Behind the Seams with El Naturalista

Photo: El Naturalista
Why eco-shoes may become the new organic tomato.

A leader in eco footwear, El Naturalista makes nature-inspired shoes perfect for anyone craving a comfy, fashionable footwear fix.

Since its inception in 2002, this global brand from Spain has produced sustainable shoes, largely made out of recycled materials. But now the company’s efforts have culminated in the Recyclus line, its most-sustainable yet.

According to Students for Sustainability (a partnership between The David Suzuki Foundation, The Sierra Youth Coalition and the Canadian Federation of Students) the environmental footprint of the shoe industry is sizable: North Americans throw out millions of pairs of shoes every year. Many of the adhesives used in shoe production contain the solvent toluene, highly toxic to the environment and the health of workers. And, the tanning process also uses several concerning chemicals including arsenic, mercury, lead and hexavalent chromium. (Not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock and international shipping…)

El Naturalista gets around the problem of toxics by tanning leather with vegetable extracts and ground tree bark, dying with natural pigments, and using thread instead of glue, as much as possible. The company is also committed to using as many recycled and recyclable materials as possible.

Earlier this spring, Green Living spoke to Juan de la Peña, El Naturalista’s international sales manager (and the founder’s brother). He was in the midst of a cross-country tour to launch the Spring/Summer 2009 collection.

Green Living: What is the history of El Naturalista?

Juan de la Peña: The company is owned by two families: One is my family who is in charge of everything but production and the other is in charge of production and owns the factories. We are able to control quality, delivery and we don’t have to sign contracts with other suppliers.

It all started with the frog. It’s a symbol of fertility, a symbol of revolution. From there we knew that our shoes needed to be comfortable but nice, too. We have the knowledge to combine both worlds. We had a clear idea that we needed to produce shoes in a different way, in a more ecologically friendly way.

GL: So was sustainability a priority from the get go?

JP: Yes, Sure. I don’t consider El Naturalista a green company… We are more about respect. We have a very strong social conscience. Respecting people, nations, traditions, and from there, it comes down to respecting nature. From the beginning, we’ve wanted to educate people and give the message that we need to change our ways or our natural world is going to disappear.

GL: Have you faced any roadblocks since starting El Naturalista?

JP: Of course. It’s more expensive producing shoes in this way—avoiding chemicals, using recycled materials. But I think we offer products for a fair price. The idea of the business is not to optimize profit, but to try to become a sustainable global brand.

GL: What do you say to those who think the price point for the shoes is too high?

JP: I would say, think about how a couple years ago nobody would pay extra for an organic tomato, but now many of us pay double for that tomato. So now people may not be paying extra or buying organic shoes, but they will. It’s a very new thing. You’re wearing extremely comfortable shoes with natural leather, you can see how they evolve and have the shoes sink into your feet. It’s an experience.

GL: Your new line Recyclus is made using recycled cork and rubber (just to name a couple materials). Why did you create the line?

JP: We do everything possible with today’s technology, so we use as much recycled material as possible in the outsole and also the insole is recycled polyurethane. We use also use eco-leather. We do as much as technically possible. Our shoes are one of the greenest products out there.

GL: What are some current problems with the shoe industry and how does El Naturalista work around them?

JP: There are not too many original ideas. I find a lot of shoes are pretty much the same or at least have the same concepts. I think what we do is very fresh and unique, we follow our own path. I think our value added is our social politics in Africa, the way we produce the shoes and the way we maintain a sustainable business model.

GL: I read that consumers can send back El Naturalista shoes to be recycled. Tell me about your take-back program.

JP: That is the Recyclus campaign. At the end of the process, you can send the shoes back to us. However, we don’t expect too many people to do it because our shoes are very durable. We’re trying to promote recycling. But you can actually dispose of the shoes yourself because there are no heavy metals or toxic chemicals in them. We want to promote the thinking behind what we do, why we do it and how we can all improve our behaviour in terms of the environment and society.

To find out where you can buy El Naturalista shoes, consult the Green Living Guides.