Aurélie Dumont, ex Country Manager for VEJA in the UK, explains how "Commercial Disobedience" makes a good social business.Servane Mouazan for Ogunte CIC: What's the buzz about Veja?
Aurélie: Veja is a brand of ecological and fair trade footwear and accessories which was established in 2004. Veja strives to offer a different vision which combines fashion, fair trade and ecology and links together economy, social initiatives and the environment. It is a vision that proposes cultural change.Working directly with co-operatives of small producers across Brazil, Veja uses ecological materials such as organic cotton, wild Amazonian rubber and acacia-tanned leather to create sneakers and accessories.
From the fields of raw materials in Brazil to the doors of the fashion stores in Europe where the sneakers and accessories are available, Veja respects very high social and environmental standards. This means a thorough involvement in agro-ecology farming initiatives in North Brazil, in deforestation fighting in the Amazon, in workers’ rights and dignity protection and also in social rehabilitation projects, back in Europe.
S: What's VEJA's ripple effect, and how do you measure your impact?
A: Veja has been built on 3 main principles:
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, between 30 to 100% above the world market price. We do so in order to compensate the world market price which is out of touch with the real costs of Brazilian producers.
Since its inception in 2004, Veja has been using agro-ecological cotton to craft the canvas of our sneakers. This cotton is grown by an association of small-scale farmers located in one of Brazil’s poorest areas, Ceará, in the Northeast of the country. Ceará has vast socio-economic inequalities, fragile soils and a tendency towards drought. In contrast to the predominant monoculture farming system in the Northeast of Brazil, a group of small producers grow cotton and food crops under agro-ecology principles which ban the use of agro-chemicals and pesticides. Veja’s own successful growth has been mirrored by the expansion of the number of cotton growing families involved in the project. Initially 200 families were involved in the growing of cotton for Veja sneakers; now 350 families live there from agro-ecological farming and produced just under 24,000 kg of cotton in 2011. For those small-scale farmers (1 hectare of land on average), farming development goes hand-in-hand with environmental protection.
Building an Intelligent Ecosystem
Preserving the Amazonian rainforest is one of the main goals of Veja. The rubber used in the soles of Veja trainers comes from the Amazon, the only place on earth where rubber trees grow in the wild. Veja works with a co-operative of 36 families of Seringueiros (rubber tappers) who harvest the rubber for the soles of Veja sneakers in the heart of the Amazon, the Chico Mendes reserve. A further 10 families will join the current project in 2012. Veja buys rubber from the Seringueiros at a premium. This fair payment allows the Seringueiros to live on rubber harvesting with dignity. They are thus less tempted by the financial opportunities of land-clearing, among them, cattle breeding or wood extraction. For Veja, supporting rubber tapping means that big areas of forest are protected and the local biodiversity is preserved.S: VEJA is an international operation, how do you manage working across cultures?
A: We now have 3 offices. The main office is in Paris, we have a small office in London, UK, and there is a team in Brazil as well where all the materials come from and where the collections are crafted. This means our sources of inspiration are more diverse and our collections and communications more global but we can’t deny our strong Parisian influence with a Brazilian twist.S: You have decided to go marketing free, can you explain?
Veja maintains a zero advertising policy. Veja eliminates all marketing and advertising costs. The resources saved are integrated into the production chain. This means the farmers and producers Veja works with are fairly remunerated - to accommodate their social and environmental requirements.
Veja's fabrication costs are 3 to 4 times higher than other footwear brands because the trainers and bags are produced with dignity. But Veja's "no advertising" policy makes it possible to sell trainers at a price which is equal to other big sportswear brands.
This does not mean that we don’t communicate about what we do. It is rather the opposite. Transparency is key to our project. We host many exhibition and events at Centre Commercial our cultural hub / lifestyle shop / collaborative space in Paris (2 rue de Marseille).
Fairtrade is always a Work in Progress
S: You push boundaries, you push for open innovation, if you had a magic wand, what would you fix that needs fixing in your supply chains and operations?
A: The Veja project is far from perfect. It can be examined on many levels to reveal limitations. Fair trade is not perfect and neither are ecological ideals. Contradiction remains as changes are still difficult to implement. Veja is an investigation, a project that is constantly evolving.
As production is low, Veja does not need many pairs of laces. Thus, our laces are not made with organic cotton. Eyelets do not contain nickel but they are composed of metal whose origin is not controlled. Recycling the trainers has not started yet. American and Asiatic clients are delivered by plane. These are some of our still work-in-progress areas.
But key to the Veja project is transparency. It is at our solidarity chain’s every step. The policy of transparency goes hand in hand with openness: unlike many organisations, we know and publicly share the project’s limitations on our website. Work must go on!S: What would you encourage budding social entrepreneurs to think hard about when they start their new venture?
A: I would say...
A: Well, there are many ways of bringing change that I have not explored yet so I’m sure I’ll keep myself busy!
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