Though COVID-19’s stranglehold on business and society appears to be lessening in United States, Europe is still facing the harsh realities of the pandemic, as deaths there topped 1 million this week.
France is currently in its third wave of lockdowns, which is continuing to impact international brands as the pandemic passes the one year mark.
For Veja, which is based in Paris, the brand entered the crisis in a strong position and has continued to resonate with consumers, even seeing moderate growth in 2020. But for Veja co-founder Sébastien Kopp, business right now comes second.
“Of course, it’s an economic disaster,” he said. “Veja is very strong and it’s not even a question of surviving. There’s a question of how many points of growth we lost, and I’ll tell you that we don’t care. We care that our people are safe. Our mission is to protect our team.”
Now made up of 250 people, with 130 based in Paris and the rest in New York and Brazil, Veja was founded by Kopp in 2005, alongside François-Ghislain Morillion. The duo set out to create a sustainable sneaker brand under fair trade practices in Brazil, using organic cotton and wild rubber.
Unfortunately for Veja, COVID-19 is still surging in Brazil. According to Kopp, his factory is operating at 60% and the office has been completely closed for eight months.
“This is a crisis situation,” he said. “People are in distress. We have to help more, especially in Brazil.”
At the same time, an environmental crisis looms, an issue Veja has been battling since its inception.
In June 2020, the company launched the Darwin project to minimize waste and support the circular economy with a facility in France that will clean and repair worn pairs of sneakers, and collect and recycle those that have been worn beyond help.
But due to pandemic restrictions, that facility was shut down after only three months. However, during its short run, Kopp and his team repaired 2,000 pairs of shoes — and that’s just a warm-up, the executive said.
Now, amid a backdrop of uncertainty, Veja is focused on growing and adapting. Here, Kopp opens up about the brand’s retail strategy, transparency and sustainability.
How are you balancing the current e-commerce boom — on the DTC side and with your retail partners?
“Since the beginning of Veja, we limit the orders. Our partners cannot grow more than 15% per season because if they do more, I think it’s a bit dangerous.”
We’ve seen many brands decrease their focus on wholesale partners. How do you see Veja’s distribution breakdown playing out?
“We love wholesale. We love to work with department stores because we learn a lot from them. They have ideas that we share together. People that are selling direct to consumer — it was a question of margin. But I think they lost a lot in terms of collaboration with the people that have a knowledge that is incredible. To have our own e-commerce project is also important. And physical retail is a very good business. The nice thing is to make them all dance together. I love to go into stores to have a curated selection of many brands. It’s very rich not to have only one brand. That’s why we didn’t open Veja stores for 15 years [in Paris and in New York] because we thought it was not rich enough [with product].”
You launched the Darwin project last year to help minimize waste. Why is circularity so important, when according to your latest CO2 emissions report, the end of life of your shoes makes up only 2.9% of your emissions?
“I wouldn’t say only 2.9%. Because now we produce 2 million pairs of shoes per year, and knowing that there are 2 million pairs that are going to be not usable [in the future] is a lot. So let’s attack the issue and let’s solve the issue as much as we can. Repairing is already something really important. It’s one step before recycling, but I think it has been misjudged by a lot of brands. It’s very essential.”
Veja’s raw materials used to produce your shoes make up most of your carbon footprint at 71%. Do you plan to continue to reduce leather in your collections, which is at 51% now?
“We don’t belong to one church. Meaning the vegan option is very important for us as it’s just as important to making leather better. Because leather is an amazing material in terms of shoes, and I think that leather will exist until everybody stops eating meat. But there are some people that are still eating meat, [so it’s a byproduct]. Right now, making leather more environmental is important because leather made in China, Bangladesh uses chrome, heavy metals. So improving the way leather is made, that’s what we try to prove and then also replacing it with less-impactful materials.”
What do you say to critics of vegan materials?
“We are very happy with our CWL [Cotton Worked as Leather] product. This material is the future. It’s the first really bio-based material replacement of leather. It’s made out of 100% organic cotton canvas that we source ourselves. And we coated it with 54% bio-based materials. It’s one of the cleanest materials in the world and it’s going to rise in the Veja collection.”
According to your CO2 Emissions report, you plan to ban the use of air freight. Will this take effect this year?
“We are 100% by boat. The big difference between the official report and the usual reports of other companies is we consider everything — from the cows part of the cattle farming to our retailers’ [CO2 emissions]. If you put the responsibility on somebody else, you don’t change. So with shipping, to have Veja faster, some retailers were buying directly in Brazil and sending them by plane. That made up approximately 10% by air freight. Usually, we produce and we ship the goods by boat to our retailers. We delivered this information and those partners stopped right away. It was one email.”
Port congestion issues and late product deliveries are a huge problem for the industry right now — has that made you rethink the focus on boat freight?
“It’s not a big deal. The boat is six weeks and the plane is one. What we propose is our partners order five weeks in advance and you’re going to have the shoes in the same time. It’s just a matter of organization. Everybody says change is slow, but I don’t think so. We can make the changes right away.”
What should companies be focusing on immediately when it comes to sustainability?
“Everything. Wage equality between men and women, the happiness of the team, the raw materials you use, carbon emissions and consistency. Also what is missing from a lot of companies is the field work. On a global scale, it’s changing capitalism. Stop wasting your time in finance. I think a lot of company owners spend a lot of time with bankers or investors and [not] in the field. It’s the use of your time.”
What are some of the systemic issues that aren’t being addressed?
“[At Veja], we treat the social issues and the environmental issues equally at the same level of importance. You can do the best environmental shoes, but if it’s made in China, if it’s made by children, modern slavery, in poor working conditions, why? The social issue is going to be more and more important in the next year. And the shoe industry has a lot to do with these matters. And we can do more.”