As a division of the fashion industry, the footwear sector has a hefty environmental footprint. However, a slew of emerging brands are gearing up to change footwear’s future, raising the bar for the rest of the industry by embracing sustainable sourcing, ethical labor practices and transparency.
Currently, less than one percent of all shoes are manufactured in the United States and even fewer are made responsibly. Though a newcomer on the footwear scene, Georgia-based Third Oak is already positioning itself as a leader in sustainable and ethical production. The company is a new division of Okabashi, a family-owned footwear company that has been manufacturing in Buford, Georgia for over 30 years.
The brand’s first pair of steppers, a sleek and versatile thong sandal called the “Scout,” is made from an innovative bio-based material derived from soy. In addition to being vegan, the material is No. 3 recyclable, enabling Third Oak to operate a closed-loop recycling process.
Third Oak founder and CEO, Sara Irvani was inspired to launch the brand in an effort to set a new precedent for the footwear industry — one that is less wasteful and more ethical. “As a third-generation shoe maker and millennial CEO, I was shocked to discover the hidden wasteful side of the footwear industry. I saw the need to develop Third Oak as an attractive, affordable and conscious brand that is responsibly Made in the USA to empower our generation,” Irvani said.
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The debut collection comes in 20 colors and retail for $30 on ExploreThirdOak.com. A second women’s sandal will be added within in the next month and a men’s sandal is expected to make its debut in June.
Meanwhile, French footwear brand VEJA is ramping up its transparency efforts with a major website redesign.
Despite a lack of advertising, VEJA has secured a top spot on many a millennial’s must-have list, and has long been a proponent of sustainable sourcing and ethical production practices. The company uses a mix of upcycled, organic and Fairtrade materials to make its signature sneakers, including recycled plastic bottles, recycled flannel, Tilapia hides from freshwater fish farms and a leather-like fabric derived from curdled milk. It also takes a unique approach to manufacturing, by employing workers through Atelier Sans Frontières, a social reintegration association that helps people find work.
On its new website, VEJA allows consumers to take an in-depth look into its supply chain, from the harvesting of organic cotton in Brazil and Peru straight to the warehousing and dispatching of its products in Paris.
The level of transparency is unprecedented. In addition to facts, figures, maps and photos of the farms and factories in its supply chain, the company also discusses issues such as overconsumption, governance, tax havens and its decision to eliminate ads.
“It costs 5 to 7 times more to make a VEJA, because the raw materials are environmentally friendly and purchased according to fair trade principles, because the sneakers are produced in factories with high social standards,” the company explains on its site. “Since we've eliminated advertising, the sneaker is sold in stores for the same price as competing big brands.”
“The heart of the VEJA model: reinject the amounts normally allocated to advertising into the phase that comes before the assembly line. Raw material producers are thus more justly compensated, social and environmental impacts are constantly optimized, and sneakers are manufactured in conditions where everyone gets the respect they deserve.”
Veja is a living example of how ethics, environmental stewardship and economic success can perfectly align. However, it requires a significant shift in thinking — one that puts purpose-beyond-profit front row center.