© Jonny Weeks

Fashion

Greta Thunberg could wear Veja trainers guilt free

Climate striking today? We all nod sagely in agreement, concerned about the environmental impact of fast fashion. Well, now you don't have to, as companies such as Veja trainers – a French brand that makes ethical footwear in Brazil using sustainable rubber – is fusing deep cool with an ethical conscience. Sophie Hellyer went to Veja's HQ in South America to report on how they do it

“My partner wanted me to make sustainable underwear, but I said, 'No way'," says Sébastien Kopp, cofounder of the ethical footwear brand Veja, as we sit on the fringe of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, reflecting on the devastating global impacts of fast fashion. "Underpants are like coffee," he explains. "When you buy fair-trade coffee you drink it at home and nobody else knows [about your values], but when you wear Veja shoes in the street it’s visible."

Much hyped Veja trainers completed and awaiting shipment

© Jonny Weeks

Over the past 14 years, Veja has grown into one of the most recognisable ethical fashion brands in the world – a proud symbol of resistance to fast fashion – and has been spotted on the feet of everyone from Eddie Redmayne to Meghan Markle. Veja prioritises sustainability and fairness above profits, eschewing cheap materials and production processes that contribute to the emission of greenhouse gasses, the poor treatment of animals, the abuse of workers' rights and, of course, the destruction of the rainforest. Today, just weeks after speaking to Kopp and with large swaths of the Amazon currently ablaze, that ethos has never seemed more relevant, nor more urgent.

Inside the Veja footwear factory seeing the brand come to life

© Jonny Weeks

When Kopp and I first meet in the Brazilian state of Acre, he has arranged to visit a group of local seringueiros – people who extract wild rubber from the region's native trees. (The Brazilian Amazon is the only place on earth where rubber trees grow in a wild state.) He calls them the "guardians of the forest" in recognition of their critical work. Kopp explains that most modern shoe manufacturers make the soles of their shoes using purely synthetic rubber derived from petroleum, but Veja favours a composite mix made with wild rubber sourced by local seringueiros (a material Clarks and Converse also tried in the Seventies).

Sébastien Kopp, cofounder of the ethical footwear brand Veja

© Jonny Weeks

The seringueiros greet us warmly in their community shelter and are keen to discuss their booming business; they tell me they ordinarily start work at around 4am each morning, long before the scorching sun has risen to its peak, and they follow a beaten trail through the rainforest that takes around five hours to complete. Out on the rubber trail they show me how they score each tree with a special knife, causing fresh liquid rubber to trickle down the groove into a little black pot. The rubber trees are few and far between, but the seringueiros know their trails well; after all, they say the rainforest is like their mother.

Eriazdo Inåcio Braga, one of the seringueiros, tells me it is a family tradition for many here. “I descend from rubber tappers. My father is still a rubber tapper. Now I can tap rubber for a good price and make money. It’s good work for me,” Braga says softly, before heading off to tend to his trees barefoot. Without Veja's demand for wild rubber, the seringueiros would struggle to make a living from the rainforest. Instead, many would have little choice but to raise cattle for leather and beef (Brazil is the world's largest exporter of beef).

A local Veja worker, or seringueiro, tapping the native wild rubber trees in the Amazon

© Jonny Weeks

Such practices require large-scale deforestation to create enough land for pastures. A process called "slash and burn" is often used by those clearing land – this has been cited as a major cause of the devastating fires now seen in the Amazon. Bia Saldanha, a local activist who works alongside Veja, says sadly little has been done to curb it. Her joy at the localised success of the rubber-tapping trade has been undermined by her heartbreak at the fires, which have scourged more than 2.1 million square miles of forest.

"Burning season is an Amazonian insanity,” she says. “This problem is not new for us. It's the saddest time of the year – the time when my persistence and my optimism are put to the test. It gives me a horrible fear and deep hopelessness.” Kopp is clearly aware of the complicated social and political interests that govern this land and accepts that a humble French company such as Veja can only help so much. "We track our leather to make sure it doesn't come from the Amazon nor from an area that was deforested for cattle farming purposes," he says. "But we don’t want to say, ‘Veja is saving the Amazon,’ because the reality is much more complicated."

The tapped rubber is collected and sent to the Veja factory

© Jonny Weeks

Beyond the forest, Veja is exploring many other sustainable materials and practices. It uses organic cotton, recycled plastics and CWL (a vegan and bio-sourced alternative to leather and plastics) in some of its shoes. It also adheres to fair trade practices throughout its business, ensuring everyone earns a suitable living wage for their work. In practice this means the seringueiros are so well paid that in eight mornings on the rubber trail they can earn the equivalent to 30 days' minimum wage in the nearest city, while the factory workers in Porto Alegre can work safely for good money.

“Fair trade as we see it is not a hippy vision. It’s not a utopian vision," Kopp says. "Fair trade means a price that means the farmers can more than survive. They can live and invest.” Of course, Veja products cost more to produce, so how can the company compete with major brands such as Nike and Adidas to create competitively priced sneakers? The answer is both surprising and simple. “We don’t do any advertising,” Kopp explains. “We try to break this eternal cycle of communication and advertising, of giving money to movie stars, sports stars, whatever stars. We refused to do that since day one. It's our philosophy.” Instead, all of the revenue that would typically be spent on advertising is invested in the products and the people who make them. The hype around Veja is largely fuelled by word of mouth; there is undoubtedly a growing conscience among consumers about the origins and impacts of the clothes they wear.

Veja prides itself on putting workers' rights and conditions before profits

© Jonny Weeks

Following in Veja’s footsteps, a number of other exciting brands are now offering innovative and sustainable solutions to shoe design. New Zealand start-up Allbirds has created shoes that are crafted using natural materials such as tencel, a responsibly grown and sustainably harvested eucalyptus tree fibre, and sugarcane, a fully renewable resource that can be made into durable soles. Similarly, this year Reebok launched its first vegan, bio-based shoe made from corn and cotton, while Vivobarefoot released a shoe made from bloom, an algae-based alternative to synthetic and petrochemical EVA.

Like Veja, none of these footwear brands has yet found a way to recycle their products at the end of their life to ensure zero waste. However, Adidas has recently prototyped a 100 per cent recyclable shoe called the Futurecraft Loop, which can be ground up and reused, offering a promising glimpse of future technologies (frustratingly, it should be noted that the first-generation Loop shoe is currently made entirely from virgin plastic). After leaving the rainforest, and with his high-top Veja trainers still splattered in bright red mud, Kopp is in reflective mood. He talks about his longing for transparency in the fashion industry. "Other brands say, ‘We are the best,’ but I like brands that are humble, that say what is wrong with them," he explains. "By saying this imperfection you are saying the reality. And that’s what is important to us.”

Veja trainers being constructed and crafted by the local work force

© Jonny Weeks

Veja voluntarily declares many of its limitations on its website: the laces aren't made of organic cotton; Veja’s e-commerce website still relies on banking partners with branches in tax havens; the soles are not yet made of 100 per cent wild rubber. Oddly, Veja isn’t yet listed on the Transparency Index, which ranks fashion companies according to the amount of information they disclose, but it has been a certified B-Corp brand since 2018 – evidence of its "social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose".

Completed boxes of Veja footwear ready to be shipped worldwide

© Jonny Weeks

Veja's ultimate aim is to create the first post-petroleum running shoe. The new shoe, the Condor, which dropped this month, is made from 53% natural or recycled materials including wild Amazonian rubber, jute and banana oil, alongside conventional EVA plastic. Kopp, added: "We want to list the percentage of everything, of every ingredient, like we would do in a recipe. That way we can show exactly what’s inside – what's good and what's bad. We started working on it four years ago. We hired a guy who was working for Mizuno and he helped us to develop this shoe with his knowledge, his experience. We learnt a lot and now this project is going to influence all of the other shoes we have – their comfort, their flexibility, their resistance, their everything."

Veja's latest addition: the Condor running shoe

© Jonny Weeks

The perfect trainer brand? Not far off. But as a man who is continually confronting challenges, for Kopp there is always room to improve. After all, the first ever Veja shoe was, he says, a disaster that looked “like a potato”. Turning to the future, he confides that he's uncomfortable making too many shoes and fuelling consumerism; instead he feels Veja's goal should be to make better shoes. "Our aim is not to change reality," he adds. "We are just a drop of water in the ocean. But we want to do our work in the best way that we can.”

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