Kautschuk - photo Camilla Coutinho

Rubber – a comeback in shoes

If Sébastien Kopp has his way, a shoe’s sustainability will not begin and end merely with its biodegradability. According to the co-founder of French sneaker label “Veja”, the entire production chain should be put on the “green test bench”. We spoke to him at “FashionSustain” in Berlin in July.

Sébastien, in 2005, together with François-Ghislain Morillion, you founded the sustainable sneaker label Veja, which roughly translated means “Look at that”. Why did you start the company?

In my first life I was a banker. I only knew the shoe business from the outside. But it always troubled me that whereas the advertisements for shoes are very good to look at, they don’t actually have anything to do with the reality of making shoes. Regrettably, the reality is that the environment is often not respected, that the conditions in many shoe factories in Bangladesh or Vietnam are abominable. All the pretty marketing stories just conceal this sad state of affairs. François and I wanted to do things differently, so that’s why we set up Veja.

oMitgründer des nachhaltigen Sneaker-Labels Veja: Sébastien Kopp / Daniel Gebhardt Photography

Co-founder of sustainable sneaker label Veja: Sébastien Kopp / Daniel Gebhardt Photography

Your stated mission is to become the most sustainable and the fairest sneaker label in the world. Were you mocked for that?

Oh yes, and how! “Sustainable from end to end? You’ll never do it“, we got that from everyone. And we had nothing – except the vision of a truly sustainable production chain with no frills, substantial parts of which would have to be hidden from the public. At the beginning, I traveled for a year to see for myself the conditions that prevail in the shoe manufacturing industry, from how the materials are prepared, to their production and even to marketing and distribution. I traveled around Europe, Asia and South America. I was particularly interested in the cotton production in Brazil.

According to the figures, one kilo of cotton needs 17,000 liters of water before it is harvested – a lot more than 100 bathtubs.

Unbelievable isn’t it? And in addition, it needs enormous quantities of pesticides. Although in some parts of Brazil cotton is also grown according to agro-ecological principles, that is to say without chemicals and less water. In this approach, local knowledge of sun, water, soils and the plants is combined with modern science to solve complex problems using the resources that are available locally. In the Amazon basin, I met the “seringueiros” – the rubber tappers who collect rubber from the rubber trees. The Amazon is the only place in the world where these trees grow wild. And I asked myself if that wouldn’t be the perfect sustainable material for our shoe soles?

And is it?

The first prototypes were disastrous: As soon as you tried to walk in them, the shoes stuck to the floor like chewing gum; not the most appealing feature for a sneaker. But we “stuck” to it and we got the rubber to work. Now we have obtained 180 tons of it, about the weight of a blue whale, from Brazil.

What do the seringueiros get from the deal?

We really do buy at fair prices. The working conditions are also fair: The tappers are free to schedule their daily tasks and they sleep in houses, not outdoors. In this way, we are also slowing the advance of rainforest deforestation, because a seringueiro earns more with us than if he cuts down trees so multinational corporations can raise livestock on the clearcut. So far, we have already helped to preserve about 750 square kilometers of Amazon jungle – an area roughly the size of the island nation of Bahrain.

You have now sold over 3 million sneakers. Are your products eco-certified?

90 percent of our production chain is “FLOCert” certified. But to be honest, that isn’t really our main concern. Most certification programs just look at the end product, not the production chain. We think this is not enough. There is no eco-certification as such, but instead there are thousands of possible ways to operate fairly and sustainably. A certification can only be the first step; there are 99 more. You have to be at the site where the raw materials are cultivated for the products, where they are processed. For me, getting to know the producers and farmers personally is more important than an eco-certification.

So what is next for you on your “eco-to-do list”?

Besides the rubber and agro-ecological cotton, we are also working with our “bottle-mesh” process. This is where we reuse recycled plastic bottles. On average, we put three of these bottles into each pair of Vejas. We are always looking for new sustainable, fair materials. There’s much discussion about leather substitute, for example: From both the animal protection and environmental points of view, the leather situation is truly catastrophic. We’ve been working on this for five years, but all of our attempts to develop a passable substitute were unsuccessful – until recently. I can’t say too much now, but: We’ve got something at last. We’ll tell you more in early 2019, if not before.


Header image source: Camilla Coutinho

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