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Orba creates shoes made of plant-based materials, challenging the status quo dependence on using synthetic, petrochemical-based components in footwear production. Currently, billions of shoes are made each year from harmful polluting materials, leading to enormous amounts of waste once people stop wearing them. Once footwear ends up in landfills, it can take thousands of years for the components to break down (Hoskins, 2020). This process risks toxic chemicals leaching from the waste into soil and waterways. Orba bucks this trend and incorporates sustainability into all lifecycle stages of its footwear, aiming to make its shoes fully compostable, proving that it is possible to produce high-quality, stylish, and durable footwear that doesn’t cost the earth.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have been adopted by Orba as a “benchmark for best sustainable business practices” to guide the company’s strategy and practice. With this, the business has identified nine SDGs to which it can make the most impact: SDGs 1, 3, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16.
Gillian Boucher has been part of Orba for two and a half years as a co-founder, Sustainability Advisor, and Company Spokesperson. For Gillian, Orba’s mission is to prove to the wider footwear industry that making shoes en masse doesn’t have to harm people and the planet. Its inaugural product, the “Ghost” Casual Sneaker, is the business’ first realisation of this mission.
Whereas many footwear brands manufacture shoes using harmful plastics, rubbers, and synthetic materials derived from petrochemicals to create different shoe parts, the Ghost sneaker is designed and produced using highly regenerative, natural resources that don’t require irrigation, or other inputs to grow. The shoe’s “bespoke bio-rubber” sole is produced from a mixture of natural, smoked rubber, pine tree resin, rice husk ash, and beeswax—the latter two ingredients being natural by-products of other agricultural processes. Flax, Kenaf, and Ramie fabrics form the shoe’s upper, all of which are fast-growing plants that only need rainwater to grow. The shoe’s removable footbed is designed using layers of cork, coconut husk, agave sisal, and rubber latex. In procuring each of these materials, the company strives to source from and work with suppliers endorsed by third-party Fair Trade and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) eco-certification.
Orba’s beginnings started with Gillian’s co-founder, Marshall Westlake. Originally from the UK, Westlake moved to the island of Bali in Indonesia 40 years ago, where his involvement in shoes saw him become a “godfather” figure of the country’s footwear industry. Things were different back then: products were packaged using what nature offered, such as the versatile “banana leaf which was always discarded and left to decompose.” Using natural options allowed people to not worry about throwing things away. However, Westlake noticed problems arising as plastic wrapping was introduced throughout Indonesia and replaced traditional versions. The change in packaging hadn’t been accompanied by a change in disposal behaviour; the plastic started piling up.
Westlake came to realise that the industry he worked within was also contributing to Indonesia’s growing plastic pollution. Addressing the wasteful side of footwear production then became the focus, a challenge he would take on with another co-founder, New Zealand entrepreneur, Greg Howard. Their collaboration led to Orba Shoes Ltd., “born out of the desire to create good and to eliminate pollution,” in March 2020. The company’s Ghost casual sneaker was launched in 2021, its first attempt at producing “the world’s most sustainable shoe”.
Orba’s goal is to one day produce a shoe with a “compostable label on it” that can be accepted at waste management facilities and doesn’t generate social and environmental harm from its manufacturing. While the company has yet to achieve full compostability for all of the Ghost sneaker’s components, the shoe’s bio-rubber sole proving to be the greatest challenge, much progress has been made in testing suitable environments for biodegradability. Gillian shares a recent positive experience when she came across a successful trial completed by the Australian business A Very Good Bra, for rubber biodegradability in worm farms, an experiment she is excited to try with the Ghost bio-sole.
Gillian believes that fulfilling the dream of a fully compostable shoe will be “ground-breaking” and a game changer for the wider footwear and rubber industries. It will also undoubtedly create shifts in legislation, as shoes now aren’t considered capable of breaking down in the environment. Currently, testing standards for biodegradability and compostability only exist for bioplastics such as beverage bottles. Orba, in this sense, has the potential to influence the rewriting of these guidelines to include shoes. Footwear compostability in the future can transition from being a niche quality to the common best practice across the wider industry.
From the beginning, Orba has had strong sustainability practices as the backbone of how the company runs. One way the company has consolidated this foundation of and commitment to sustainable practices, which additionally helps Orba contribute to achieving SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), is through becoming a Certified B Corporation in late 2021. This was one of Gillian’s key responsibilities since beginning at the company. As a B Corp, Orba has received recognition as a “business for good,” reaching high standards of “verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” Gillian adds that receiving B Corp certification has opened opportunities to collaborate with similar businesses and expand Orba’s reach across a wider customer base. The company's participation in several B Corp social media marketing campaigns has increased its social media following, gaining on average 700 followers each campaign.
While the company at this point is still small and its Ghost Sneaker sales alone have not yet allowed Orba to achieve self-sustained financial growth, the company is very confident in its ability to reach this goal in the future. The journey to creating a completely biodegradable shoe has attracted continued financial support from investors since Orba first released its bio-sole compound, with much interest in its potential to shake up the footwear industry by replacing man-made rubber components.
Creating closer ties with Orba’s suppliers ensures that those involved at all stages of shoe production are looked after, which is how the company addresses SDGs 1 (poverty reduction), 3 (promotion of good health and wellbeing), 8 (provision of fair employment and economic growth), and 11 (sustainable and safe communities). All those working for Orba directly or as contractors are paid a living wage and the company’s assembly factory adheres to ILO best practice guidelines as part of the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI).
The company strives to work with suppliers already third-party Fair Trade and GOTS accredited; yet as Gillian mentions, acquiring these credentials may be financially out of reach for some of their smaller suppliers, like handweavers. Despite this, many of these suppliers have expressed interest in improving, with Orba equally interested in continuing to support them and endorse “local traditional weaving practices.” Consequently, the business has reached out to local ILO reps with which to organise “SCORE training programs” which Orba has committed to fully funding before any shoes are sold. This will provide tools and knowledge to uncertified suppliers with which to adopt more sustainable practices and later become eco-certified. This builds on another company goal to improve Orba’s annual B Corp rating by 5 points each year, particularly in the areas of governance, workers, and environment.
The business’ aim to produce plant-based shoes is also aligned with achieving SDGs 12 (responsible consumption and production), 13 (combating climate change), 14 (conservation of marine ecosystems and resources), and 15 (conservation of land ecosystems and resources). To achieve these goals, starting with SDG 12, Orba recognises that it is important to ensure that all stakeholders across the company’s entire supply chain, from grower to consumer, are aware of why Orba wants to disrupt the footwear industry and what is needed to make it happen. Transparency, accountability, and communication are key; the company has its own “Supplier Code of Conduct” which informs suppliers dealing with Orba about ensuring sustainable and ethical production. This, along with other company documents such as the “Business Code of Ethics and Conduct,” are also made available for purchasers of Orba’s products to view on their website.
Orba doesn’t just bring about change within the footwear industry and share it with the world on paper though. Achieving SDGs 13, 14, and 15 has been incorporated into the company’s decision to manufacture shoes out of highly renewable materials and work with suppliers already demonstrating high-standard agricultural and resource management practices. The business continues to find ways to strengthen its supply chain and overall shoe quality. Examples of this are providing ILO training for smaller suppliers on better water and wastewater management and transitioning to GOTS organic certification for unconventional textile materials by the end of this year.
The Ghost sneaker’s end-of-life also factors into its design, supporting the company in achieving SDGs 12, 13, 14, and 15. The company has eliminated the need for toxic components in the shoe and packaging, with the shoes “93% plant-based." Orba is currently testing the shoe's “bio-sole compound” for biodegradability rates to pass ISO 14855 standards and later replacing certain plant-based materials with others of easier biodegradability. Once customers have worn out their sneakers, the company offers a take-back service so the shoes can complete the final part of their journey.
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Gillian Boucher, Sustainability Advisor
Orba is a small retail company that designs casual footwear made of plant-based materials, reducing the use of harmful materials that generate pollution and create unnecessary waste. The shoes are designed and made with their end-of-life in mind, using materials that have a low environmental impact and are highly renewable.