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From global humanitarian work to sandals made from recycled tires: the brave soles story

From global humanitarian work to sandals made from recycled tires: the brave soles story

Apr 28, 2020

Meet Brave Soles: our new favorite sandals that respect the planet, the people who make them, and, most importantly, your feet. The materials they’re made from (including upcycled tires) are pretty groundbreaking, but their origin story is even less traditional. We sat down with Founder & CEO Christal Earle to learn about how her past work as a humanitarian led her to creating shoes that create equal opportunity for all.   

Listen to our Interview with Christal Earle    

You founded an international youth humanitarian organization, which is pretty different from running a shoe company. How did that path lead you to start Brave Soles?

Back in 2000, I founded an international youth humanitarian organization called Live Different. Our main focus was to make a difference in the lives of youth, which we did through empowerment presentations at school assemblies.


Fast forward to 2004, and I’m on vacation in the Dominican Republic. I was bored one day at the resort, so I decided to reach out to an old friend who was working as a humanitarian in the Dominican. It just so happened that the village she was working in was only 7 minutes away from my resort, so I jumped in the back of a pickup truck to go see her. When I arrived, it was really the first time that I had witnessed such drastic, widespread poverty—which is crazy considering it was only 7 minutes from our luxury resort. 


I ended up spending most of my day speaking with a Haitian woman who shared her life story with me. Hearing what it was like to walk in her shoes (no pun intended) really humanized everything for me; it made me start thinking of ways that my organization, Live Different, could alleviate some of their pain points. When I came back to Canada, I drew up a plan, and the next summer we brought 280 teens over to the Dominican to help build homes, schools, and rescue centers. 


For just over 10 years, I was going back and forth between Toronto and the Dominican Republic, bringing students over each time for humanitarian projects. One summer, we took a group out to visit a local garbage dump in Puerto Plata. This was the first time that I had been to one of the dumps, and I was amazed by the number of tires we saw. In North America, we have recycling infrastructure and government take-back programs in place for used tires, but in the developing world, that’s not the case. The majority of people either burn or dump their old tires, which cause a number of health and environmental issues. When burned, tires release incredibly toxic fumes. When dumped in a landfill, the rims often hold standing water from rain, which is an ideal breeding ground for Dengue-Fever-carrying mosquitoes. 


I kept saying, “I wish someone would do something with these tires”, and then one day I had a lightning bolt realization: use tires for the soles for classic, stylish sandals. The rest is history.


Starting a shoe business from scratch with no previous experience in that industry is no small task. Where did you even start?

I first found a man who owned a small leather shop in the Dominican Republic. A lot of people don't know this, but the Dominican is filled with skilled leather workers. In the past, large multinational companies, like Coach, have had factories there. Most of them have now moved their factories to countries with lower labor cost, which left behind a huge number of skilled workers looking for equitable work.


So I started by finding the makers themselves, and finally in June 2017 I launched Brave Soles with $250 in the bank. On the first day, I sold 39 pairs of shoes and I knew that I was onto something.


It’s pretty incredible to see what you’ve built. How were you able to figure it all out?

Within the first few months of launching, we were accepted into a social venture incubator in Toronto, which was a total gamechanger. I was able to get advice on the business side of things from people in the shoe industry. Having these mentors helped me understand both the industry and logistic side of it all, and we’re constantly learning from our team in the Dominican about manufacturing and production. It’s taken many hard lessons and lots of trial-and-error to get to where we are today.


There’s a general assumption that the more sustainable or ethical a product is, the higher the price tag will be. How have you kept your prices so accessible and fair?

We have absolutely no middlemen in our production, which saves an enormous amount of money; we also follow a very simple cost structure. We’re more focused on creating equal opportunities for people than on making high margins. We pay the people who collect the tires from the garbage dump per tire, and they set the price based on what they deem is fair. We pay both our shoemakers and the ladies who create our upcycled shoe bags per project—and again, they determine their fair wage. We roll these costs together, and set the price based on what everyday consumers are willing and able to pay for handcrafted, leather shoes. We ensure that everyone is being paid fairly throughout the entire supply chain, and with no middlemen we’re able to keep pricing accessible.


We’re really trying to break down the perception that sustainable fashion is only attainable for the wealthy. While our shoes may be slightly more expensive than a fast fashion retailer, our customers know that they’re investing in quality, lifetime shoes, and are directly impacting both people and the planet in a positive way. For many of us, that’s worth a few extra dollars. 


We love that Brave Soles are made without chemicals, and with largely natural and upcycled materials. Was sustainability always a focus of the brand?

I have always considered myself a humanitarian, and for a while, it seemed as though there was a dichotomy between “humanitarians” and “environmentalists”. People were either one or the other, not both. Then one day I had an awakening to the bigger picture: what is best for the planet is often what is also best for its people. 


Since the beginning of Brave Soles, we’ve taken both people and the planet into consideration. We have asked ourselves, “how can we do this in the fairest way possible for the people involved, and in the gentlest way for the planet?”


By reusing tires, we're utilizing a pre-existing resource, and for the rest of the shoe, we use largely all-natural and upcycled materials. Removing the tires from landfills also eliminates the toxins that would have been created from burning them, reduces the risk of mosquitoes, and creates a new avenue for people to make an honest living. It’s all connected. 


Where do you see Brave Soles in 5 years?

One of my biggest goals is to become a BCorporation. Even just doing the initial assessment has helped us question how to maintain our ethics and sustainability at scale, and has allowed us to dig deeper into what’s possible.


I also want to continue making a measurable impact, remove more and more tires, and maybe expand our model into countries outside of the Dominican Republic. There are dumped tires looking to be saved everywhere across the globe. We’re always thinking about how we can grow our positive impact.


I also want to continue making a measurable impact, remove more and more tires, and maybe expand our model into countries outside of the Domincan Republic. There are dumped tires looking to be saved everywhere across the globe. We’re always thinking about how we can grow our positive impact.

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