Better Businesses: Freewaters Makes Shoes in Santa Cruz, Wells in Africa
The EcoNinjas, left to right: VP of sales John Gothard, CEO John Vance, CO-Founder Martin Kim, Co-Founder Eli MarmarLook out people, we’ve got a new shoe company that not only makes amazing kicks for the feet but also helps to provide communities in Africa with clean drinking water. Along with helping to spread the right of clean water, Freewaters is working hard to use eco-friendly materials to make its shoes while still creating a quality product. On the Freewaters website, these self-described EcoNinjas start by educating the consumer on ‘our thirsty planet,’ showing statistics of the water disparity in world. They then educate the consumer on the well-digging process Freewaters uses. Martin Kim and Eli Marmar are the masterminds behind this amazing project. They design every shoe in their “Shaolin Temple” (aka studio) just north of Santa Cruz, CA, up in the Redwoods. With the purchase of these shoes and sandals, not only will your feet feel and look amazing, but you can be encouraged that your purchase is environmentally friendly and helping to fund water wells in areas of great need. What more could you want!? Co-founder Eli Marmar set some time aside for Better Businesses to give us a deeper look at the good this company is doing outside the footwear game.
Can you explain more of what you mean by being EcoNinjas?
Green Ninja: we don’t shout about being green. Instead, like good ninjas, we quietly and strategically use green materials without sacrificing quality or performance. Our products are PVC-free and we use only water based glues. Most of our styles are completely vegan and we have just released a new hemp collection.
What is recycled PET and how is it beneficial to your shoes and the environment?
Recycled PET comes from primarily consumer plastic drink bottles. It can be made into yarn and then fabric, very similar to polyester. It’s soft, light weight and has good water wicking properties.
You make a couple statements about ‘maintaining strictest standards of performance’ and not using ‘cheap construction,’ can you expand on this?
Many are not aware that a lot of footwear on the market is what’s called ‘off-the shelf’. That is, brands go to a factory and simply choose a style off the shelf in a sample room and simply recolor and rebrand it. Every style of footwear Freewaters makes is designed and developed completely from scratch. We always develop our own shapes, patterns, fit and constructions. That is how we ensure the highest standards or quality.
Are your shoes made in the Santa Cruz area or are they designed there and then globally manufactured? If so, how do you go about choosing where and how they are manufactured?
Our design studio, the Shaolin Temple, is nestled in the coastal mountains north of Santa Cruz. Our manufacturing partners are in China. China often gets a bad rap, but China is the global leader in innovating footwear materials and manufacturing techniques. Freewaters uses only audited and certified factories with well-ventilated facilities and safe working conditions.
Where did the desire to help provide clean water to people in need come from?
“We feel that access to clean drinking water should be a fundamental right, not a privilege.”
As we developed our business plan in 2009, we felt strongly that bringing fresh product to market was cool, but not enough. We wanted to do something outside of our own egos that would connect us with the global community. As surfers, we have a deep respect for the healing power of water and we wanted to share that with others. We feel that access to clean drinking water should be a fundamental right, not a privilege. And yet 1 in 6 people don’t have access to clean and safe water. Here in California and across North America, the mismanagement of fresh water resources is leading us towards a very serious water crisis. The experts are shouting but few are listening. Sound familiar? Water access is a global problem that affects and connects us all.
Explain more of your well digging process. Is this a familiar process for local community members? Is it easy to teach them how to maintain, repair, and sustain the well? Are the community members involved in building the well?
Initially the process was completely foreign to the community. Even our team of Kenyan engineers had never seen anything like it despite working on well drilling rigs for many years. But because the technique is so simple and low tech, it can be very easily learned and replicated. We always involve the local community to help construct the wells so that they take ownership and pride in it. We are very grateful to our friends at UntilThen.org who have been instrumental in helping us get on the ground in Kenya and to launch this project. How long is a well expected to last?
We generally expect the wells in Kenya to last an average of 20 years.
What are some areas of growth and opportunity for your company?
We are just now building our distribution in the outdoor market which has huge opportunities for us. The outdoor customer is a perfect fit for Freewaters as we share the same values. They pay close attention to quality, technical features and proper fit. Additionally they are conscious consumers who vote with their dollars by supporting environmentally and socially conscious brands.
Is there anything you can share that you’re planning for the future with Freewaters?
Expect rapid evolution and change from us. We are a young, creative and nimble team and we are not tied to doing things the same way season after season. We are constantly looking forward for new ways to innovate every aspect of our business from product to marketing to sales. To learn more about Freewaters and what they’re up to, head over to freewaters.com. And get some shoes while you’re at it.