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Harald Franzen
January 14, 2016

A shoe manufacturer in Portugal is trying to make shoes with a small ecological footprint and stylish design at an affordable price.

Two lace-up shoes
Image: Ultrashoes

Pedro Lima started out with a plan to make biodegradable shoes, then decided to to do it using recycled materials and eventually ended up adding a vegan component. We spoke to the green entrepreneur about the challenges behind environmentally-sound footwear.

How did Ultrashoes come about?

I had the idea about two years ago. My family is in the shoe industry so I already knew that sourcing, production and disposal of an ordinary shoe has a great impact on the environment. I talked to my father and suggested that we could start making biodegradable one.

The other thing that always disturbed me was the huge amount of waste we produce - both in our day-to-day lives and manufacturing. This material is usually of very good quality but it's easier and sometimes cheaper to buy new raw materials than to reclaim used ones.

Then one day while I was presenting our biodegradable shoes in Germany, I learned about the concept of upcycling. I realized this could be both a good business opportunity and help the planet at the same time. Something similar happened with our vegan shoes.

You work with many different materials like cork, leather, rubber, cotton and microfiber. Where do you source them?

Almost all of our suppliers are local, which is also important for the ecological footprint of our shoes. The city where we are based, near São João da Madeira, is a cluster for the Portuguese shoe industry, so pretty much every component we need is produced nearby.

These boots are made for... recycling?Image: Ultrashoes

As much as 80 percent of the material used for our black soles comes from recycled car tire powder, which is processed at a facility 10 kilometers away, and transported to a sole factory just five kilometers from us. The same thing happens with the brown soles, which are made using recycled cork, and with the off-white ones, which are made using recycled soles.

In the process of manufacturing conventional shoes, 15 percent of the leather is left over as scrap. For some of our models, we cut it into small squares, stitch it together and make “blankets” of leather patchwork, which we then use in our footwear. That means more work but you could say we are trading labor for raw materials.

What does your manufacturing process look like?

Just like a regular shoe manufacturing process. We can't change our processes just to make these shoes because that would cost too much time, effort and money. We are not a small atelier that produces five or six pairs of shoes per day, we can make up to 1000 pairs of eco-shoes per day and that is a good thing because it keeps our costs down.

You wouldn't buy a recycled shoe for 200 euros if it was placed next to the same shoe - made from non-recycled materials - for 100 euros, would you? Our success comes from the fact that we are able to make recycled or vegan shoes and sell them for the same 100 euros because we kept our processes.

How has the response to your shoes been and where can we find them?

The response has been very, very good. We are currently selling our shoes in Germany, which is by far our biggest market, Italy, Switzerland, the UK, Turkey, etc. Most of the businesses selling these sorts of shoes are small and family-run. Local stores, small chains or online shops are our best customers.

What are your plans for the future?

Make more shoes, make them more eco-friendly and mix the different lines - vegan, upcycled, biodegradable - more. Ideally, we would like to make a shoe that is best for the environment in terms of sourcing, production and disposal, and is also stylish, comfortable and produced in a cost-effective way. I would love it if people could go to the store and buy a shoe that is 100 percent vegan, more than 90 percent biodegradable and more than 90 percent recycled, and which costs less than 120 euros.

A tan shoe with a white lace
Doesn't look like leftoversImage: Ultrashoes

With the help of our partners - suppliers and customers - we have come a long way from our first shoes in just two years. We now have shoes that are 100 percent vegan and 85 percent recycled, but we are still far from making them 100 percent biodegradable. We are happy, yes, but not satisfied.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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