Before the recent wave of sustainability talk in footwear, Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion were already seeing the detriments that globalization was having on the everyday factory workers that were making the bulk of the products we were seeing on the market. Both founded VEJA, a company considered by many that make the most environmentally-friendly shoe in the world. The pair, childhood friends worked in finance together and worked under Tristan Lecomte of AlterEco before stepping out into the footwear business. The sneakers, which can be found on Net a Porter and Saks Fifth Avenue, have revolutionized the sneaker industry from the sole up.
It was at the age of 25 that Kopp and Morillion became hungry and eager to change the world the brand decided to hone in on sneakers as they felt the product represented their generation. Sneaker culture has become a dominant force in fashion and pop culture but the footwear industry has a dark impact on the environment and the people who work in the factories. When they realized 70% of the cost of a sneaker went towards its advertising against the 30% of the production cost, the two decided to put more of their money and effort into the production.
Renouncing traditional advertising, Kopp and Morillion went to Brazil to find the raw materials and ink the fair trade partnerships that are the backbone of their business. The company is not afraid to recognize their own forthcoming, they have no problem posting their limitations on their website. Their laces, for example, are not made from organic cotton due to the volume required and the eyelets contain nickel but the metal was not one that they sourced. VEJA in Portuguese means “look," and as we found out, there is a lot beneath the surface of this sneaker brand.
L'OFFICIEL USA: How did you and François-Ghislain Morillion come to work together and start the VEJA brand?
SEBASTIEN KOPP: Ghislain and I met when we were 14 years old. We graduated in economics, and we started to work in New York and DC straight after our degrees. After a few months working in banks, we decided that was not the life we wanted. We created an NGO and traveled all around the world. We traveled together for one year, going onfield to study 70 projects. We went to China, Brazil, India, Bolivia, Vietnam, Australia .., analyzing projects and improving them to reduce pollution, respect environment, improve the social conditions of the local population. We saw on field that actions did not follow speeches, that the companies who sent us were not ready to act. Then, at the age of 25, we decided to create a company that would be based on action, not speeches. VEJA was born.
L'O: How do you decide where to source the materials for the sneakers from?
SK: We chose Brazil because it’s the only country where we can find all the raw materials we needed to produce our trainers the way we want. Moreover, we both fell in love with the country and its people. We went onto the field to meet the producers and farmers and built a strong relationship with them. Our three main materials are wild rubber, agro-ecological cotton, and B-mesh. Rubber is used in the sole of every sneaker. We buy rubber in the Amazon forest, directly from rubber tapper communities, paying a fair price. The Amazon is the only place on Earth where rubber trees grow in the wild. In the Brazilian state of Acre, the seringueiros, rubber tappers, harvest the rubber used in VEJA soles. It helps to fight against deforestation as the Seringueiros prefers to work for us than to cut the trees to raise cattle. Since the beginning of VEJA, 200 tons of wild rubber were purchased, meaning around 300,000 acres of Amazon forest preserved. Our cotton, used on our canvas and linings, is more than organic, it’s agro-ecological, which means that it helps the field to be more productive using principles of plants helping each other’s, without any chemical use and reducing the amount of water. We also developed the B-Mesh (Bottle-Mesh) which is the first material 100% made out of recycled plastic bottles. It is waterproof and breathable.
The sneakers are produced in a factory in the south of Brazil where working conditions are good. Employees are not working more than 40 hours a week, 80% of them are unionized, and there is nobody under 16 in the factory.
L'O: How is the eco-friendly approach you employ with your products reflected in the rest of your business?
SK: A few years ago, we realized that we had a sneaker that was different, more ecological, more socially balanced than the other brands but questioned ourselves about our office, our team, and other suppliers. We realized in 2007 that you could do the best ecological project, and still be the worst kind of company. So we changed. For example, we changed part of our bank partnerships, to start working with banks that don’t use tax havens. Another example, we also started working on gender equality and wages. Then, we changed our electricity supplier back in 2009. We started with Enercoop, who provides clean electricity today to our 2 main offices in Paris and our 3 stores in Paris.
More than giving speeches about how society should behave, we start with ourselves. We experiment with our ideas in our company.
L'O: Why do you think it’s important for brands to practice environmentally conscious production?
SK: We prefer to have a positive eye on the world. At one point, we were too critical. We prefer to look at what we do, and how to improve ourselves more than talking about the other brands. It’s important for us to make sneakers this way.
L'O: Where did the decision against advertising VEJA products come from? How do you get the word out about the brand?
SK: A sneaker is one of the most interesting product on an economic level because it concentrates the most advertising spending. Actually, fiction has taken over reality. When you buy a pair of sneakers from a big brand, 70 % of its costs goes to advertising and communication and only 30% goes to raw materials and production. The goal of VEJA is to invest our resources on the organic raw materials, production, employees’ and farmers’ salaries by cutting the advertising and communication budget. Our sneakers cost between 5 and 7 time the price of our competitors but as we don’t do advertising, they land to the same price as the big brands in the stores.
We believe in the power of word-of-mouth and of collective intelligence, that is how the word is spread today. A lot of celebrities are wearing VEJA, but they are buying their sneakers themselves.
L'O: How would you describe the design of VEJA sneakers?
SK: VEJA is about simplifying, designing sneakers that we can wear every day. We love minimalism and are inspired by the worker outfit, military shoes, trail shoes…
L'O: Who do you make shoes for?
SK: Our 1st customer is always us, we never do benchmarks or studies, we always create what we like to wear. Our clients are mainly living in big cities such as Los Angeles, NYC, London, Hong Kong or Paris. They are between 13 and 30 years old, both men and women. Most of our customers are not interested in VEJA for its ecological and ethical project but because they like the style of our sneakers.
L'O: What impact do you hope your products have on the footwear industry?
SK: We believe in the impact of transparency and innovation because it creates value and difference. When big brands will make sneakers like VEJA, I think VEJA will not be needed at all. But it’s just the beginning of a big change
L'O: How do you hope VEJA evolves as a brand?
SK: We are not looking for growth, to create a tree which is growing and growing really fast and high. We prefer creating deep roots. Since 2005, VEJA is growing organically, step by step, without investors. As we source and control every raw material and process of our production chain, it takes time, but we are sure that’s the best way to create a positive impact. Nowadays, VEJA is more than 110 talented people, in Paris and Brazil. We’ve bought more than 265 tons of agroecological cotton and we’ve sold millions and millions of pairs. Nowadays, USA is the first market, followed by the UK, China & France. We never talk about things that aren’t actually out on the market, but a big wave is coming in 2019: new models, new places, collaborations. We are writing the 2nd chapter of VEJA.