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Serious About Sneakers

Serious About Sneakers

Veja’s Shoes Look Good And Do Good, Too

“Look good, feel good”—it’s an aphorism often used to summarize how one’s appearance can make someone act empowered. But Paris-based sneaker company Veja proves that the phrase can possess an even deeper meaning.

Started in 2004, the outfit was built around an abiding devotion to treating everyone and everything in its supply chain and its distribution structure with care and respect. For instance, its sneakers use rubber harvested by respectably paid communities in the Amazon forest, where rubber trees grow naturally in the wild. And 53% of its running shoe model is made from natural or recycled products, such as rice waste, banana oil, sugar cane, and recycled plastic bottles collected in Brazil and made into a mesh. Each detail of every model is examined not just for how good it looks, but by the good it does for the world and the workers. “Veja is one step in high aesthetics,” says co-founder Sébastien Kopp, “one step in ecology and fair trade.” For the style- and justice-conscious set, both are movements in the right direction. And it has found celebrities ranging from Meghan Markle to Emma Watson to Eddie Redmayne to Reese Witherspoon wearing them.

In their early 20s, Kopp and his childhood friend François-Ghislain Morillion—both of whom are now 41—worked in investment banking. They soon abandoned the business and started an NGO. They traveled around the world—to almost 25 countries, Kopp estimates—to write reports for major French companies about how their supply chains affected local populations, and did or did not achieve the companies’ supposed fair-trade or environmental goals. “We were disappointed by what we saw,” Kopp says. “Most of the time, the environment, social justice, and economic justice were treated as out of the company’s business model.” They decided to take those values and put them at the core of a new company.

They chose sneakers. “It’s a very symbolic product,” Kopp says.

Sébastien Kopp, left, and François-Ghislain Morillion are founders of Veja, a sneaker company dedicated to doing good
Sébastien Kopp, left, and François-Ghislain Morillion are founders of Veja, a sneaker company dedicated to doing good.

They loved them and wore them constantly. And from a business perspective, they saw that so much of the prices customers paid actually came from something they thought Veja could do without: advertising. By cutting out all ads and marketing, they could pay more to make the sneaker—five to seven times more, Kopp says—enabling them to use fair-trade raw materials, to sign suppliers to longer-term contracts, and to collaborate with factories in Brazil that let workers unionize, offer four weeks of paid vacation a year, and pay a living wage that enables employees to buy homes while working 40-hour weeks. The shoes still cost in the $78 to $280 range.

More revealing than their success may be how unafraid they are to show how they fail. They submit themselves to review from an independent nonprofit. They openly confess to shortcomings on their website—about using an e-commerce site that “still relies on banking partners with branches in tax havens,” or about the trade-offs between vegan leather and petroleum-based alternatives.

The company struggles to track where the cows that it uses for leather come from, and hopes to make sure it isn’t the unwitting cause of deforestation or damage to the Amazon. Veja’s openness is, of course, a deliberate choice. “That is the difficulty of Veja, but that is the beautiful thing also,” Kopp says. “To talk about reality. Not to talk about a green company that is doing everything very well—this is a corporate dream. We try to expose what we do, and the limits of what we do….To be in the reality. Not to be dreaming.”

A peek into the Veja office and showroom in Paris.
A peek into the Veja office and showroom in Paris

Veja has no big investors. (“It makes us very free,” Kopp says. “We limit the growth of the company to maintain a human rhythm.”) It doesn’t do market research. (“We design the sneakers we want to wear.”)

They collaborate with the beloved designer Rick Owens, who described Veja to Vogue as “the most responsible sneaker company I could find.” In May 2019, Kopp and Morillion hired a CEO, Laure Browne, who has exposed blindspots and revealed possibilities. Veja’s collection of physical spaces is expanding. Since its start, it has sold 3.5 million sneakers in more than 40 countries, including the United States—each pair made in the style, and with much of the sustainability, the co-founders sought.

But they try not to preach. “We don’t judge anybody,” Kopp says. “Maybe our society is a bit sick because everybody says to everybody, ‘You should be like this.’…What we try to do [is] to change ourselves.” He worries that the industry, after years of worldwide growth and globalization, has forgotten where things come from. Veja could stand as a reminder. “That’s what we would like to change—setting up an example as small as a shoe brand.”

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Shoes
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