Gillian Boucher is trying to persuade the world to buy sustainable sneakers. With more than 20 billion shoes made each year, she’s got a tough job ahead of her.
I can see Gillian Boucher’s disappointment already. We’re just moments into a Zoom chat and I’m holding up my shoes – a faded, scuffed, dirty white pair of sneakers that are just one year old – to show her my shame. I’m ready to buy a new pair, I tell her. I do this every year, I admit. I wear my shoes every day, and my size 11 feet put them through hell. Once they’re falling apart, I buy a new pair. The old ones go in the bin.
What happens to them? “They’re definitely going to landfill,” says Boucher. My cheeks redden. Her brow furrows and she peers over her the rim of her glasses to explain this properly. “If you have a closer look at your shoes … they’re made out of petroleum-based synthetic rubber. They can last in landfill for thousands of years. Not only are we looking at the pollution of what the shoes do at the end of their life, we also have to think about the process of making the materials that make those shoes in the first place … There’s pollution from start to finish.”
The problems don’t end there. Who’s making my shoes? I have no idea. When I look under the tongue, a label says, “Made in Vietnam”. Boucher frowns again. “The majority of shoes are made in low-cost countries,” she says. “They’re working in an economy where labour laws are not super enforced.” I quietly lower my shameful sneakers away from Boucher’s view and vow not to show them to her again.
I knew this was coming. I’d been feeling guilty about throwing my shoes away for a while, but I didn’t seem to have any other options. They’re too old and worn out to be passed on to someone else to wear. I don’t know of any official shoe recycling programmes in my area. Throwing them into landfill seems like all I can do. I’d hazard a guess that you probably do this with your own shoes once they’re worn out too – everyone owns a pair of white sneakers, right?
But for the past year, there’s been an alternative. Boucher is the co-founder of Orba, a sustainable shoe 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’s picked up her sister’s well-worn pair of Orbas to explain how her white sneakers are different. They’re made out of natural fibres like flax, rice husk, ramie, kenaf and cotton. At the end of their life cycle, her shoes are designed to break down completely. Everything that makes a pair of Orbas is biodegradable.
When Boucher says everything, 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 puffs, there are heel stiffeners, there’s your insole. We’ve had to source every single component with the criteria of being plant-based and biodegradable.”
All those sustainable products that make up the shoes aren’t cheap – the price of a pair of Orbas has dropped from the $245 launch price to around $150. However, if you were to rip the upper off the sole and throw it into a compost bin, “it wouldn’t be there in a month,” Boucher says. The soles, made of rice husk ash, beeswax and pine tree resin, take a little longer. Can’t access a compost bin? Customers will soon be able to return their old shoes to Orba for proper composting. “We’ve got a really transparent supply chain,” she says.
Boucher, who is Canadian, joined Orba after finishing her sustainability degree in 2019, when the shoes were just a concept dreamed up by her co-founder Greg Howard. Boucher used to be a musician, and touring had shown her some troubling sights around the world. During a gig in Manila, a visit to a slum set her on her current trajectory. “I saw horrific poverty and waste and it just blew my mind,” she says.
She and Howard launched their first shoe, called Ghost, last September. It’s been going well, with the soft launch designed to test its compatibility for a global release. Boucher says the biggest hurdle has been educating numpties like me about where their sneakers come from, and how they’re made. This takes time because there haven’t been sustainable, compostable options before. “It’s switching our thinking and having a real close look at what we buy and what they’re made out 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 out and about and it starts raining. “If you’ve got a flax linen shirt, it doesn’t break down when you walk on the beach,” she says. “They need the right environment to break down.” She also fields questions about comfort. Yes, even my size 11 feet will enjoy 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 their credentials have been confirmed with B Corp certification. When The Spinoff speaks to Boucher, she’s in Copenhagen for three months to lay down the foundations for Orba to launch into the EU market. She gets requests from people living overseas asking how they can get their feet in a pair. Right now, she has to say no. But expansion plans are coming, with more colourways, made with organic dyes, on their way.
It’s estimated that more than 20 billion shoes are made every year, and the vast majority of those will end up in landfill. So the bigger it grows, the bigger environmental impact Orba has. Boucher’s just converted one more person to never do this again. How’s she feeling about what lies ahead ahead? “It’s not without its challenges,” she admits, before getting back on brand. “We’re dedicated to going down this path. We’re shifting that paradigm. We’re doing something new.”