Fashion + Tires? A Case Study on Brave Soles
This is one of a series of case studies on lessons learned from starting sustainable businesses!
- Look for problems in areas you’re uniquely interested in or that you’re uniquely aware of. The solutions will be all the more innovative.
- Not having many resources at first is GOOD! It helps you not waste time chasing ideas or products that aren’t the best.
- Be VERY specific about the values you’re not willing to bend on. For the other nice-to-haves, give yourself some flexibility to grow into them :-)
Since 2005, Christal Earle has been in and around the garbage dumps of the Dominican Republic. She had founded a humanitarian organisation there and had been learning about the problems in the country’s waste system for several years. What she noticed seems a little strange: a surprisingly large amount of tires!
It seems like an odd detail, but these tires actually created a LOT of problems for workers in those garbage dumps. They’d be over a meter in diameter and could become pools for a lot of standing water. This led to mosquitoes breeding in the tires, which led to the garbage dumps being infested with them. At times, Christal personally knew garbage dump workers who contracted Dengue and died after being infected by mosquitoes. For two years, she thought about a solution to this issue.
Specific Actions to be Sustainable
This drive to help eventually materialized into Brave Soles! It’s a fashion brand that started handcrafting soles for shoes made out of the tires in the garbage dumps. Not only did this get those tires out of the dumps where they were homes for mosquitoes, but it also allowed them to be upcycled into a new product instead of becoming waste. These soles were then used to handcraft shoes that are sold online.
Since that start, Christal has continued to expand Brave Soles’ work. They now also reclaim leather and fabrics, saving them from garbage dumps and creating accessories like wallets and purses. For Christal, that initial desire to help is what guides her constant iterations to become more sustainable — all while balancing the budget! Brave Soles also takes actions to use biodegradable packaging for their products. And rubber scraps from tires are stored during the shoe-making process so they can later be sent to make parts for highways. By the end of 2020, they’ve recycled over 1,700 tires.
The Journey to Get Here
As with many founders, Christal’s journey started from experiencing the problem on-the-ground. After seeing the harsh reality of the problems caused by waste tires for two years, she finally came up with the idea behind Brave Soles in 2017. It was DEFINITELY a tough start because she was new to the business and fashion community and had a steep learning curve. In fact, she had just $250 that she used to launch the business!
She started off by creating 8 product lines, having people test which products they liked most, and surveying them on which price points they’d be willing to pay for the products. Her belief was that in the fashion industry, if you have the right story and a fair price — people WILL buy your product! The hard part was getting people to feel like they were part of Brave Soles’ solution. But what about scaling?
Scaling was actually the hardest part according to Christal. Since Brave Soles manufactured their own products (unlike many fashion brands), they had two challenges at once: building supply AND creating demand.
The demand had to come first. Brave Soles’ target audience for their marketing WASN’T the hardcore environmentalist. Those customers would find her product regardless of marketing. Who Christal focused on were consumers who loved aesthetic products AND would be that extra bit convinced to buy from Brave Soles rather than an unsustainable competitor. So, she used aspirational marketing: things like email campaigns with resources to educate consumers about the value of sustainability in the fashion industry. This helped Brave Soles scalably build demand over time.
Then, came the issues with the supply. At first, Brave Soles would work entirely in real-time: a customer would buy a product online, an employee would go down to the garbage dumps in the Dominican Republic to find a tire and bring it to a workshop, and another employee would craft the product out of the tire in the workshop. It was only over time that Brave Soles was able to build out the financial capacity to maintain inventory over time in a more scalable way.
Now, they’re still staying true to their mission and values when working on this problem. They track the impact that they create through the number of tires recycled, the amount of energy saved, etc. with the help of a company called Green Story. And at the same time, it’s EXTREMELY challenging for everyone in the fashion industry to make it through COVID-19. So for Christal, it’s now a balancing act between fulfilling her dream of helping the world and staying alive as a business.
Some Numbers Behind the Story
- By December 12, 2020, Brave Soles has recycled 1,724 tires. This saves as much energy as it would take to power over 284,000 bulbs for an hour. Also, it reduces as many greenhouse gas emissions as those generated by 214 cars for a day.
- In their first year (2018), Brave Soles sold $175,000. In 2019, Brave Soles sold $250,000.
- They have 6,000 subscribers to their newsletter with a 22% open rate.
- 25% of their customers are repeat customers.
- Each product retails for about 4x what it costs to make. Wholesalers ask for a 50–60% discount on the retail price.
What Worked Well and What Didn’t
Being new to the fashion industry, Christal found it intimidating at first to define Brave Soles’ brand and target audience very specifically. But that was the biggest thing she did right. By only having 8 product lines to test, she avoided wasting time and money with unwanted products (she only had $250 starting out, remember).
It’s like she says — she loves Vietnamese food, but the downside is that Vietnamese restaurants give her 250 options when she’s only going to end up picking 3.
What she would’ve done differently would’ve been to focus even earlier on learning to manage finances so she could scale. She wished she could’ve moved away sooner from the real-time model of website order leading to production afterwards. What works better for them now is to build inventory before sales in a more scalable way.
Advice to other Founders
Christal’s advice is to be VERY specific with the values you won’t bend on… And for the rest, you should give yourself flexibility in deprioritising them and maybe, pursuing them more as you grow.
Also, as she concisely puts it: “JUST START!” She recommends the book, The Lean Startup, for more details.
If you found that case study helpful, GO THANK Brave Soles for making this possible!! And check out the next case study here :-)