In this blog, we focus on a French sneaker brand which has taken sustainability in product development to a whole new level. From upcycling of plastic bottles, to organic cotton, to Tilapia leather, to traceability and chemical transparency of its leather, and much more, this brand is truly in a league of its own in the highly competitive sneaker market.
“You cannot discover new oceans if you don’t have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”Anonymous
As the world’s first-ever sneaker brand that uses fabric that is made entirely of recycled plastic bottles (among other sustainability innovations), this brilliant brand would have never innovated this way if it did not have the courage to ‘lose sight of the shore’.
The global sneaker market is estimated at nearing US$80billion this 2021. In another four years, total annual sales is expected to breach the US$100billion mark. That’s how large the ‘shore‘ is.
Giant and globally recognized brands such as Nike® and Adidas® still dominate this market with Nike® holding around one-third share of the worldwide market.
So in order to discover ‘new oceans‘ in this highly competitive and crowded market requires having to ‘lose sight of the shore’ and begin the innovation process.
In all of my webinars on ‘Brand Architecture‘, the first module is primarily focused on brand positioning and the concept of finding the open hole is discussed extensively. For me, this is the most critical and necessary step of any brand strategy development. If one skips this step, all efforts that are poured into building the brand’s architecture, I sincerely believe, are a waste of time, talent and treasure.
In the case of VEJA®, they have found an open hole in the sneaker market by positioning the brand as the only one with ‘sustainability‘ fully integrated into the very DNA of its product and process strategies.
“Since 2005, VEJA® has been making sneakers differently infusing each stage of production with a positive impact.
“Environmentally friendly sneakers, made with raw materials sourced from organic and ecological agriculture, without chemical or polluting processes.
“Sneakers that treat humans with respect, are produced in dignified conditions, in direct consultation with producer associations and manufacturers.
“Sneakers with greater economic justice, without any advertising or marketing expenses.”VEJA Website
In its website, VEJA® has a page fully dedicated to what it calls ‘PROJECT‘.
It is a page where we learn the founders’ vision for the brand and the brand’s fascinating history.
In this page, the brand provides an extensive discussion on what precisely they mean by ‘infusing each stage of production with a positive impact’. They cover fifteen separate sections in the ‘PROJECT’, all of which point back to its brand positioning as the only sneaker brand with a positive impact.
In this blog, we will not discuss all fifteen sections, but we will touch on two of the above sections of the ‘PROJECT’, namely, ‘Cotton‘ and ‘Upcycling‘.
“What sets VEJA apart is working directly with organic cotton producers, and buying their cotton at a market-decorrelated price,” says its website.
What does this mean?
It means that the brand is able to cut out the middleman and work directly with farmers to allow the farmers not only to earn much more, but also allows the brand to incentivize them to invest in activities that would ensure that the cotton that they produce are certified as organic, therefore, earth-friendly and sustainable.
The brand pays the cotton farmers in Brazil on average 100% higher than the market rates. On top of that, they pay additional premiums directly to the farmers and also to their associations if they are able to secure certifications on organic farming.
Furthermore, VEJA® also closely works with NGOs on the ground in Brazil who help cotton farmers achieve authentic organic growing. Two such NGOs include Esplar founded in 1974 based in Fortaleza, Ceará State, and Diaconia founded in 1967. According to the Inter-American Foundation: “Diaconia (a grantee of the IAF) promotes inclusive and sustainable development of smallholder farmers in Northeast Brazil using ‘participatory certification systems’, in which peers, typically other farmers, inspect farms’ organic practices.”
For the fifteen-year period between 2004 and 2019, VEJA® has purchased almost 400 tons of organic and fair trade cotton directly from several producer associations located in different regions of Brazil and the Peruvian coast.
For some sneaker models of VEJA®, like NOVA, the canvas fabric used is made from 100% organic cotton. Whilst these raw materials used in VEJA® drive up production cost, the brand is still able to price its sneakers competitively because they spend zero dollars on advertising which by their own estimates comprises around 70% of the cost margin of the global leaders like Nike® and Adidas® which goes into celebrity endorsements, media buying, advertising production, etc.
VEJA® has none of these.
As defined in its website: “‘Upcycling’ consists in recycling materials or products that have fallen out of use in order to turn them into higher quality or more useful products. Plastic bottles, cotton recycled from textile industry cuttings, recycled polyester: our recycled materials give household waste a second life, and allow us to create a range of fabrics according to season and use.“
As mentioned earlier, VEJA® is the only sneaker brand in the market that upcycles plastic bottles which forms part of the fabric of its end product.
The upcycling process is done in Santo André, in Brazil, where waste plastic bottles are collected, sorted, then transformed into plastic shreds. These shredded plastic are turned into polyester fiber through a plastic extrusion process. Around three plastic bottles are required to make a pair VEJA® sneakers.
The brand uses two types of fabric which are upcycled from waste plastic bottles. They call them ‘B-Mesh‘ and ‘Hexamesh‘. B-mesh is a fabric made 100% out of recycled polyester (polyethylene terephthalate or PET). While the Hexamesh is a mesh combination of two threads layered together. The resistant base is made of recycled plastic bottles and the top layer of knit is a hexagonal pattern made of organic cotton. It is composed of 70% organic cotton and 30% recycled plastic bottles and is made in Brazil.
These are just two sections amongst the wide range of sustainability initiatives taken by VEJA® which provide solid RTBs (or reasons to believe) that this sneaker brand is uniquely and strongly positioned against its much larger global competitors. They have found an open hole in the market and have firmly established leadership and carved out a profitable niche segment for themselves.
What has been the result for VEJA®?
In an interview with the Financial Times back in October 2019, co-founder Sébastian Kopp was quoted as saying: “I was having coffee with a friend in Los Angeles, and we were sitting at an outdoor table — in one hour in downtown LA, we were seeing people every 30 seconds walking past wearing VEJA.”
This innovative and highly-sustainable sneaker brand has certainly caught the attention of high-society and celebrities alike, and of course a growing consumer following across the world. “From London to Paris, New York to Newcastle, pavements the world-over are being pounded by white tennis-style sneakers emblazoned at each side with a logo in the shape of a V. Even those that aren’t familiar with Veja will recognise its now-ubiquitous designs; they’re the ones worn by everyone from the British monarchy (Meghan Markle) to Hollywood royalty (Emma Watson and Eddie Redmayne), as well as Instagram influencers, fashion editors, and quite literally, the girl (and boy) next door,” reported the Financial Times back in 2019.
From an original funding of only €14,000 plus a bank loan of €15,000 back in 2004, it is now available in over 2,000 retail outlets in over 45 countries worldwide with an estimated annual revenue of €60million in 2019, right before the global pandemic hit in 2020.
This brilliant brand leaves us with two key lessons:
(1) First, VEJA® has proven once again that any brand can penetrate into a highly competitive and crowded market as long as it is able to find an open hole and dominate that space with a clear brand positioning and robust supporting evidence that strengthens a USP (unique selling proposition).
(2) And second, the brand has validated once again the sixth positioning principle of Laura Ries that ‘PR, not advertising‘ can effectively establish the positioning of a brand. But this is true only when the brand has a unique story to tell in the first. The product and process strategies of VEJA® provide compelling stories which resonate very strongly with its target market.
You can indicate your reason for choosing ‘No‘ here.