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Vegan Footwear Company Steps Into Growing Sustainability Shift In Fashion Industry

Vegan Footwear Company Steps Into Growing Sustainability Shift In Fashion Industry

by ESG Business Institute -
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As one of the world’s major fashion capitals, New York City is at the forefront of the latest styles and trends. In recent months, it also was home to a pop-up store with a sustainable take on style: Figure Eight, billed as “a retail concept that re-imagines the ecosystem of luxury fashion.”

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

With Aera and Figure Eight, Bhojwani hopes to be amongst those 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 accompanying negative effects are falling out of style, especially amongst younger shoppers, and big brands are taking notice. She shared more about Area and her future plans when we met recently at the Figure Eight store as part of my research on purpose-driven business.

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

Someone somewhere did not earn a living wage  to produce that shirt. I believe if people can pause and realize how these prices come to be, they will understand how unfair it is on the other side– both socially and environmentally,” she said. “You have the social side of it, where people do not earn enough and cannot put food on the table, and where they are working long hours in factories in third world countries. And, you also have the environmental piece,” says Bhojwani. 

With more than two decades of experience in the fashion industry, including time at Donna Karan, Theory, and as the President and CEO of Dolce & Gabbana, Bhojwani is familiar with the industry’s challenges as well as opportunities. By establishing Aera, she aims to move fashion forward in a more sustainable — yet still stylish — way. 

“My mission when we started Aera was to make vegan shoes that did not look like vegan shoes. The first thing the customer must see  is a really interesting, exciting pair of shoes that are well-made, with high-quality materials, that are comfortable, and that have style and design integrity,” she said. “I also believe if we can change our industry, if we can change fashion — it has the ability to influence so much else around us. Therefore, I feel like fashion can be a powerful force of change. That is why I shifted my career.”

Working With Artisans To Create Lasting Footwear

Serendipity played a role in Aera’s creation. While working as a consultant in Los Angeles for several brands and researching sustainability, Bhojwani had dinner with a university friend who operates an impact investing fund. Soon after, she encountered a former colleague who worked in footwear design.

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

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

“The idea was to keep an artisanal craft alive. We work with smaller family run factories in Veneto that have the ability to scale, but are sadly dying out. There is something beautiful about leading the next generations of these factories forward with a sustainable mission and a unique business idea,” she said. “This concept was new for them — working with vegan materials, introducing vegan glues, and figuring out how to create shoes with them, which is actually a bit harder than animal materials, which are generally more flexible by nature. In the beginning, it was taking one and a half times as long to produce a pair. Now they have it down to a much quicker process, but it was a challenge and a good bit of trial and error in the beginning.”

Originally, she hoped to have a bio-based shoe, but that currently is not achievable with the materials that exist. Aera styles now are about 50% bio-based materials and 50% recycled synthetic materials.

“Going back to sustainability, we researched a lot of styles that have stood the test of time because if you are really going to be sustainable, the shoe styles need to be somewhat classic with a modern twist in order to stay relevant for seasons to come,” she said.

Showing That Luxury And Sustainability Can Go Hand In Hand

The true test, of course, is whether consumers like the look and feel of the footwear — another reason Bhojwani wanted to open the Figure Eight pop-up store. It served as a way to raise awareness of Aera and other brands and create some NYC buzz about sustainable fashion. Even Figure Eight’s decor features chic and urban designs with sustainability in mind: fixtures made from recycled paper, plant-based lamp shades, and racks made of old  copper pipes.

“As this was such a new concept, most of the consumers coming in were surprised to see that so many sustainable brands exist, or that they were of such high quality,” she said. “The idea was educate and hopefully shift customer perception; to show that quality, sty;e and luxury can go hand in hand with sustainability. That was one part, and the other part was to offer a space for people who were seeking out sustainable fashion. Many of the brands are primarily digitally native so having their product in a physical store offered a new opportunity to engage with shoppers in person.”

Walking through the store, it is impressive to see such a diverse and beautifully styled set of offerings, including Qeep Up (activewear by actress and activist Maggie Q), Yatay (Vegan sneakers from Milan), Rentrayage (up-cycled fashion and sustainable home decor), Rondel (18kt jewelry), Mavra Toufidis (Made to Measure from dead stock luxury fabrics), 66°North (active wear from Iceland - first time being shown in America) A Shirt Story (up cycled shirts with vintage crystal buttons), Maison d’Etto (natural gender neutral fragrance), Minimalist (circular fashion), House of Waris (teas).

“Aera’s focus on social and environmental impact made it natural to establish the business with the benefit corporation legal structure,” she said. “The world certainly does not need another shoe brand. The idea was to create a company to show what was possible, and create this model and try to influence change. When setting up the business, we always knew we wanted to be a public benefit company.”

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

“B Corp Certification shows that our company was set up to balance profit with purpose. That AERA meets the highest standards of of verified social and environmental performance, transparency and  accountabilty. This rigorous  process helped us to clearly understand  where we are, and will keep us  honest and accountable as we scale. We wanted to start when we were small so we would always have this  roadmap to lead us as we make future decisions,” she said. “I love that it is not just about the environment, but it is about the employees and community. It is holistic in its approach, and I think it gives customers, investors, or anyone who interacts with the company validation. At the end of the day, we are all busy and do not have the time to do the research, plus there is a large amount of ‘greenwashing’  and overuse of the word ‘sustainability’ so we really wanted to legitimize all the work we were doing.”

With Aera and other fashion brands leading the way on materials and processes to reduce environmental impact, Bhojwani hopes to help create a tipping point where operating as a B Corp becomes expected rather than optional.

“Increasingly people want to work for, engage with  and invest in companies with B Corp Certification as it puts a positive message out there in terms of what is possible ,” she said. “The fashion industry is innovative and creative, and there is ample opportunity to change for the better.”