First things first: What is so special about Veja – what separates you from mainstream brands?
First of all: We do not advertise. The resources we save on marketing are reinvested in the production chain – we offer fair remuneration to the involved farmers and producers to meet their social and environmental requirements. We tightly control our production and only manufacture orders placed six months in advance. We never produce surplus stock. We truly believe in reduction: Instead of planting trees and building CO2 injection wells, our prime priority remains the reduction of emissions and energy use.
Please tell us a little bit about why you started Veja …
In 2001, after studying political sciences and economics, I started working at a Washington, DC, investment bank. Before this, I had done my thesis on sustainable development and the role of companies; all this at a time when the subject was not really in the public eye. I discovered that companies won’t move if the customer doesn’t. Customers have the power to change – but they have to move first. We launched a project on sustainable development and traveled to emerging countries like Bolivia, China, India, and South Africa to study sustainability projects by large companies. We were really disappointed by the actual results and soon realized that most of them were not at all integrated; they had been relegated to the status of niche side-projects.
By that time, we had met Tristan Lecomte of Alter Eco, a French food-sector company that was among the first to try to establish a healthy and fair economic chain. We realized that this was what we wanted to do! It proved a good solution to all our problems since it links western consumers and producers in a good and tangible way.
Together with Ghislain Morillion I started Veja in 2008. And as we really liked shoes, sneakers seemed an obvious choice. By eliminating marketing costs, we could ensure fair production conditions. So, although our sneakers are seven times more expensive to produce, they can be sold at the same price point as regular branded items. This was – and is – Veja’s DNA.
What about your personal background: Where did this idealistic attitude come from?
Both Ghislain and I were very lucky to grow up in strong and sheltered families. We always had food on the table and enjoyed a very good education. So, we thought that if we do not try to do something very different, who else has the chance to try? We had nothing to lose getting into this adventure. Furthermore, we are the children of strong capitalism. Since 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, unfettered capitalism – with all its good and violent aspects – has conquered the world. We decided to set an example since we strongly believe that it is possible to change capitalism from the inside.
Veja produces in Brazil, a country that receives a lot of criticism for its ongoing rain forest deforestation. What is your impression of working in Brazil?
Brazilians are much more environmentally conscious than we are. To them, the rain forest is not an abstract thing, it is next door. It seems bizarre for us Europeans to criticize the Brazilians. Who are we to tell them to protect it? We are also cutting down the rain forest. It reminds me of a trip to China in 2002: I met a guy and talked to him about cycling. I was very excited about all those bikes, but he felt insulted and replied, “so, it is cool to have bikes in China and for you it’s okay to have two cars in your garage? You tell us not to buy cars because it is bad for the environment and we have to keep riding bicycles?” He was absolutely right. The whole rain forest issue is far more complex and it is a global responsibility. Who are we to tell Brazil what to do? Instead of looking at Brazil; Europe, the US, and all other nations should start looking at themselves.
What role does city life play in your design process?
Ghislain and I, we are both city boys. The city is both good and bad and we love its urban energy. It is very easy to meet all different kinds of people; information and ideas move fast. What we do not like is the fact that more and more people are settling up and totally forget about agricultural and production aspects. Everybody is working in communication services, but hardly anybody knows about how to grow a carrot. The city comes with a lot of options and ideas, but without nature, agriculture, and industry it is nothing. What we are doing in terms of agriculture is a disaster. All the power is concentrated in big cities, but big cities are the best places to forget about reality.
What are the most inspiring cities?
I would have to say Sao Paolo, which is a lot like New York in the 1950s and has this great sense of freedom. And Paris, of course. I love Paris! I live in the 5th arrondissement and love cycling and walking around the city. What I love less is the Parisians. And sometimes, Paris is a bit too conservative because they try to protect everything. As an architect, you don’t have much room for experimentation. Nonetheless, the city is changing, but not as drastically as London, for example. For me, gentrification is not a problem. All those new people coming in and buying houses creates the energy of a city. Throughout history, the city has always been defined by the fact that it changes constantly. Ongoing migration of both rich and poor feeds the pulse of a city. The only worrying thing would be stagnancy.
Your Spring/Summer 2014 campaign looks very urban. Where did you shoot it? What is the story behind it?
It was shot in the Beaugrenelle area, a Paris suburb and it looks a bit like a mixture of Sao Paolo and Paris. Veja is an urban project, but also has strong ties to nature and agriculture. Our foremost inspiration is the city and nature in harmony. The 1970s and 1980s architecture emphasizes the urban aspect. Furthermore, the campaign is a metaphor for the city’s craziness. When these houses were built, the architecture was considered perfect and very modern. Today, this area seems cold and not human at all.
Which metropolises are ahead of their time in terms of sustainability and better living?
I would say Seattle and Vancouver. They did a lot to improve city life. Both cities are very green, there are lots of bikes, they look very modern and different, and I have never seen so many electric cars. Paris is not too bad, either. We have a lot of bike-sharing schemes and electric cars and it is very difficult to access the city by car.
How do picture the city of the future?
Cities should become more intelligent. More energy efficiency through dimming the city lights and flash lights. Mainly, I would like to see more energy-saving solutions.
Could you give our readers some simple advice on how to safeguard our planet?
Not really. I was really into giving advice ten years ago, but now I focus on myself. There is only one thing I would like to say: Be aware that you, even at a small-scale consumer, have the power to change the world. If you want a better world, start with yourself.
Interview: Romy Uebel
All images, incl. the header image: Veja