In many parts of the world, footwear for everything from domestic work to mountain climbing to construction tends to be a very basic, flat shoe with a canvas upper and a slightly more durable sole. Sherpas wear Keds to hike the Himalayas, Japanese construction workers wear Tabi boots to repair roads in Tokyo. Recently I heard about two young businesses that take traditional footwear and put two fresh spins on them: modern style and social responsibility. Both seem to be catching a quick wave of success with fashionistas and trendy retailers that favor the currency of environmentalism and social consciousness.
SoleRebels, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, makes footwear modeled on the traditional Ethiopian "selate shoe" -- a simple cloth shoe with a recycled rubber tire sole. The business was founded with several key goals in mind: sell high quality, artisan-crafted footwear; create job opportunities for marginalized Ethiopians in Addis Ababa; and use business and trade -- not foreign aid -- to leverage positive change in that region.
Founder Kiru Alemu sent me a very lengthy tale of the early establishment and growth of his company and the way in which running an ecologically- and socially-responsible business seems to make much more obvious and immediate sense to entrepreneurs in Ethiopia than it does in wealthier places, where resources are taken for granted and most people don't yet view conservation as a profitable practice.
Here in Ethiopia recycling things is a way of life; in fact we’ve been recycling for years without ever calling it recycling. When you have limited resources everything is valued and valuable, everything has a purpose even if not the original purpose it was intended for - and if not, one can be found for it. So for us here it's equal parts ingenuity + resourcefulness that equals true recycling.
SoleRebels employs many ex-soldiers, whose disabilities and post-war recovery make them "unemployable" in most workplaces. They also offer paid training and education on the job site, which includes special assistance to achieve a diploma in computer-related fields, accounting, design, and other areas.
SoleRebel uses organic cotton grown, spun and loomed in Ethiopia, soy-based dyes, reused burlap purchased from local resellers in need of support. Kiru eschews the concept of "fair wage labor" as outdated, and aims to improve upon the idea with a more locally appropriate approach to raising standards of living.
Our operational philosophy includes the principle plus provision -- of an honorable and proud wage for artisans -- a wage that honors their skill, dedication and outputs. The “Fair Wage” concept to me is outdated as it relies on only paying a fair wage in the local context, which in far too many places around this world means paying next to nothing. I am proud that our artisans earn an honorable and proud wage for their works -- the highest paid to artisans here in Ethiopia.
We also have a dormitory, with hot showers (we’re fully powered by solar energy – hey this IS the country that gave the world 13 months of sunshine after all!) We have a full kitchen with cook for anyone who needs it - no questions asked. Every month we provide free doctor-run medical checks *on site* for everyone and their families. In a country with one of the lowest doctor:patient ratios on the planet and where access to medical care is so often restricted by income, this is a service that is highly prized by all.
With all of these things going on, the shoes almost seem like an afterthought of a project that really undertakes to build a model for a different kind of local industry in Addis Ababa. But the product isn't secondary to everyone. According to Kiru, SoleRebels just signed a deal with Urban Outfitters to sell their footwear to style-hungry American youth. A coup for SoleRebels and an impressive move on the part of Urban Outfitters buyers.
The other start-up taking social responsibility into a footwear company is TOMS Shoes, which was founded on the basis of providing footwear to kids in need in Argentina through the sale of shoes (modeled off the traditional Argentine slip-on) in boutiques and department stores in the U.S., Canada, Australia, France and Japan.
For each pair of shoes sold, founder Blake Mycoskie sends a free pair to a child who can't afford them. TOMS did a Shoe Drop visit in Argentina at the end of last year which was documented in a short online video. The scene is a far cry from the website's press images of TOMS laid out on display shelving in hip shops, or spread across the pages of Vogue. (Couldn't have hurt, either, that Blake Mycoskie was featured in Oprah's O Magazine as March 2007 "Good Guy of the Month.")
It appears that there's a giant PR machine launching TOMS with quick and monumental success -- the press coverage and stockist list would impress anyone. But Mycoskie's still on a grassroots voyage across the U.S. in an Airstream, making friends for TOMS like a candidate on the campaign trail. Add another name to the do-gooder-cum-rockstar list. This guy's on a mission, and a lot of little kids are getting shoes.
alright! i submitted tom's shoes as a suggested article. glad to see them get some press. i ordered my first pair from tom's and they should be here tomorrow!
Have you come across these guys: http://www.veja-fairtrade.com/ They make super cool trainers (sneakers, which are apparently as sustainable as you can get. And pretty damn comfortable, too!
More cool shoes made from recycled materials can be found at http://www.wornagain.co.uk/