The small New Zealand company Orba is winning international attention for their 100% plant-based footwear.
People are still getting accustomed to the idea of a shoe that's designed to biodegrade, says Orba's co-founder and sustainability manager Gillian Boucher.
"I get asked a lot ‘are they going to biodegrade when you’re walking in them?’"
This kind of wardrobe malfunction isn't a risk, Boucher says.
"I’m wearing a 100% linen shirt right now. When I bought it, I didn’t have that question in mind even though it’s 100% biodegradable. [The fibres in Orba sneakers] have to be in the right environment to biodegrade, like anything completely natural and plant-based."
Orba shoes are really just like any other sneakers but without the plastic or foam components. Boucher says.
They are primarily made from flax canvas, natural rubber and cork.
“We’ve been able to replace every single one of those elements with materials that aren’t made out of plastic or petroleum [which] can last in land-fill up to hundreds of years.”
Boucher's background is in music, but a trip to the Philippines left a mark and changed her career trajectory.
“My sustainability path started about 14 years ago when I was hired to perform for an NGO raising money to build a school for students who lived in slums of Manilla.
"I was asked to visit the current school that was there and when I did it was closed due to flooding. So, we went to the nearby dump, which is where most of the students lived with their families and the experience really left a mark on me. Seeing kilometres wide of waste, combustion of waste and families living there and the children - it was hard to get them into schools because it was more profitable picking up plastic and working.”
Boucher then began an international development degree at the London School of Economics, before completing a sustainability degree.
Waikanae businessman and Orba co-founder Greg Howard came up with the idea for a sustainable shoe project in lockdown. To Boucher, it seemed like a no-brainer.
“Orba was kind of born out of lockdown boredom and the desire to do good and make a change with how we view commodities and where they go at the end of their life."
Sustainable practices were embedded in the company's business model from the outset, which made it easier to stay on track, she says.
“I think that’s really good advice for any business [following a] sustainability pathway – get it started from the beginning.”
As a certified B Corp business, Orba meets high standards for employee benefits, charitable giving, supply chain practices and input materials.
“That’s quite a rigorous process to identify yourselves as a business for good, but because we embedded sustainability in our business model early on it was kind of streamlined and it wasn’t actually that difficult for us.”
In 2021, the company won the sustainability category at the Global Footwear Awards and the sustainable product design category at New Zealand's Best Design Awards.
She credits Orba's team - both in Indonesia where the shoes are manufactured and in New Zealand - with the company's commercial success.
“We’ve always known that we were doing something really special and impactful, but having it recognised gives that boost of morale," she says.
What to do with the sneakers when they're ready to be disposed of is a conversation the Orba team is having internationally and with other companies creating biodegradable products, Boucher says.
"The consumer demand [for biodegradable products] is there – how many biodegradable toothbrushes have you seen in the supermarket – but the waste management infrastructure to handle these products at the end of their life isn’t there.
"So we’re actually asking people to send their shoes back to us so we make sure these are put into our soon-to-be-established worm farms.
“We’re going to make sure that they biodegrade. At the end of the day, if these shoes end up in landfill, that’s not ideally what we’ve designed them to do. But they’re still out of plant-based products, so they’re not going to stay there for thousands of years like other shoes would. It’s not the end of the world, but we do want to put them in the proper place so they biodegrade.”