Stepping into an ethical future
Social and environmental responsibility is the foundation upon which French shoe and accessory manufacturer Veja built its business from the outset - with considerable success, going from manufacturing 5,000 pairs of shoes to 125,000 pairs in just six years.
Established in 2004 by Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion, the company now directly employs 27, and works with 350 families of organic cotton farmers in Brazil's north, and 32 families of seringueiros - rubber tappers - who harvest rubber for the soles of Veja trainers in the Amazon's Chico Mendes reserve.
Minimising the environmental impacts of the production and harvesting of raw materials, supporting farmers and factory workers alike by paying fair wages and demanding excellent working condition, minimising carbon emissions, combating deforestation and eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers is at the heart of the way Veja does business.
The company says: "Veja has been built on three main principles - using ecological materials, working under fair trade principles and respecting the dignity of all workers involved. From small producers in Brazil to concept stores in Europe, Veja has created a solidarity chain featuring a global approach with transparency at its core.
"The Veja project is based on what we call an act of 'commercial disobedience'. Traditional economic systems are primarily concerned with low prices that depreciate the human aspect.
The result for farming is largely unsustainable; lacking in social protection, producers often work in appalling conditions for a living that is barely self-subsistent.
"Contrasting such systems, Veja pays producers of raw materials, such as farmers of organic cotton or the seringueiros who tap the wild Amazonian rubber for our sneakers' soles, 30-100% above the world market price. We do so in order to compensate for a market price that is out of touch with the real costs of Brazilian producers."
UK director Aurélie Dumont says: "In the north of Brazil we work with an NGO called Esplar, which is doing an amazing job providing technical support to farmers in moving away from conventional techniques towards agri-ecology.
"They're independent, they don't buy fertilisers or pesticides from big agribusiness. Instead they grow the neem tree [Azadirachta indica], extract its oil and vaporise it onto the cotton crops as a biopesticide."
Veja has also supported the development of a new technique that allows seringueiros to partly process the raw rubber they harvest inside the forest.
The company says: "Veja buys rubber from the seringueiros at a premium. This fair payment allows them to live on rubber harvesting with dignity. They are thus less tempted by the financial opportunities of land-clearing, among them cattle breeding and forestry. For Veja, supporting rubber tapping means big areas of forest are protected and biodiversity is preserved.
"In 2008 we backed the launch of a new technology called FDL (folha desfumada liquida), that allows the tappers to transform rubber, freshly harvested, into high quality, semi-processed sheets without industrial processing. Beyond the ecological and economic benefits, transferred to the rubber tappers community is a sense of pride and more rewarding work."
Dumont says: "FDL has increased the price paid for rubber. It makes a lot of sense - the rubber is of higher quality, the families harvesting it are adding value and we can buy it from them direct.
"We see use of the technique as an excellent way to fight deforestation and would like to see it used more widely."
Workers in the factory manufacturing the finished products are not forgotten. Veja says: "We ensure the ethical welfare of all workers involved in sneaker fabrication and logistics. Our trainers are assembled in a factory in the Vale dos Sinos, a well-developed region in South Brazil. The factory provides good working conditions, workers' rights are respected and extra hours are paid.
"In fact, our ethical approach is not limited to Brazilian operations. When the trainers arrive in France by boat, they are stored and dispatched by the Ateliers Sans Frontières, a social charity that helps people reintegrate back into society through work. The solidarity chain goes up to the doors of the stores where the trainers are available."
As a company for which social and environmental goals are a fundamental, rather than the result of a policy or a shift in the way it does business, certification is a less important issue than for many other businesses.
Veja says: "Certifications are not our ultimate goal. Our business ethics are that certifications should be minimum standards to operate by, and embody first steps towards social and environmental objectives.
"However, a minimum control initiated and monitored by a third party has allowed Veja a starting point to facilitate the bigger picture. In 2007, we began the IBD organic certification process for cotton produced by the association of producers we work with in Tauá, north-east Brazil. Now, 97% of the 320 cotton-producing families we work with are certified."
Dumont says: "At the very beginning, our founders were constantly in Brazil - visiting farmers, rubber tappers, our factories. And we now have people on the ground, in the factory nearly every day, making sure they respect our social principles, and we work with an amazing woman in the Amazon who has dedicated her life to fighting deforestation and helped us with development of FDL.
"We are certified as fair trade - working with Esplar in helping decide the price we pay for cotton - and as organic for cotton production. So we do have third parties monitoring our projects.
"We also find people hear about what we're doing, become interested and visit. It's great getting their feedback when they return - and it's probably better we're not with them, as the farmers are no doubt more free in what they say.
"So we're very open to people visiting the farms we work with, as we try to be as transparent as we can."
As a fundamental part of its novel approach to business, and to help offset the increased costs associated with paying fair prices for raw materials, Veja maintains a zero advertising policy.
The company says: "Veja eliminates all marketing and advertising costs, which allows us to pay a fair price to suppliers while maintaining prices similar to our competitors."
Dumont says: "We decided to cut our marketing and advertising costs. For most trainers sold in the European market, 70% of the price goes on advertising, sponsoring celebrities to wear the brand, and so on. By eliminating these costs we can afford to pay more to our workers and farmers."
Spending nothing on marketing would appear counter-intuitive for a brand whose alternative approach to social and environmental issues is a key differentiator.
However, the company's products are sold in high-end stores where staff are available to explain Veja's philosophy, and its website provides another source of information.
Veja also has a strong relationship with the press, who Dumont says are happy to promote the brand. But it is the shoes themselves that are the source of the firm's success.
Dumont says: "We want to be a normal sneaker brand, but one that respects the environment very strongly.
"If you buy a pair of our trainers, and you like the design, find them comfortable and the price is right, and then you read about our ethical policies, you'll be even more convinced."
And for other companies looking to replicate Veja's recipe for success, taking small steps is essential. She says: "We started small, and tested our approach at every step of the way, for example assessing how we were going to work with the farmers and maintain supply of high quality materials.
"Veja has grown slowly: we make an idea happen before we talk about it, and every move is made with respect for our principles."