Save Those Used Coffee Filters: Young Shoe Company Needs Them

DEJA Inc. is turning garbage into sweet-smelling success by making sport shoes from recycled material.

The Tigard, Ore., footwear company uses more than 20 different recycled materials to manufacture its line of shoes, which was rolled out in the spring of 1993 and is already being sold by major retail chains such as Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, and Jordan Marsh.

The company was founded by recycling advocate Julie Lewis, who says its mission is to help preserve the environment by manufacturing footwear using recycled materials and ecologically obtained plant materials. ``People don't realize the connect of recycling to saving habitats and species,'' Ms. Lewis says. ``The more you recycle, the less need you have to procure a raw material, which always requires using a resource or destroying a habitat.''

In 1990, Lewis received a $110,000 grant from a regional government agency to produce 5,000 pairs of recycled shoes. People started buying the shoes ``sight unseen,'' she says, but many were returned. That's when she says she realized a product had to be more than just recycled. ``It needs to be better looking, it needs to fit,'' she says.

With no experience in the shoe industry, Lewis formed a partnership in 1991 with three former executives of Avia Group International Inc., a division of Reebok International Ltd., and secured $2.5 million in venture capital.

Two years later, shoe stores were snapping up Deja shoes made from materials such as reused denim; trim waste from diaper and wetsuit manufacturing; and recycled milk jugs, soda bottles, coffee filters, and tire rubber.

About 60 to 65 percent of each shoe's components is made from recycled materials, says Bob Farentinos, vice president of environmental affairs at Deja Inc.

The company is launching a new boot in August made of vegetal leather, a cotton-backed natural latex material produced by rubber tappers in the western Amazon Basin of Brazil. The company says using vegetal leather helps establish markets for products that offer Brazilian rubber tappers alternatives to cutting down trees.

TO date, Deja Inc. manufactures about 50 styles of shoes, including athletic shoes, hiking boots, sandals, and clogs. Prices range from between $40 to $75. Even the shoebox is made from recycled paper.

First-year sales were more than $2 million, Mr. Farentinos says, and the company expects to be profitable by 1995. The shoemaker donates 5 percent of its pre-tax profits to the Species Survival Commission, a group that works to protect endangered plants. The cost of materials is a ``mixed bag,'' says company president Bruce MacGregor, a former Avia executive. Some of the recycled materials cost less than virgin products, he says, while others cost more.

Like most US sport shoe companies, Deja makes its shoes in Taiwanese-owned factories in southern China. To manufacture them in the United States would cost an additional $30 to $40 a pair, Mr. MacGregor says.

One of Deja Inc.'s hurdles, MacGregor says, is educating consumers and retailers about the premise of the shoes.

``The [number] of people who are environmentally sensitive is growing all the time,'' he says, but mainstream consumers are only willing to buy environmental products if they are comparable in price and quality. ``The key for us is to make a product that compares on an equal footing to other footwear and have retailers present it in a way so that the consumer understands the difference.''

Overland Trading Company, an outdoor outfitter in Westford, Mass., started selling Deja Inc. shoes about a year ago. ``Although I've not had this bangup success like [with] Reebok,'' says Dan Bazinet, president of Overland, who attests to the shoes' quality, ``I think it's very important for us [Overland Trading Company] to raise that consciousness on recycling.'' Deja Inc. sells its shoes in the US and Canada and is pursuing markets in Britain, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, MacGregor says.

``Relative to other industrialized countries, the US really lags behind in environmental attitudes,'' he says. ``There's a real opportunity for us to expand quickly, and it's not inconceivable that five, six, seven years down the road, maybe 50 percent or more of our revenue could be from the international market.''

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