Gillian Boucher is trying to persuade the world to buy sustainable sneakers. With over 20 billion shoes made every year, she has a tough job ahead of her.
I can already see Gillian Boucher’s disappointment. We’re just moments away from a Zoom chat and I’m holding my shoes – a pair of faded, scuffed and dirty white sneakers that are only a year old – to show him my shame. I’m ready to buy a new pair, I tell him. I do it every year, I admit. I wear my shoes every day and my size 11 foot is giving them hell. Once they fall apart, I buy a new pair. Old ones go in the trash.
What happens to them? “They’re definitely going to the landfill,” Boucher says. My cheeks blush. Her brow furrows and she looks over the rim of her glasses to explain this properly. “If you take a closer look at your shoes… they are made of petroleum-based synthetic rubber. They can last in a landfill for thousands of years. Not only do we look at the pollution of what shoes do at the end of their life, we also have to think about the manufacturing process of the materials that make these shoes in the first place… There is pollution from start to finish.
The problems don’t end there. Who makes my shoes? I have no idea. When I look under the tongue, a label says “Made in Vietnam”. Butcher frowns again. “The majority of shoes are made in low-cost countries,” she says. “They work in an economy where labor laws aren’t super enforced.” I quietly lower my shameful sneakers out of Boucher’s sight and swear not to show them to him again.
I knew it was coming. I felt guilty about throwing my shoes away for a while, but I didn’t seem to have any other options. They are too old and worn out to be passed on to someone else to wear. I don’t know of any official shoe recycling program in my area. Throwing them in the landfill seems like all I can do. I guess you probably do this with your own shoes once they wear out too – everyone owns a pair of white sneakers, right?
But for a year, there is an alternative. Boucher is the co-founder of Orba, a sustainable footwear company based on the Kāpiti coast. Launched last September, Orba shoes are plant-based and non-toxic. This time, it’s Boucher’s turn to hold up a shoe. She picked up her sister’s well-worn pair of Orbas to explain how her white sneakers are different. They are made from natural fibers like flax, rice husk, ramie, kenaf and cotton. At the end of their life cycle, his shoes are designed to break down completely. Everything that makes a pair of Orbas is biodegradable.
When Boucher says it all, she means everything. “There are so many elements and little layers in a shoe that you just don’t see,” says Boucher. “There are toe caps, there are heel stiffeners, there is your insole. We had to source each component with the criteria of being plant-based and biodegradable. »
All of these durable products that make up the shoes don’t come cheap – the price of a pair of Orbas has gone from the launch price of $245 to around $150. However, if you were to rip the upper from the sole and throw it in a compost bin, “it wouldn’t be there in a month,” says Boucher. The soles, made of rice husk ash, beeswax and pine resin, last a little longer. Don’t have access to a composter? Customers will soon be able to bring their old shoes back to Orba for proper composting. “We have a really transparent supply chain,” she says.
Boucher, who is Canadian, joined Orba after graduating in sustainability in 2019, when the shoes were just a concept dreamed up by co-founder Greg Howard. Boucher was a musician and tours had shown her disturbing visions around the world. While performing in Manila, a visit to a slum set her on her current trajectory. “I saw horrible poverty and waste and it blew my mind,” she says.
She and Howard launched their first shoe, called Ghost, last September. Everything is going well, with the soft launch designed to test its compatibility for a global release. Boucher says the biggest hurdle has been educating idiots like me about where their sneakers come from and how they’re made. It takes time because there were no sustainable and compostable options before. “It’s about changing the way we think and looking very closely at what we buy and what they’re made of,” she says.
Education is huge. Boucher also has to explain to customers that no, Orba’s shoes won’t fall apart if you’re on the go and it starts to rain. “If you have a linen shirt, it doesn’t fall apart when you walk on the beach,” she says. “They need the right environment to collapse.” She also answers questions about comfort. Yes, even my 11ft tall will appreciate them. “It’s durable, it’s natural, it’s super comfortable.”
Twelve months into Orba’s life cycle, things seem to be going well. Orba has won awards for its sustainability efforts and its credentials have been confirmed with B Corp certification. When The Spinoff speaks to Boucher, she is in Copenhagen for three months to lay the groundwork for Orba’s launch in the European market. She receives inquiries from people living abroad asking how they can get their feet in a pair. For now, she has to say no. But plans for expansion are coming, with more colorways, made with organic dyes, on the way.
It is estimated that more than 20 billion shoes are made each year, and the vast majority of them will end up in landfill. Thus, the more it grows, the greater the environmental impact of Orba. Boucher just converted one more person never to do it again. How does she feel about what awaits her? “It’s not without its challenges,” she admits before returning to the brand. “We are determined to take this path. We are changing this paradigm. We are doing something new.