When piecing together a sustainable wardrobe, it's easiest to start from the top, because finding hip green footwear takes work. There are some companies, including Terra Plana, whose Worn Again took recycled rags and rubber to the next level with a knock-out shoe; Nike Considered, which hits "eco-chic" spot-on; Keep Company, who we might call "eco-preppy"(?); and assorted others who have kept the bar high on style. And from the practice angle, Timberland has created a "nutritional label" which is a good for putting footprint monitoring in the consumer's court. But all these things known, footwear is still -- particularly in its manufacturing -- a fairly exploitative process most places, in terms of both the environment and labor practices. We keep our eyes out for the ambitious and resourceful shoemakers who go against the grain and find ways to innovate and create equally desireable products.
A new company out of France just launched a good-looking, fair trade shoe with primarily earth-friendly materials. They're called Veja and the question their mission aims to answers sounds a lot like ours: "Un autre monde est-il possible?" (Is another world possible?) Pretty sure they agree with us on the answer. Another world is possible, and the strategies for getting there are limitless. Veja is trying to get there with a slick pair of sneakers. They're doing a button-cute baby shoe, as well.
They use organic cotton, produced in northeastern Brazil with a high value placed on crop diversity in agricultural practices. They also use "natural" rubber in the soles of all the shoes, which comes from Brazilian forests in an area where workers have a strong commitment to preventing deforestation through the production of useful crops which do not require trees to be cut down. (This brings up a broader point about which we'd welcome reader input: Rubber tapping has long been associated with forest conservation and environmentalism. What are the longterm prospects for rubber as a sustainable industry? Is it in fact saving forests from demolition?) Veja states that 10 rubber trees must be tapped to create the material for one pair of shoes, which strikes me as a less-than-promising ratio. By contrast, Terra Plana uses recycled rubber from tires, which to my mind is a more resourceful means of procuring materials, going towards byproducts of another industry rather than the virgin goods of a forest, however well-managed.
To illustrate their social responsibility and the value they place on treating workers well, Veja's site provides photographically illustrated profiles of some of their employees in Brazil, following their work and their personal stories. Building upon that broader social mission, Veja has made a commitment beyond simply providing fair wages (which they do) to addressing problems of education and illiteracy in the remote regions of the Amazon where their rubber trees grow. They employ a traveling teacher who can teach reading to the children of forest families, a social project which they are able to carry out due to maintaining a fair and equitable premium for their rubber.
I'm not entirely clear about the company's leather choice. They're not using chrome for tanning, but it's not entirely clear to me whether they are utilizing a vegan "leather" or an actual animal product.
What's perhaps nicest about Veja is that they're offering a vision of big picture sustainability around a single consumer product. It may not be flawless, and there's always room for improvement, but they provide a clear window into labor and agricultural practices, worker rights (with a very human emphasis), and material and design choices, all wrapped up in the form of a beautifully-designed, navigable site. Oh, and the shoes look cool, too.
Certainly, anytime we can help make it more profitable to keep a tree alive (utilizing its natural free work) we are doing the world a service. The problem is scale. A given natural rubber supply can be used to shoe a certain sized market, after which pressure may be exerted to replace other native species with the now-commodified rubber tree. Certainly, the world's 6 Billion cannot be "shoed" in this way.
There is also the transport loss problem to consider. Ideally, the rubber would be used locally- solving both problems of limited supply and proximate efficiencies. But we transact in a global market, and the prices available through fair-trade goods allow these sustainable processes to get off the ground- seed capital (no pun intended). As such, I applaud and actively support the fair-trade movement- even though its thousand mile footprints give me the willies.
These willies always emanate from the problem of the global market. I wonder what you have to say about all this- specifically concerning natural products and local resources and why it is/isn't OK to ship 'em all over the place. Further, I wonder what you think about oil and the possibilities of encapsulating its carbon into consumer products and building materials as a direct form of carbon sequestration- ie. turning oil into houses, furniture, clothing, and even compost. (Can we turn the deserts back into pastures?) Has anyone talked about this stuff?
Digressions aside, this ties into the question of rubber tree vs. recycled tire rubber. Perhaps it is better to leave the tires alone, back to the earth (or make Earthship houses from them) rather than using oil to melt it down and mold it into a sandal.... Wouldn't it be better to use "virgin" oil directly, permanently removing the carbon from the global fuel market instead? Has anyone come up with a non-toxic process for said conversion? Is anyone thinking like this?
What about Simple Shoes "GreenToe" line? They are making shoes from 100% natural materials, including cork and jute and water-based glues.
Just posted the latest sustainable indoor shoe design The Chilote|homie shoe for web 2.0 green beings. Natural wool and repurpused salmon skin cured into salmon leather... check it out at www.sustainableday.com
I was fortunate enough to visit Brazil this past year and actually had the opportunity to discuss the small-scale rubber tapping industry and observe just how exactly the process is carried out with individuals in this line of work. Like a previous comment mentioned, it is an issue of scale, but also an issue of the intensity of resource extraction. Rubber trees can be tapped more than once, but there is a point at which the tree stops making the natural latexes which can be extracted for conversion to rubber. Coupled with the fact that rubber trees (facing fierce competition with literally hundreds of other tree species due to the incredible biodiversity of the region) are fewer and farther between than is convenient for intensive latex extraction, the reality is for the mass production of rubber shoe soles you would need a massive rubber tree plantation with continual growth as old trees stopped producing- not exactly the extractive reserve that's going to save the rainforest and the local economy. But it is nice on a small scale, isn't it?