In a sustainable future, light from the sun powers all things, used water is filtered, then returned to our aquifers, food production is localized, toxic chemicals are eliminated, everything is recycled, traded fairly, and fully used. It's a dream for some, and a project for others, but for now, truly fair trade products are hard to find.
Making a much-needed break from the world of excess that is most modern design, French company Veja are putting fair trade on your feet. Started by two 25-year-olds back in 2004, they've become something of a sustainably-minded phenomenon, the European version of a phenomenon like TOM's (but with quite a bit more style). Each pair is made in Brazil on ultra-performance Toyota machines, using a new technology called B-Mesh (a.k.a., bottle mesh), which uses three (!) plastic bottles per pair of shoes, as well as a host of other materials, including fish-farmed tilapia skin, recycled rubber, and fair trade canvas. I was sent a pair of Veja sneakers in the Esplar style, which takes its name from the Brazilian NGO, Escritório de Planejamento e Assessoria Rural (The Rural Plann ing and Development Association), and unlike many sustainably-minded products I've purchased in the past, Veja's empasis is on function, just as much as form—because you can't truly call your products sustainable unless they were meant to be used.
Interested in learning more, The Creators Project spoke to the founders of VEJA about designing for sustainability, fair-trade tech, and advice for young, environmentally-minded creators:
The Creators Project: First off, how did VEJA get started?
Veja: Veja started as an adventure with two guys—both of us 25 years old at the time—who wanted to draw our own paths, and give more sense to our lives.
We traveled during one year in South Africa, India, China, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia, studying projects linked to ecology and fair-trade. We worked for big companies and were disappointed by what we saw in the field.
We came up with an idea: to create a different sneaker from scratch. So we went to Brazil in 2005, to meet cooperatives of organic cotton farmers, travel in the Amazonian Forest and see how we could work with them to create a new kind of sneaker.
It is a product we love and it is part of our culture. Sneakers expanded beyond the sports fields with our generation, and became a universal product in the 90’s.
It is a product full of symbolism. To create a more ecological and accessible brand was important. The sneaker world is somewhat a metaphor for capitalism.
Moreover, we knew there was a lot of advertising and marketing in the sneaker game. If we removed advertising and marketing, we could create a sneaker that was much more expensive to produce with ecological materials, but sell it for a competitive price.
Can you talk about a few of the specific materials you use, how you found them, and why you use them?
Veja is a mix of ecological and innovative materials. We use organic cotton for the canvas, which is faitly traded. We use wild rubber from Amazonia for all our soles, that we source ourselves through producers living in the Amazonian rainforest. We use a new mesh, 100% made out of recycled plastic bottles. And we are adding new materials to the collection every season, like fish skin leather—usually a waste—that we upcyle to turn into a luxury product.
Far too few people consider the production behind their wardrobes. How do you plan on changing awareness, and why do you think it's necessary?
We don’t want to convince people. We just want to set an example that says: “It is possible.” We draw our path, without criticizing anybody.
We just want to say that a more fair economic system is possible.
Have people been resistant to your ideas?
Of course! And it is motivating! At the beginning, everybody was saying it was impossible, that we were some kind of neo-utopians.
We are not utopians, we are impassioned by what is real and by how the economy works. We are sure that it is interesting to trace the products from scratch, to open the doors of agriculture and industry. To put the spotlight on what is being done and not what is being said.
10 years later, Veja is booming in Europe, Japan and starting in the US. We work with the best stores around the world like Colette in Paris or Kith in NYC. We have strong roots and are completely independent.
When you need a certain material for your shoes, how do you go about sourcing it? I think our readers would love to know what your process is like for R+D.
Our R&D is key in the project. We start on designing the shoes we love, and then seek the best materials so they can be made ecologically. It is a bit of a reverse process compared to what you see with giant companies.
Any advice for young designers looking to get into the world of sustainable & fair trade manufacturing? Where should they start?
They should start by what they love the most. I think everybody is gifted. The only condition is to find your path, and your path is what you love.
If you love what you do, you will be very good. And if you follow the systems that already exist, you will be confined. Do not hesitate to follow your instinct more than your rationality. I've found it's a way to be happy.
Visit VEJA's website to order a pair now.