Deja Shoe Footwear: Ahead of Their Time?

Deja Shoe is the third and final in our mini series on companies that blazed the trail for dedicated eco-businesses, long before the arrival and departure of Nau. The previous two case studies were Terrapax and Esprit Ecollection.

The Deja Shoe story is so similar to Nau that one could easily imagine they were twins separated at birth. A company nudged along by an industry elder, recruits experienced industry heavy hitters to produce a product line made completely from recycled or renewable/biodegradable materials. It donated 5% of takings to environmental causes and would create an unprecedented buzz in it's industry, generating millions in free advertising. And just as it was getting into stride, ironing out business bugs, it failed to secure operational funds. Oh, and they were based in Oregon too.It's is fable that begins with Julie Lewis, a fanatical recycler who decided that all the society's waste should not go to landfill but to new useful product. Inspired by the developing world sandals she'd seen made from car tyres she set out to make her own version.

To build on her passion to the cause, Julie got two big breaks. She was able to obtain invaluable advice and support from Bill Bowerman, co-founder and design genius behind the company that would become Nike. [Just as Bill pioneered the waffle sole for sports footwear, the inspiration behind Nau, Eric Reynolds designed some of the first sleeping bags and jackets to use Gore-Tex.] Julie also secured a $110,000 grant to produce a run of her recycled footwear.

Five thousand shoes were made. But they had quality control problems, so in 1991 Julie enlisted the help of ex-executives from sport shoe company Avia. Their industry nous helped Julie and the growing team navigate their way through what was involved in new green start-up.

Deja Shoe's core market difference - recycled materials - was also one of their most significant business hurdles. The footwear industry, at that time, left it to outsourced shoe manufacturers to locate materials required for production. Everyone did it this way. But in Deja Shoe's case this was not possible, due to the very special nature of their fabrics and finishings. So the company spend a lot of time, energy and money sourcing recycled feedstock, getting it processed into footwear grade materials, and supplying it to shoemakers.

The extra work involved in establishing supply of these new materials, coupled with their short runs of a new styles, conspired to make the shoes more expensive than their competition.

The first six months of formal operations in 1991 were funded out of the ex-Avia executives own pockets. But by early 1992 they'd secured 2.5 million in venture capital. Unfortunately, the shoe upper material they'd run with for the first full commercial released in 1993 (a short fibre recycled cotton from Canada) was not very durable and returns came flooding in.

But with the $1.5+ million USD in sales they did manage to create, and another $5 million in a fresh round of venture capital, the company took time to perfect their next line of shoes. Released in 1994 it sold so incredibly well, that 14 countries were quickly signed up for international expansion. All this growth was helping provide an economy of scale for the exotic materials that Deja Shoe employed providing better pricing and margins.

But then just as all looked set to go ballistic one of their three original venture capitalist chose not to reinvest. Almost $11.5 million in funding had been found to this point. But no new investors were quickly forthcoming and company, ethical to the end, wound up early so it could pay off debts. You can read the gory details here in a two part PDF case study.

Yet, just as Nau has 15 years later, Deja Shoe made an industry look up and take notice. All the big boys responded back in the mid 90's with footwear that had some element of recycling.

And they needed to because Deja Shoe was generating an estimated $5 million plus, annually, in free marketing and advertising. People loved the story. Nordstrums, REI , LL Bean and Bloomingdales being just some of the US retailers wanting some of the action.

It was a remarkable marketing tool that Deja Shoe had at its disposal. One that at its heart was genuine and infused with integrity.

Uppers were made from the industrial trim waste from disposable nappies/diapers, of hemp, of Vegetal leather from Amazonian rainforests, from salvaged denim jeans (above left), of wool felt (above right), of recycled PET drink bottles, of an animal-free leather.

Soles were of reground car tyre rubber and from cork. The padded collar and tongue of foam from seat cushions of chairs. The logo badge from recycled milk jugs, the footbed from recycled wool jumpers and recycled EVA foam. The lasting board from recycled coffee filters, the underfoot padding from neoprene wetsuits and rubber gasket production waste.

Deja Shoe were so thorough with their recycling that they produced a list of how much pre and post consumer recycled content was in each model and how much each contained of sustainably harvested materials. All of the 22 different materials had its own fact sheet in the retail training manual.

But the commitment didn't stop with the product's materials. Deja Shoe pioneered water-based adhesives, instead of the industry standard toxic solvent glues. Although made in China, their factories were not military or state managed. The company had strict Global Sourcing Guidelines.

Their office furniture was all pre-loved reuse pieces. Their trade show and retail store display materials were high post-consumer recycled content. Even the incredibly detailed ring binder (remember, this was pre WorldWide Web days) crammed with company and product information used a recycled content.

The footwear came in the niftiest of shoe boxes (seen above). Printed with soy based inks, they used no adhesives or staples and could be unfolded and refolded into attractive storage boxes.

Julie Lewis was adamant that Deja Shoe should donate 5% of pre-tax profits to the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union. The company had an 18 point Corporate Policies statement. (Ron, who commented on the Terrapax post who love point 13. "Leather-Free Footwear. We will use no leather in the manufacture of Deja Shoe footwear, because of the health and environmental impacts associated with leather processing and the ecological consequences related to over-consumption of animal products.")

They saw themselves as "a for-profit, cause-led environmental company."

For such effort the company was awarded the United Nations Environmental Fashion award, the top Edison award for Environmental Achievement from the American Marketing Association and the Best Recycling Innovation award from the US National Recycling Coalition.

But due to that aforementioned unavailability of investment capital it only lasted four years, until mid 1995. The inspired brand name and left-over stock was sold off. You can still find some of it marked down, even today.

Julie Lewis was not, however, easily thrown off course. Teaming up with Bob Farentinos, who'd been head of Environmental Affairs at Deja, she created a new company called Deep E Co. and produced some similar styles (see left above). But being a much smaller scale operation it failed to gain the necessary market traction. Later, Julie would try again, with an anagram of Deja, Jade Planet. The hemp and recycled Pachira boot from Jade (right above) is a small reminder of what could've been, if Deja Shoe had hung in there.

One could reasonably argue that Worn Again, Simple's EcoSneaks & Green Toe, Patagonia Footwear, and the like, all owe a great deal to Deja Shoe. And maybe END Outdoor too (more on that one soon).

So this writer believes, that while Nau did break new ground, there was a well trodden path pre-dating it's initiatives.

If Nau was the racing hare, then maybe the equally committed, but more cautiously moving Patagonia, Finesterre and Klattermusens' of the outdoor apparel market, will be the tortoises that win the race.

Tags: Chemicals | Footwear | Forestry | Oregon | Recycling | Reusability

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