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How One Company Gives Flip-Flops a More Sustainable Footprint

"Mom and Dad, this is it."

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In our consumption-driven world, it’s not hard to find people who have dozens of shoes stowed in custom-designed closets. Then there are those who stick to a single pair that gets worn with everything, in any weather. We all have a unique history and story to our shoes. Kyle Berner, owner of a single pair of shoes, was traveling in Thailand when his flip-flop strap snapped and the story of a new pair of shoes began.

Searching for replacements in a Bangkok market, Berner happened upon a display of new flip-flops made from natural rubber. “I didn’t even know that rubber came from a tree at the time,” he recalls. Berner learned that the rubber shoes supported a micro-economy of farmers dotting the Southeast Asian nations of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. And while Berner hadn’t set out on his trip to find a business idea, but by the next day he found himself meeting with the manufacturer to learn more.

Berner had what might be described as a whirlwind love affair with those flip-flops. There was a serious “ahh” factor when he tried them on, but then an entrepreneurial revelation. He remembers coming home from Thailand, having emptied his backpack of clothes and filled it with flip-flops. “I walked into my parents’ living room with this backpack, and I turned it over, and all these flip-flops came pouring out, and I said, ‘Mom and Dad, this is it.” He’d found a passion and a business. His parents were a bit nonplussed, but were cool with him building a shed in their New Orleans backyard to store an initial stock of 300 pairs of flip-flops. He sold out in a week and Feelgoodz was born.

But more than finding a hot-selling product, Berner saw a chance to develop a sustainable business model—one inspired by Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff—that could inject fairness and responsible use in every step of the production process.

The Story of Stuff, a book and 20-minute animated web movie, taught Berner the textbook description of how we arrived at a consumption-based society and the five stages of the materials economy that support it: extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal. These steps are filled with environmental harms and societal injustice spanning deforestation, unsafe working conditions and rampant waste. Berner sought to design a logistical business plan that, rather than proliferating waste, spared the planet with each step of that materials economy.

Berner began working with a farmer co-operative that cultivates the same rubber trees for latex over the course of 40 years and then, once they’re tapped dry, plant new trees in the old trees’ stead. He found that if he connected farmers directly with manufacturers, he didn’t need the commodities brokers who typically took a cut of their profits—thereby ensuring the farmers a fairer wage.

From the farmer co-operative, the latex is processed and steamed into rubber sheets mixed with natural dyes—a step that keeps toxins out of the process and out of contact from the 200 to 300 workers who craft the flip-flops. (These workers are paid up to ten percent over minimum wage and are offered group health insurance.) Shipping the shoes is made carbon-neutral through offsets and since they're compostable and recyclable, the company encourages customers to ship them back to Feelgoodz for retail credit when they’re worn out.

And what do they do with all those worn out flip-flops customers ship back to them? To close any logistical loopholes and in an effort to create a “zero flip-flop waste world,” Feelgoodz “unflops” shoes, upcycling any pair of customers’ old flip-flops or sandals. With a partner in Kenya, the company transforms them into things like doormats, laptop bags and mouse pads. By 2014, Feelgoodz will be doing the same upcycling process closer to home in conjunction with a New Orleans-based startup as well.

It’s a full life cycle of commerce that puts great thought into a simple pair of flip-flops. A purist might ask, though, just how necessary it is for us to buy and have flip-flops in the first place when our levels of consumption are already putting the planet in peril. Says The Story of Stuff author Leonard via email, “Production, consumption and profit are not evils in themselves. They're necessary for workers to earn wages, producers to supply goods and consumers to meet their material needs. What matters is how goods are produced, how they reach the consumer and what happens at the end of their use.”

She adds, “In this case, it certainly seems as if Feelgoodz has paid close attention to every point in the cycle… Production, consumption and reuse on the Feelgoodz model—in which we'd only use what the planet could bear—would bring us closer to sustainability.”

And that’s the company’s mission: getting shoes on feet responsibly so those that make them can have a good life. For all those serious goals, Feelgoodz has the spirit you’d expect from a flip-flop company that’s philosophy is “steppin’ easy.” Having put in the effort to ethically streamline its model, Feelgoodz hopes those who wear their shoes will “chill out, slow down, relax and enjoy life.” And with their business model, they’re hoping to preserve an environment in which we all have a chance to do so.

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