually have.
Nevertheless, in Rio Grande do Sul, Veja contracts a team of between 150 to 200 unionized workers who can finish anywhere between 1500 to 2000 pairs of sneakers a day. They are paid R$1200 (BRL, around $380 USD) per month, which is 20 percent above the legal minimum wage for the state. While Veja’s sneakers are designed at their studio in Paris, this one factory creates all of the brand's sneakers from beginning to end. It also treats and transforms the wild rubber that arrives from Acre.
Two and a half thousand miles, one six-hour drive and a 60-minute boat ride up-river from Acre's capital, a team of men and their families live in the Amazon forest and tap wild rubber from the trees that surround their home. Known as rubber tappers, the communities of people here are descendants of the 'rubber soldiers' of WWII and the people before them. Most were shipped into the forest from the poorer north east regions to tap and farm the rubber. In WWII, these 'rubber soldiers' were actually part of a wider agreement between Brazil and the United States after Japan occupied Malaysia and cut off the Allies' main supply of rubber. After the war, they were denied the rights and benefits that were promised to them by the government. It wasn't until the 1980s, and with a man named Chico Mendes, that the rubber tappers' voices began to be heard – sparking the modern environmental movement in the process.
Now, Veja works closely with partners such as the state of Acre as well as actors like the WWF in successful projects like the Sky Rainforest Rescue scheme. These programs have each empowered the rubber tapper communities to create meaningful, productive industries. It has also helped connect their trade to other businesses in the northern hemisphere and around the world, creating profitable relationships on either side of the supply chain that actively help protect and sustain the rainforest. And, in the case of Veja, it's also produced some pretty sharp sneakers as well.
Veja's SS17 collection is available soon, including the stunning brand new Holiday runner made from sustainable silk and velvet. See Veja's full current collection here. There's also more info on the rubber tappers and WWF's work in the rainforest here.