In 2003, we’re 25 years old, and we’re visiting a Chinese factory, following a social audit for a french fashion brand. We spent three days among the workers: they looked pale and tired, but the factory was clean, and the working conditions seemed pretty good. Everything went well with the audit, until we asked to see the living quarters. At first, the direction refused, but after insisting and arguing, they opened the doors. We found ourselves in a 25 square meter room where 32 Chinese workers were sleeping together, stacked in 5-level bunk beds. And in the middle of the room, only a hole that served both as a shower and a toilet. On that day, we realized globalization had gone wrong. These workers were making the clothes we were wearing every day ; Clothes that people we knew, our families, our friends were wearing every day. Something had really gone wrong.
In 2003, big companies were already throwing around concepts like sustainable development... but it was all talk, with no real action to back it up.
Meanwhile, we’d been working with Tristan Lecomte who had just started AlterEco, the first French brand for fair trade. He was making orange juice, tea, rice, coffee and chocolate working directly with producers and farmers around the world. We audited the cooperatives he was working with, and for us, it was a revelation.
We saw firsthand how fair trade changes the economy, making it a little different, more balanced, how it pushed for fairer exchanges between producers and consumers. So after working for international corporations and for Tristan, we went back to Paris. But instead of diving into the Internet like the rest of our generation, we thought we should try and reinvent a product. But not just any product, but the most symbolic object of our generation. We wanted to deconstruct it, and rebuild it differently. And it was obvious to us that this object was going to be a new brand of sneakers.
So why sneakers? Because we loved them, we were wearing sneakers everyday. And as a consumer product, it stood as a symbol for our generation: we were the ones wearing sneakers in the 90’s, when they became massively popular and went from sport fields to the streets.
But this is also one of the most interesting products on an economic level because it concentrates the most advertising spendings. Actually, fiction had taken over reality. When you buy a pair of sneakers from a big brand, 70 % of its costs goes to advertising and communication. And only 30% goes to raw materials and production.
That’s what VEJA is all about. We thought if we gave up advertising , we could make sneakers that were 5 times more expensive to produce, yet still offer them at the same retail price as the big brands.
We could reallocate advertising resources to production , raw materials, and the people who make the sneakers. Producing sneakers that do respect the environment, sneakers with greater economic justice, simply by removing advertising from the equation. Sounds great, right?
So here we are, in 2004, we’re 25 years old, we have no money, but we want to try. We’re lucky enough to have loving families, lucky enough to have a good educational background, so if we don’t give it a try, who will? Worst case : we fail, but we would still have a place to live, and a chance to start over. So we fly to Brazil, because it's a country that has all the raw materials we need and factories that protect the workers. And it’s a country where everything seems possible, a country that welcomes with open arms those who are willing to try.
The purpose of this trip is to break down the sneaker and start over from the raw material, all the way to the finished product, and try to change each production stage to have a positive impact on the environment and society.
So we end up in the Amazon rainforest, with the seringueiros: those are communities that live in and from the forest, without destroying it, without cutting trees down, but trying instead to live in harmony with it.
And we start working with them. At first, it is a bit complicated, we’re gringos who barely speak Portuguese, and we are in the middle of the jungle. Every day gives us 1000 reasons to lose hope, but we keep going.
We explain that we want to create an incredible product, and make it differently, and they trust us. Day after day, we learn to work together. And this wild rubber they harvest from the rubber trees becomes the cornerstone of our sneaker. It represents 40% of all sneaker soles we've made since.
Then, we leave for the Brazilian Nordeste, by the Atlantic coast: very arid and poor part of Brazil. It's hard for anything to grow there. But this is exactly where we met organic cotton producers. A very small cooperative of 35 producers, supported by a local NGO. In fact, they grow organic cotton without fertilizers or pesticides, but it's more than just organic: it's agro-ecological cotton.
Conventional agriculture uses chemicals and tends to damage the soil over the long term. In Brazilian Nordeste, we discover the principles behind agroecology : it makes the soil richer after the harvest instead of harming it.
In the first contract, we paid twice the market price. They didn't understand, they thought it was strange. They called us Os Franceses Locos, the crazy French.
But they finally agreed and we bought three tons of organic cotton, and that became the upper of our first sneakers. Three tons of organic cotton, bought according to fair trade principles: we pay for crops in advance, at a price set in a three-year contract. In other words, when they plant a cotton seed, they already know how much they’re going to sell one kilo.
We keep following the production path and find ourselves in the south of Brazil, in a Porto Alegre sneaker factory. It's a developed region, similar to Europe, with strong social rights. The workers do reasonable hours and 82% of them are unionized. And that's where we decide to manufacture our sneakers.
After that, the fourth step of VEJA is Bonneuil-sur-Marne, in the suburbs of Paris, where we meet with a social reintegration organization that eventually becomes our logistics provider. Meaning they receive the containers, store the sneakers, take care of our online store and dispatch the shoes all over the world.
Obviously, it was a bit difficult at first: we had to spend a lot of time on the ground with them, and invent everything together. But over the years they’ve become an incredible partner, and we continue to grow together.
We keep going, and a few years later, we decide to launch leather sneakers. Not with regular leather, but a leather tanned with a vegetal process. At the same time, with a factory next to Sao Paulo, we develop a new kind of fabric that's entirely made from recycled plastic bottles.
It’s called B-mesh and it’s more expensive than the regular materials used in the shoe industry. The plastic bottles are picked up from the streets of Rio and Sao Paolo, before being crushed into flakes. Then they’re shipped to a brazilian factory where they turn the flakes into fiber.
This is the heart of VEJA : connecting great projects to one another.
In 2005, we sell our first sneakers, and it's a success. The Parisian department stores buy them right away, and stores start calling from all over the world. The adventure becomes a business, VEJA grows , and 10 years later, we're a team of 60 people, with an office in Brazil, another in France, and we’re happy.
We sell in fifty countries around the world, we've sold more than two million pairs of sneakers since we began, and we didn't start from much. But we have a foot in several worlds: fashion, fair trade, organic farming, design, social inclusion, factories, travel, cotton fields, the Amazon… But there's a common thread in everything we do: transparency.
This is the meaning of VEJA : in Portuguese, VEJA means "look". In our minds, it means look through your sneakers, look what’s behind.
Eventually, we realized that even though we make a very transparent product, with a positive impact, the company itself was not transparent enough. We felt we needed to change VEJA from the inside out.
So we start changing our suppliers. For instance, we choose banks that have no branches in tax heavens, and we change our power supplier to Enercoop, who provides green electricity collected from small independent producers.
In 2009, we start posting our limits on the VEJA website. Everything we do wrong, we post it, we publish everything. And we love it.
And that's precisely what we're going to continue doing in our future projects; keep improving, step by step, and stay faithful to what we are and to what we’d like to see happen in the world.
We love this transparency that drives us to do a little better each time. Because "changing the world" has become a buzz word. Even Google or Amazon use it every day. So instead of trying to change the world and the people in it, we stick to what we believe in: being even more transparent, improving the consistency of our project and make solutions happen. And instead of trying to convince everybody, we start with ourselves.