Life As I Know It: Veja Co-Founder Sébastien Kopp

Sébastien Kopp and François Morillion are the two French founders and childhood friends who started the sustainable trainer brand Veja almost 15 years ago. But as Kopp reveals, the company’s ethics go far beyond the materials used in their shoes…

Childhood friends, Sébastien Kopp and François Morillion, went to school and university together and afterwards embarked on a research trip investigating industry and manufacturing that took them all over the world. In 2004, they set up the Paris- and Brazil- based trainer brand Veja, working with pesticide, GMO and fertilizer-free organic cotton farmers in Brazil and a collective of rubber tappers in the country’s Amazon Rainforest for the wild rubber used in the soles of their shoes. Beyond materials, ethics inform the entire model of the company from sourcing and production, to packaging and distribution and employment rights. 

Veja has a store in Paris and sells all over the world. The products are assembled in Brazilian factories where working conditions and wages are higher and fairer than industry standards. In Europe they work on distribution and logistics alongside Ateliers Sans Frontières, which rehabilitate ex-offenders and drug-users. Producing orders only in six month batches, means that they do not stockpile excess product or waste valuable materials and resources. Here Kopp tells us more about his personal approach to sustainability and ethical business.

Transparency is everything

It’s not very French, but we are transparent about our employee salaries. We try to do the maximum for our employees and are very careful about gender equality. Four of the five highest earners in the company are women. For the last three years 20% of the profits of the company have been distributed to employees and we’re going to raise that to 30%. 

Our office is a nice place to be 

We’ve made our Parisian office in Bastille into a beautiful space. It’s got a Scandinavian, slightly industrial feel. Of course there is sustainable practice behind it. All the tables and chairs, everything, was bought second hand through a dealer with a specialist eye – so it looks great. 

Image: Organic cotton farmer, Brazil

Freedom of choice

We don’t have the space to have lunch, so we give everyone 10 Euro vouchers. But we don’t tell them where to go – if they want to go to McDonalds then they go. There’s a frontier. We all have our personal responsibility. Our staff don’t bring in plastic bottles, but that’s because it’s their choice, not because we force them. We provide five recycling bins in the kitchen, but it’s up to the individual if they use them. I don’t want to listen to myself saying you must do this. Otherwise, it’s even worse than being a dictator. It’s telling people how to be moral. 

We like green energy 

Back in 2008 we switched our energy supplier to Enercoop. It was founded by former members of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. We worked alongside them to get them more established. For one week in 2011 we emptied our Paris store and threw a party for them, inviting friends, the fashion industry, the NGO community and press. We also bought a huge number of white hooded boiler suits and military oxygen masks that looked like the uniforms of nuclear energy plants and said guests coluld only have a drink if they were wearing one. They were really tiny back then but over the week we got about 1,000 people to register and now it’s a pretty successful company. 

Image: Brazil

Everything can be questioned 

When we started Veja we were 24 years old. We were aware of our consumption but when you start playing this game, chasing organic cotton across the world etcetera, everything else becomes questionable too. So of course it changes your consumption and makes you think about everything. I hate soap in plastic bottles – a soap bar lasts 10 times longer and you don’t have the plastic waste – and I also think it cleans better. It’s more about asking questions of myself. We all have old habits. We’ve been doing the same thing over and over but you have to start to question that. What I haven’t found is washing powder that isn’t in plastic! Yes, I buy an ecological one but it’s always 2 litres and in plastic bottle. I’d like to go to the local store and get a refill but I can’t do that in Paris yet. 

The big problems?

Everyone asks what is the biggest problem? Plastic is a big problem, yes, but everything is a big one. Water consumption, energy consumption. Do you plug your phone in to charge overnight? In France there was a big study done two years ago, which suggested that cell phones charging over night equals two nuclear energy plants working all year long. Before I read this I was plugging in my phone every night. Now I just do it in the day time before I go to sleep and stop when it’s charged and plug it in again when I wake up. 

Image: Wild rubber

I haven’t stopped consuming, but I consume what I need

It’s not a philosophy, for me it’s common sense. Are we happier to buy fast fashion, are we happier to plug our phones at night? I have my answer, I’ll let you have yours. I haven’t stopped consuming, but now I consume what I need. I haven’t bought anything for three years now. 

I have a small wardrobe of clothes – maybe 10 t-shirts and three, four sweaters. Once my sweater gets holes and I’ve repaired it once, twice, three times, maybe I’ll buy a new one but not until then. It doesn’t make me happy to have new ones. But I have a lot of Veja – 10, 12 pairs. I wear them every day. 

I think about what I eat and where I buy it

I go to organic grocery stores and markets. It’s easier now in Paris. There’s one in front of my building. All the big chains are opening organic, fair trade, now it’s the thing. Is it well made, that’s questionable? All my vegetables are from the farmer’s markets. I eat meat maybe once a week and red meat maybe once a month. I hate to go to a dinner cooked by a friend and say oh no I’m a vegan or whatever so I will eat meat in those cases, but the less you eat it, the more you dislike it. 

One of my sons is 6 years old and he’s vegan because he saw a cartoon about it and said no more red meat. I thought he’d last a month but he’s lasted two years. 

See how Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle styled her Veja trainers.

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