Our in-house label, Zette, and some other labels stocked here at Vegan Style, have their shoes made fairly in Brazil, by the vegan-run Ahimsa factory. Today, we're chatting with the factory's founder, Gabriel Silva, about what makes Ahimsa different.
Gabriel with shoes made by Ahimsa. Image: Fabiano Accorsi via Globo
Why did you start Ahimsa?
My background is in aviation, I was a corporate pilot before having to "retire" at 21 years old due to being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Upon receiving that diagnosis, I was unhappy to learn that my life expectancy was to be lower than that of someone without diabetes. With that in mind, I looked for ways to reduce the gap, and a plant based diet was probably the most common answer I could find. I turned vegetarian first and vegan later.
When the latter happened, I had already stopped flying and was working with my father in his footwear design and development agency company. He had worked in the industry for almost 30 years at that point, and wanted to help me to find a new career.
His regular business involves working with leather shoes, so when I turned vegan I was once again facing a career change. That was when I thought I could use my desire, my new needs, his experience and his network, to start something that could fulfill my needs and possibly the needs of others as well. That was back in 2013 and as of July 2021, Ahimsa has been in the market for 8 years.
How does Ahimsa compare to other shoe factories in Brazil and around the world, in terms of ethical labour?
We try to differentiate ourselves by caring for everyone, by having empathy, which for us simply means putting ourselves in everyone's shoes.
The entire company has a different vibe than regular shoe factories. Of course there's still a lot of work to be done, and with that comes pressure, but we work as a team, we share decisions, we decide everything based on the impact that this could have on us, and not by just how it would affect our bottom line.
It's important to add that we are lucky/glad to be in a country where employment laws are quite rigid and well established. Even if they are not followed by all companies, we do have a very solid baseline to start from, so being ethical is not that hard. It's clear for us that most companies steer away from ethical practices when thinking of their balance sheet first, and we have never done that.
Just some of the faces behind Ahimsa - Gabriel included amongst them.
What else makes a shoe non-vegan, other than the upper material, that people might not be aware of?
Most factories use things like reinforcements that are made with animal by-products. Some details like the welts can be made with the use of reconstituted leather. Some workers are supplied with suede gloves for production. In addition, brushes for burnishing and cleaning the shoes during production are sometimes made from horse hair. And, the most common one, are waxes used for shining that usually contain beeswax in their composition.
These are all fairly common in non-vegan factories, so the fact that a shoe is made entirely of vegan materials, does not guarantee that it is in fact all-vegan.
How does the Ahimsa factory run differently, for the sake of sustainability?
Everything starts from the beginning, with our awareness of the environmental impacts of everything that we use. All materials are analyzed and we strive to choose the least impactful ones.
In addition to the material selection, we also make sure our waste is appropriately taken care of. Whether it's solid or liquid, everything has its appropriate place and is forwarded to the appropriate facility.
A brush with non-animal bristles being used in the making of a shoe at the Ahimsa factory.
What's the biggest learning curve you had in business?
Managing an ever growing team is definitely the toughest thing. Keeping everyone aligned when we were 5 people was already hard, and now that we are near 50 people the problem only increases. It's a constant job to keep everyone going in the same direction, and I'm learning how to be better at that every single day.
What are you working on developing or upgrading at the moment, if anything?
We are constantly changing whatever we can to make our products better. So, trying new materials, trying different techniques, different constructions, is all part of our daily work.
What do you think is stopping shoe manufacturers around the world from running on a more ethical business model?
Customer demand. While the vegan/sustainable corner of the footwear market is probably the one that has been growing the most for the past few years, customer demand for truly sustainable and ethical products is still not where it could be.
Green washing is also too real, so it's very hard for truly honest brands to stand-out in an ever more crowded market, while competing with huge marketing budgets from some big players that are just joining.
If you could tell everyone in the world one thing about the fashion industry, what would it be?
The fashion industry, with everything that's involved in it, is one of the most harmful industries on the planet for the environment. Your choices matter and everyone should strive to minimize their impact by making conscious purchases.