Vegan Footwear Company Steps Into Growing Sustainability Shift In Fashion Industry

As one of the leading fashion capitals of the world, New York City is at the forefront of the latest styles and trends. In recent months it has also been home to a pop-up store with a sustainable style: Figure Eight, announced as “a retail concept that reinvents the ecosystem of luxury fashion “.

Co-founded by Tina Bhojwani, the Soho store features brand styles that incorporate ethical practices and vegan materials, including Bhojwani’s new vegan footwear brand Aera. Sustainability-oriented brands are a growing but still relatively small component of the $ 2 trillion global fashion industry with a history of questionable work practices and negative environmental impact.

With Aera and Figure Eight, Bhojwani hopes to be among those who are shaping a solution by working with suppliers who pay their workers a living wage and source better materials with a reduced impact on the environment. She and others see signs that fast fashion and its negative effects are falling out of fashion, especially among young shoppers, and big brands are taking notice. He shared more about Area and his future plans when we recently met at the Figure Eight store as part of my purpose-oriented business research.

“My idea with AERA was to lead by example, but it is difficult to have a significant impact when you are a small company, the impact is always stronger when they come together as a collective, hence Figure Eight,” said Bhojwani. . “What gives me hope is that today’s young people are more aware of learning how things are made and where they come from, much more than when I was little. I believe that with access to information, education and a little awareness, we can move the needle forward. I also believe that larger companies are feeling the pressure now more than ever. ”

That education includes helping people understand the social and environmental implications – from the people who produce it, to the water and energy used to produce it, to the landfill space it will likely fill soon – of a $ 5 T-shirt that many consider. disposable style.

“Someone somewhere didn’t earn a living wage to make that shirt. I believe that if people can stop and realize how these prices are obtained, they will understand how unfair it is on the other side, both socially and environmentally, “he said.” You have the social side, where people don’t make money. enough and they can’t put food on the table, and where they work long hours in factories in third world countries. And you also have the environmental piece, “says Bhojwani.

With over two decades of experience in the fashion industry, including Donna Karan, Theory, and as President and CEO of Dolce & Gabbana, Bhojwani knows the challenges and opportunities of the industry. With the creation of Aera, he aims to bring fashion forward in a more sustainable, yet elegant way.

“My mission when we started Aera was to create vegan shoes that didn’t look like vegan shoes. The first thing the customer needs to see is a really interesting and exciting pair of shoes, well made, with high quality materials, comfortable and that have style and design integrity, “he said.” I also believe that if we can change our The industry, if we can change fashion, has the ability to influence much more around us. Therefore, I feel that fashion can be a powerful force for change. That’s why I changed careers. “

Working with artisans to create lasting footwear

Serendipity played a part in the creation of Aera. While working as a consultant in Los Angeles for several brands and researching sustainability, Bhojwani dined with a college friend who runs an impact investment fund. Soon after, he met a former colleague who worked in shoe design.

“We met for drinks and started talking about sustainability and footwear, and one thing led to another. I presented two of them, did some research and realized that there are interesting materials available and no one was doing this job in luxury footwear, “she said.” There was a clear gap in the market, so we got involved. work”.

That work began in artisanal shoe factories in Italy that had only worked with animal materials, but had practices to ensure that workers earned a living wage and were safe on the job. They also share information on energy and water use to inform Aera’s life cycle assessment.

“The idea was to keep an artisan craft alive. We work with small family-run factories in Veneto that have the ability to scale, but unfortunately they are dying out. There is something beautiful about carrying on the next generations of these factories with a sustainable mission and a unique business idea, “he said.” This concept was new to them: working with vegan materials, introducing vegan glues and understanding how to create shoes with them, which is actually a little more difficult than animal materials, which are generally more flexible by nature. At first, it took one and a half times the time to produce a pair. Now they have to move on to a much longer process. quick, but at first it was a challenge and a lot of trial and error. “

Initially, he hoped to have a bio-based shoe, but currently it’s not feasible with existing materials. Aera styles are now approximately 50% bio-based materials and 50% recycled synthetics.

“Back to sustainability, we’ve researched many styles that have stood the test of time because if you really want to be sustainable, shoe styles have to be somehow classic with a modern twist to stay relevant for seasons to come,” she said.

Demonstrating that luxury and sustainability can go hand in hand

The real test, of course, is whether consumers like the look and feel of footwear, another reason why Bhojwani wanted to open the Figure Eight pop-up shop. It served as a way to raise awareness of Aera and other brands and create some excitement in New York about sustainable fashion. Figure Eight’s décor also features chic, urban designs with sustainability in mind: fixtures made from recycled paper, plant-based lampshades, and shelves made from old copper tubes.

“Since it was such a new concept, most consumers were surprised to see that there are so many sustainable brands or that they were of such high quality,” he said. “The idea was to educate and hopefully change the client’s perception; to demonstrate that quality, style and luxury can go hand in hand with sustainability. That was one part, and the other was offering a space for people looking for sustainable fashion. Many of the brands are primarily digital natives, so having their product in a physical store has offered a new opportunity to interact in person with shoppers. “

Strolling through the store, it is impressive to see such a diverse and well-appointed array of offerings, including Qeep Up (sportswear from actress and activist Maggie Q), Yatay (Milan vegan sneakers), Rentrayage (recycled fashion and sustainable home decor). ), Rondel (18kt jewelry), Mavra Toufidis (Made to Measure with luxury dead stock fabrics), 66 ° North (sportswear from Iceland – first time shown in America) A Shirt Story (vintage buttoned bicycle shirts by crystal), Maison d’Etto (neutral fragrance compared to the natural kind), Minimalist (circular fashion), House of Waris (tea).

“Aera’s focus on social and environmental impact made it natural to establish the business with the legal structure of the company for benefit,” he said. “The world certainly doesn’t need another shoe brand. The idea was to create a company to show what was possible, create this model and try to influence change. When we started the business, we always knew we wanted to become a public utility company. “

The decision to undertake the B Impact Assessment and become a Certified B Corporation was also a natural progression, although it was slightly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The B Corp certification shows that our company was created to balance profit with purpose. That AERA meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, transparency and responsibility. This rigorous process has helped us understand clearly where we are and will keep us honest and accountable as we move forward. We wanted to start when we were little so that we always have this roadmap to guide us as we make future decisions, “he said.” I love that it’s not just about the environment, but also about the employees and the community. It’s holistic in the way it is. its approach and I think it gives customers, investors or anyone who interacts with the company a validation. At the end of the day, we are all busy and don’t have the time to do the research, plus there is a great deal of “greenwashing” and an excessive use of the word “sustainability”, so we really wanted to legitimize all the work they were doing. “

With Aera and other fashion brands pioneering materials and processes to reduce environmental impact, Bhojwani hopes to help create a game changer where operating as B Corp becomes expected rather than optional.

“More and more people want to work, engage and invest in B Corp certified companies as it conveys a positive message in terms of what’s possible,” he said. “The fashion industry is innovative and creative and there are ample opportunities to change for the better.”

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