Gillian Boucher, sustainability manager at Kiwi footwear firm Orba - one of the company's first employees - explains how the business, run from the Kapiti Coast, runs operations remotely in Indonesia.
What does your business do?
Orba is a start-up, starting off as an eco-footwear company. Footwear is the beginning but it is not going to the end. What we're doing is experimenting with what is considered unusual materials for the footwear industry; materials that are plant-based, bio-degradable and highly renewable. We've launched our Orba Ghost casual sneaker in September of last year and our goal was to remove all plastics and synthetics from the shoes and be challenged by making shoes out of plant-based and biodegradable materials.
What was the motivation for starting Orba?
Orba was birthed at the beginning of lockdown. One of our founders, who is a Kapiti-based man Greg Howard, was over in Indonesia working with the other founder Marshall Westlake. Marshall has been involved in the Indonesian footwear industry since the early nineties - they are now the world's sixth-largest footwear producer Indonesia, and their goal and vision was to make the most sustainable shoe they possibly could; based on minimising waste. Waste has been a hot topic all over the world now for quite a few years but the apparel and footwear industry really has a lot to answer for when it comes to waste and the type of materials they use to make products, and Marshall, when he first moved to Indonesia in 1991 commented that a lot of packaging was banana leaf packaging and they would just toss that in the backyard and it wouldn't be there in the not-so-distance future, and then plastic came onto the scene and the waste in Java now is overwhelming and he didn't want to continue to be part of that. Orba all started with an aspirational goal but making it a reality has been pretty challenging.
What has the past six months looked like for Orba?
The biggest challenges we have had is the availability of alternative materials to use. We're making a lot of environmental claims by using plant-based materials so a lot of my job has been about doing research on materials and plant-based fibres that we're using to make our eco-friendly materials. Having only launched in September, and as a small team, receiving massive positive customer feedback not only the concept of the shoes but the comfort levels and durability has been very pleasing. We've run a couple of awards over the last six months which is really awesome; we won the sustainable product and design category at the Design Institute of New Zealand Best Design Awards and were a winner in the sustainability category at the Global Footwear Awards. We also achieved B-Corp certification this past December only four months after launch.
How big is the team?
There's five of us here in New Zealand, and three based in Indonesia, and that's full-time employees. We're a small start-up and New Zealand is a test market for us, and as we expand into new international markets our team will definitely grow.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted Orba?
I can't say it has had major negative impacts on the business. Our launch date was later than expected due to freight delays. Orba actually have a bunch of people a bunch of work during that time; it gave five people in New Zealand full-time jobs during the pandemic and the ability to work from home on a start-up.
Where do you see the business in five to 10 years time?
We only have white sneakers on sale at the moment so we're currently working on launching some beautiful colours that of course address negative environmental impacts in the industry. We're aiming to become a leader in the industry that can demonstrate that you don't need to use polluting, petroleum-based plastics and synthetics in clothing and footwear to have a great product. When dying our shoes - this has a huge negative impact to water pollution and water scarcity issues, so we use completely plant-based natural dyes in Indonesia, coming from local plant leaves and different types of bark to make these gorgeous natural hues. We're hoping to bring those to the market eventually and also to continue to improve our biosocompound and improve rates of biodegradability. We're always doing R&D in this area. We want to continually improve our manufacturing practices and supply chain and the materials we work with.
What is the focus right now?
The current focus is realising a large line of footwear by getting colours out into the market. We're really limited by only having a white shoe so that is our biggest focus right now. We've been really happy with our performance and sales in the New Zealand market. Shortly we'll be heading over to Europe to set up a European team in anticipation of a launch there later this year and we're also slowly gathering a group of people for a team in America too. Launching a range of colours and international expansion are the main focuses.
What advice do you give to others wanting to start their own business?
Look to instil sustainable business practices from the beginning - be a business for good; not just a business based for profit, but a business that actually creates a positive impact and that strives to do good in the communities that it works in.