Creating a Closed-Loop Shoe with Okabashi Shoes’ Brad LaPorte

May 23, 2011

Okabashi Shoes started 25 years ago in Georgia with one goal in mind: making the most comfortable shoe ever. Today, Brad LaPorte, Vice President of Manufacturing for the brand, continues to expand the brand’s mission — 30 million recycled shoes later — in 16 countries. Okabashi shoes are made of 100% recycled Microplast, a carefully selected mixture of waste materials, in a closed-loop system, and the company encourages users to return old pairs to recycle once more into new products. The brand’s carbon footprint is constantly being reduced as well: A typical pair of Okabashi shoes travels about 700 miles, compared to the 11,000 miles that imported shoes travel. “Sustainability is a very big part of Okabashi, but you can get stagnant just being sustainable,” LaPorte admits. “Moving to the next level, we’re developing Microplast 2, which is lighter and stronger and uses less fossil fuels to make the product.”

Transcription

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have Brad LaPorte on with us. Brad is the Vice President of Manufacturing for Okabashi Shoes in Georgia, United States. Welcome to Green is Good, Brad LaPorte. BRAD LAPORTE: Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, you know, we’ve got listeners not only around the United States but around the world, Brad. Share with us a little bit the Okabashi story. BRAD LAPORTE: Okabashi started about 25 years ago with our founder’s dream in mind of making the most comfortable shoe ever. 25 years later and about 30 million pairs of recyclable shoes, we’re sold in 16 countries around the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is awesome. I love your tagline. By the way, Mike and I are on your great website right now, okabashi.com. For our listeners out there that have their iPads, laptops, desktops in front of them, it’s okabashi.com. It’s a beautiful website. I love the tagline, Shoes that are good for you and good for the planet. That’s great. You’re the manufacturing guy, Brad. What makes a shoe green? Why is Okabashi green as opposed to other shoes? Help us out here. BRAD LAPORTE: There are several things that go into making a shoe green, or even a company green. It goes really deep into the culture of the company itself. 100% of our shoes are recyclable. Not only that from a preconsumer, using all of our waste, our byproducts of making the shoes to put them back into new shoes, but also postconsumer recycling. If you buy a pair of Okabashis and in five or 10 years down the road, if you wear them out and want to buy a new pair, and if you so desire, I’d like for you to throw them in the dishwasher and send them back to me. We’ll grind them up and put them back into some new shoes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is awesome. Let’s talk about this from step one, no pun intended. How does this really work? What do you make your great shoes out of, and how is that different from what other shoes are made out of? Explain, then, not only what goes into it, but the whole process and why your carbon footprint is the lowest, etc. BRAD LAPORTE: Sure. It starts out, obviously, with the material selection and the material development that we’ve chosen for our materials. Typical shoes are made out of EVA or leather or some products like that, that are not easily recyclable. We’ve developed a material called Microplast, and it’s really a combination of some proprietary stuff that we’ve developed here to put in the shoes that not only allows us to use the process waste, but also to use the postconsumer material. We bring the material back, grind it up, we use some precision scales and blending equipment to use a certain percentage to put back into our brand new shoes. Not only that, we go into the carbon footprint. Selecting our vendors within and around the United States, not importing our stuff from overseas allows us to have a pretty small carbon footprint on this beautiful green Earth. Typical shoes travel about 700 miles, whereas a lot of the import companies travel about 11,000 miles. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Basically, being made in the USA, besides having other benefits, creating great jobs here and helping to grow our new green economy, it also lowers the carbon footprint of an Okabashi shoe. BRAD LAPORTE: Sure. It has other benefits too. Obviously, we’re not paying any import taxes or tariffs, we’re using in-house natural resources and we’re not buying them from overseas. It’s a win-win for America and a win-win for Okabashi. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do you only make the shoes in Georgia, or are there other locations also in the United States? BRAD LAPORTE: We only make the shoes in Georgia. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Again, walk us through a little bit this whole issue of closed loop. Can you define, as a manufacturer, what a closed loop means and why your closed loop process is really superior to others? BRAD LAPORTE: I guess you have to look at every stream or every possible stream of waste within your facility. A closed loop means that none of that waste is going to go into a landfill or get thrown in the ocean. Being able to use, again, all of our process materials, not throwing them out, allows us to close that loop. Most companies on a closed loop system take care of their own stuff internally. Having a postconsumer recycling program, we also extend that out and make it the responsibility of our consumers to go ahead and send us back and be conscious of the environment and send those shoes back to us to be ground. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When we have great guests like you on, Brad, talk a little bit about the corporate DNA at Okabashi, the green DNA. Do you have an on-site recycling program? Are there other things that you guys do besides the shoes, just as a company culture, that really shows the walk of Okabashi? BRAD LAPORTE: Sure. You actually really hit the nail on the head there. They keyword there is culture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a marketing person or a machine operator in the back or myself. It’s a culture that’s embedded in Okabashi, whether it comes to going to low-energy lighting, we have skylights in our facility — when it’s a sunny day, we turn the lights out and let the skylights light the place — to a 100% recycled cardboard program right down to even recycling our soda cans in the break room. It’s really through and through everybody’s responsibility to take care of this planet. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How many employees approximately do you guys have there? BRAD LAPORTE: We have about 200 employees. JOHN SHEGERIAN: 200 employees. As a manufacturer, a lot of people say, “If it’s green, it’s more expensive.” You’re now considered a green manufacturer, and probably the people who work for you, even though you’ve been doing this for years, are probably considered green collar jobs, part of the green collar economy. You’re a manufacturing specialist, Brad. What are the challenges that face you, particularly, as a green manufacturer that you have to be faced with every day and that you try to overcome on a daily basis? BRAD LAPORTE: Sure. A lot of companies have it. Everybody has the misconception that being green is going to cost you more money, when inherently, if you’re doing the right things and you make your facility or your company green as a whole, it will end up saving you money overall. It may cost you more to get rid of your hazardous waste in a proper way, or it may cost you more to have the right permits to have things done properly or removed properly from your facility. But if it’s an overall culture, you’re saving on the other end, whether it’s material or soda cans or cardboard. Those things far outweigh the additional costs for the incidentals. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. I’m here on your website, and this is just such a wonderfully well done and simple website, but it explains so much of what you’re doing. It says here, “Zero waste lean manufacturing.” So, you don’t have any waste, as you explained earlier. What does lean manufacturing mean? Does that mean everybody who’s working on the line is skinny? What’s going on here, Brad? BRAD LAPORTE: No, unfortunately, not everybody is real thin. Lean manufacturing kind of is a spinoff from the Toyota production system. I come from an automotive background, so in adapting a lean principle to a factory is the elimination of waste. The whole lean culture is eliminating waste, whether it’s people walking around, forklifts driving here and there, whatever be the case, it’s a total elimination of waste. You look for any and all places that you can remove that excess waste, movement, material, and so on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You came out of auto manufacturing. Many moons ago, when I studied this stuff back in business school, was that just in time, a little bit of that also? BRAD LAPORTE: Sure. We do not have any finished product. We actually keep our product in its first state as much as possible to eliminate if something were to change in the marketplace, where we wouldn’t have a bunch of product on the floor that we’d have to dispose of or regrind or waste energy to try to make into new type shoes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Brad, again, the website is amazing. I love, again, another one of your slogans, “Wear. Rewear. Recycle.” That’s so simple. When we’re looking at Microplast, today is the first day I’ve ever heard of that. Is that something that’s trademarked by your company and is a proprietary way of manufacturing this wonderful foot plastic wear? BRAD LAPORTE: Yes, absolutely. It is a trademarked name, and it is totally proprietary of what we put into the material to make all this wonderful stuff happen and make it comfortable and durable. Typically, our shoes will last anywhere from two to four years. We have a two-year guarantee on all the footwear that we’ve produced. Again, that’s a green initiative in its own. If you make stuff that lasts, then you don’t have to worry about people throwing it out. MIKE BRADY: Brad, you talk about comfort, and I’m on the site like John is right now on my PC. Really, they look very cool, very comfortable. How would you describe the feel for someone? If you put it into words for somebody listening right now, what would the feel of the material be likened to? BRAD LAPORTE: There’s really no feel that I could explain. Let me give you this. Go into your closet at home and grab a pair of flip-flops that are not Okabashis, and take a look at them and feel them. And, then grab a pair of Okabashis and take a look at them as well, and you’ll see a heel cup that contours the heel of your foot. You’ll see arch support that obviously supports your arch. There’s massaging foot beads in several strategic places around the shoe. There’s a specific toe rest that actually supports your toes in the right proper position as you’re wearing the shoe. So, compared to some of our competitors, we put a lot of time and effort into the reflexology that are built in our shoe. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great, and the coolest part is, like you said earlier in the show, Brad, once you’re done wearing them, you can actually send them back to you guys, and you guys are going to grind them up and make them into new shoes. BRAD LAPORTE: Absolutely. If you want to refresh the look of your Okabashis, throw them in the dishwasher. If they’re worn out or the style has changed, you’ve gone from your college days and now you’re a little bit older and want to change your style, you send them back to us. We’ll grind them up and they’ll be a new pair of shoes in no time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Everybody, please, all of our listeners out there, you’ve got to go on their site. Their site is just wonderful. It’s okabashi.com. We’re on with Brad LaPorte now. Open up your laptop, your iPad, or your desktop, and check this out because not only do they have all the processes and procedures of how they make these great shoes, but Mike and I are sitting here and we’re really enjoying look at all the styles and everything you have. This is not just a one-size-fits-all-type deal. You really cater to everyone’s idiosyncrasies and different tastes. BRAD LAPORTE: Not only that, look at the price. We’re doing all of this and keeping conscious of our environment for around $15. MIKE BRADY: That’s it. I’m looking at $12.99-$14.99, the price points for all the men’s, and women’s are comparable too. It’s just amazing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is great. We can buy them online, or like you said earlier when we started the show, in 16 different countries right now. BRAD LAPORTE: Right. We have some major retailers around the United States, Whole Foods, Meyer, CVS, Walgreen’s. We’re several places. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Or, we can just buy it online. We can go to your site and just buy it right there. BRAD LAPORTE: Absolutely. That’s the best way to get the style and color that you want, and we have everything on the website. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. How many years have you been there? BRAD LAPORTE: I’ve been with Okabashi a few years now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, how did you go from automotive to footwear? What was the epiphany that went through your mind, Brad, and said, “Hey, you know what? I’ve built cars now and wheels for people to get around, now I’m going to take care of their real wheels, their feet?” BRAD LAPORTE: Yeah, I guess from wheels to wheels is a perfect description. With the automotive industry doing what it’s doing, I wanted to go to a place that I wanted to build and make a difference. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of waste in the automotive industry, not only on the floors, just paperwork that flies around the office. Okabashi is a smaller company. If you come in, make some changes right away, and reap the benefits. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m looking at all these different features of your shoes, support of contours, reflexology-inspired massage beads, then you have the Microplast material. These are unique to Okabashi Shoes. You can’t find these with other brands out there that compete against casual footwear. BRAD LAPORTE: That’s right. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. Let’s talk about the journey now. Mike and I are so blessed. We’ve had so many neat people on, Ray Anderson, another wonderful of our guests from the Georgia area, really one of the granddaddies of sustainability. Everyone we always ask, Brad, about the journey. Talk to us about the process. How is Okabashi today? Where was it when you found it, and where’s it going in the future as a brand in terms of sustainability with regards to people, planet, and profits? Talk about when you wake up the morning, how you’re going to take Okabashi to the next level with the leadership there. BRAD LAPORTE: I guess it comes down to something we’ve been doing for a while now, is constantly moving forward. Sustainability is a very big part. That’s a good term that you used. Sustainability is a very big part of Okabashi, but you can kind of get stagnant just being sustainable, moving to the next level or next target down the road. What we’re doing now is we’re developing Microplast II, that is indeed lighter, stronger, will last even longer, and uses less fossil fuels to make a product. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Brad, one of my favorite quotes of yours that I read over the weekend when Mike and I were preparing for this show was, “The American dream is filled with many sleepless nights.” Would you like to share? We have lots of entrepreneurs that listen to this show around the world and a lot of young people who want to be the next Brad LaPorte or owners of or founders of Okabashi shoes. What does “The American dream is filled with many sleepless nights” mean to you? What did you mean by that? I think that’s a wonderful and very true quote. BRAD LAPORTE: Actually, that was the quote of our owner, Bahman Irvani. It actually relates back to everybody he has in key positions. This is our business. This is what we get up in the morning and can’t wait to get to. We’re up late, we’re thinking of new things to do, new adventures to embark on, new ways to make things better for our customers, new ways to make things better for our people. It’s pretty entailing. If I have to say what it means, it means you get out of it what you put into it. If you put the minimal amount of effort into something, you get the minimal amount of results. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. Honestly, Mike and I have had no experience nor have we had the pleasure of wearing one of your great shoes, but I know in the future we’re going to. How do you continue to grow a brand? You’re in 16 countries. You’ve sold over 30 million pairs of shoes already. How do you continue now to grow this brand and get the word out? Because people do care. People do want to wear and support great companies like yours that are zero waste, that are trying to do everything the right way. Although no company is perfect, you guys are really not only talking a great talk, Brad, and that’s to your credit, and no pun intended, but you’re walking a great walk. How do you go to the next level here? BRAD LAPORTE: I think we just can’t stop. I think it’s great radio shows like yours, the Atlanta Business Chronicle is helping us get the word out. Getting the word out to the majority of people is the most important thing. Like you said, we’ve got a great story. We’ve got an unbelievable product, and once you wear a pair of Okabashis, you won’t buy anything else. I guarantee it. But getting that out to people, have them put our shoes on, understand what it’s doing for their feet, understand what it’s doing for the environment, and from there Okabashi will take over. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let me just say this. Mike and I are on your website now, and I’m telling you, this is way long gone from our hippie parents or grandparents or anything. These are beautiful shoes, and they’re both for men and women. Again, you’ve got to go check them out at okabashi.com. Brad, a lot of people write to Mike and I, a lot of young people or people looking to reinvent their careers or what to be you, want to be the next Brad LaPorte. He was in one industry and did really well, and he now is really making a difference. Talk a little bit about your own personal journey. For the young people in college studying to be entrepreneurs or businesspeople or manufacturing people, engineers out there, how do they follow in your footsteps, now that the green revolution has taken hold here in the United States and around the world and seems to be only picking up velocity? BRAD LAPORTE: Sure. Really, my personal story, I have come a long way in a very short period of time. I’m fairly young. The biggest thing I can attribute it to is the effort that you put into it and the way you try and grasp as many things and learn as many things from as many people as you can. If you’re not learning something each day, then you should go home and think, “Tomorrow, how do I learn something?” If I’m a manufacturing guy, don’t concentrate on manufacturing. Concentrate on marketing, concentrate on finance, concentrate on PR, concentrate on other things that can make yourself more rounded and make decisions that you make more rounded and more accepted or grasped or followed by your peers and other people in the industry. If you can go through life and make a difference every day at a time, you’ll definitely get ahead in life, and you’ll actually look back and say, “Hey, I really made a difference. I’m really making my footprint in this world, no pun intended.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just awesome. What Mike and I are also amazed about, not only is the quality of your shoe with the Microplast and also all the styles you have, but you talked a little bit earlier about the average price somewhere around $15, and that is the average price here. Using the lean manufacturing and your closed loop system, how do you keep the price down? So many people who have a unique product, the price is high. How is your price so reasonable? BRAD LAPORTE: I guess that it’s one of the inherent benefits of being green, to be able to use as much of your material as you can. Obviously, if we’re using ground up material or making no waste, it reduces the cost of the shoes. If you can make improvements on using less energy and running faster cycle times, it makes shoes cheaper. If you’re not paying import duties or trucking something from Portland to Georgia or from China to Georgia, it makes things cheaper. Inherently, by being green, it’s also a cost benefit to us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. That makes so much sense. This is a family run business. The patriarch is still very involved, and at least one of his sons is still involved. Is that not correct? BRAD LAPORTE: Yes, one of the sons runs the website you’re looking at. JOHN SHEGERIAN: He’s done really, really well. You can also connect with Okabashi on Facebook. They have a great community. Let’s talk a little bit about family businesses. We’re down to the last couple of minutes. How is that different? You worked for a big automotive company. We’ve had Ford on this show, and they are doing great things. We’ve had Walmart, and there is such amazing things that come out of big corporate America, Alcoa, and great brands that are doing great things out there. Now you’re working within a smaller family company. Share a little bit about the trade-offs and the benefits of that, Brad. BRAD LAPORTE: Well, obviously, the trade-off from a large company and the exposure that comes along with a large company like a Ford or a Chrysler or something like that, you already have a pretty wide base of customers. Everybody knows who you are, and when you’re introducing a new product, getting the word out isn’t as hard as for a company like Okabashi. However, on the flip side, making a new product come to market and making that product right is a whole lot easier with a smaller company. There’s a lot less roads to go through. There’s a lot less bureaucracy. Still the same testing type parameters that you still want to follow and make sure the product is sustainable; however, it’s a whole lot easier to bring that product to market. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. We’re down to the last minute. Of course, you’re always welcome back, Brad, to Green is Good. Do you have any last pearls of wisdom to share with our listeners? Remember, we have listeners not only here in the United States, but after it airs in the United States, it’s also uploaded to the iTunes system and we have listeners on the Apple network around the world. Anything else you want to share about you and Okabashi? BRAD LAPORTE: I guess one of the things I’d like to bring across to the listeners is America has become a purchasing nation, where we’re actually purchasing most of our stuff from outside of America. Let’s bring purchasing and manufacturing back to America and make things for Americans by Americans. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just wonderful, Brad. Thank you for your time. Mike and I are so honored for you being here today. For our listeners out there, please go and look and buy Okabashi shoes at okabashi.com. As I said to you earlier, it is a wonderful website. You can find it at okabashi.com. Brad LaPorte, you’re both informational and inspirational, and truly living proof that green is good.