You can shop the VEJA brand shoes for the whole family HERE in our web shop, but be sure to read this captivating story of how VEJA is changing the sneaker industry!
The VEJA Story
In 2003, we are 25 years old and we both find ourselves in a Chinese factory to follow a social audit of a big fashion brand. For three days, we sail among the workers, they have a pale complexion and tired looks. But the factory is clean, and the social conditions there are pretty good. Everything goes well during the audit, until we ask the plant manager to open the doors to the living areas. It is first of all a categorical refusal. We insist, we push, and finally the door opens.
We find ourselves in a room of 25 square meters where the Chinese workers sleep at 30, in bunk beds of five floors. In the middle of the room, a hole which is used for both shower and toilet.
That day, we thought that globalization had bugged. We said to ourselves that these workers make the clothes we wear every day. That our families, our friends wore every day. And we realized that there was a real problem.
In 2003, large companies were already starting to talk about concepts like sustainable development ... but only talking about it. Their speech was completely uncorrelated with actions on the ground.
At that time, we also worked for Tristan Lecomte who had just set up AlterEco, the first French brand of fair trade. He made orange juice, tea, rice, coffee and chocolate and worked directly with farmers around the world. We worked for him, we audited his cooperatives in Brazil. And we found it extraordinary.
With fair trade, the economy could take a different, more balanced path, with fairer exchanges between producers and consumers. So, after working for the multinationals and for Tristan, when we return to Paris, instead of launching ourselves on the Internet like all our generation, we decide to reinvent a product.
We take the most symbolic object of our generation, to deconstruct and reconstruct it differently. For us, it is obvious, this object, it will be a new brand of sneakers.
So why a basketball?
Because it is the symbolic consumer product of our generation. It is at the feet of this generation of the 90s that sneakers have moved from sports fields to the street, that they have become democratized.
But it is also a super interesting product economically because for the big sneaker brands, it is the product that concentrates the most advertising in its costs. In fact, fiction has surpassed reality: for a pair of sneakers from major brands, 70% of the costs go to advertising, marketing and communication, against 30% for raw materials and labor. In other words, only 30% of the cost is spent on the reality of the product.
This observation is the heart of VEJA. By giving up advertising, we could create sneakers 5 times more expensive to manufacture while offering them at the same price as the big brands in stores.
We could reallocate advertising resources to produce, raw materials, the environment and all those who make sneakers. So make sneakers greener, sneakers fairer economically, simply by removing advertising from our business model.
We are 25 years old, we have no money, but we still decide to try. We tell ourselves that we are lucky to have families who love us, lucky to have studied, so if we don't try it, who will? And too bad if we miss each other, we will always have a roof over our heads and the possibility of bouncing. So we are going to Brazil, because it is a country that gathers all the raw materials we need and factories that protect workers. And it is a country where everything is possible, a country which welcomes those who want to try with open arms.
The objective of this trip is to deconstruct this basket and go up the path of raw materials to the starting point, then descend and try to change each stage of production, to have a positive social and environmental impact.
We find ourselves in the Amazon rainforest with syringueiros, rubber producers who live in the forest, without destroying it, without deforesting, but on the contrary trying to live in harmony with it.
And we start working with them. At the start, it's a bit complicated, we're gringos, we barely speak Portuguese, we're in the middle of this Amazonian forest, we have 1000 chances to lose hope every day, but we keep going.
We tell them we want to try to create an incredible product, and make it differently, and they trust us. We are gradually learning to work together. It becomes the basis of our basketball. This wild rubber represents 40% of all the sneaker soles we've made since.
Then, we leave for the Northeast, Atlantic side of Brazil: it is a deprived region of the country, very arid. Difficult to grow something there. However, there are organic contton producers, a very small cooperative, there are 35 of them, helped by a local NGO. But for 6 years, they haven't sold anything. In fact, they grow organic cotton without fertilizers or pesticides but it goes even further than organic: it is agro-ecological cotton.
In conventional agriculture that uses chemicals, crops tend to damage the land in the long run. In the depths of the Brazilian Northeast, we discover the principles of agroecology: to make the soil richer after having cultivated it, instead of impoverishing it.
We stayed for several weeks with the cotton producers, studying their daily newspapers, their methods, their costs. And we decided to buy their cotton. In the first contract, we paid double the market price. They didn't understand, they thought it was weird. And they called us Os Franceses Locos , the crazy French people.
We bought them three tons of organic cotton which became the canvas for our first sneakers. Three tonnes of organic cotton according to the principles of fair trade: pre-financing of crops, prices completely uncorrelated from the market and fixed in a three-year contract. In other words, when they plant a cotton seed, they already know at what price they will sell the kilo.
We then continue the path of production, we find ourselves in the south of Brazil in Porto Alegre in a basketball manufacturing factory. It is a developed region, with strong social rights, 80% of workers are unionized, and reasonable working hours, a way of life and purchasing power close to what we know in Europe. And that's where we decided to have our sneakers made.
Then, the 4th stage of VEJA is Bonneuil-sur-Marne in the Parisian suburbs. There, we meet a reintegration association who is asked to become our logistics provider. That is to say that they are the ones who will receive the sneakers containers, store them, ensure the dispatch, the logistics of the e-shop and send all the pairs of sneakers all over the world.
At the beginning, obviously, it's a bit difficult: we have to be a lot on site, with them, and imagine everything together. Today, it has become an incredible partner with whom we are growing.
We continue, and a few years later, we decide to launch leather sneakers. So it's not like any other leather , but leather tanned only with vegetable materials. And in parallel, with a factory in São Paulo, we are testing a new kind of fabric on our sneakers . This technical fabric is made 100% from recycled plastic bottles.
It's called B-mesh, and it costs more than normal materials. Plastic bottles are picked up in the streets of Rio and São Paulo, they are reduced to flakes, then transformed into fibers in a Brazilian factory.
At the heart of VEJA, there is this idea of connecting extraordinary projects to each other.
In 2005, we started to sell the first sneakers, and it started strong. The Parisian department stores buy from the start. And very quickly, shops called us from all over the world.
The adventure becomes a business, VEJA grows, and 12 years later, we have an office in Brazil, an office in France and a team of 60 people full of talent: we are happy.
We are present in fifty countries in the world, we have sold more than two million pairs of sneakers since the beginning, when we started with not much. We have our feet in several worlds: fashion, fair trade, organic, design, reintegration, factories, travel, cotton fields, the Amazon ... And we see that everything we made to a common denominator: transparency.
And this is the very meaning of VEJA: VEJA, in Portuguese, means "look". For us, that means looking at what's behind the sneakers.
Finally, little by little, we realize that at the start of VEJA, we made a very transparent, very ecological product, with a positive social impact but that the company itself is not necessarily transparent. We say that we have to change the business from the inside. So, we change.
For example, priority is given to banks like La Nef or Crédit Coopératif which do not have subsidiaries in tax havens. We change electricity supplier, we go through Enercoop, a much greener supplier.
And in 2009, we posted our limits on the VEJA site. Everything we do wrong, we put it: we publish everything. And in fact, we love it. We like this transparency which pushes us a little further each time.
And that's what we will continue to do in our future projects: continue to move forward, step by step, staying true to who we are and what we would like to see happen in the world.
Because "changing the world" has become a phrase we hear everywhere. Google, Amazon, Facebook, even they use it for good and wrong. So instead of perpetually trying to change the world and people , what makes us happy is to go even further in transparency. To keep the coherence of the project. To propose solutions that we would like to see emerge. This is how we move forward: we don't try to convince others, we start with ourselves.