As any dedicated yogi will tell you, living ethically is the first step on the eight-limbed path of yoga. The first moral guideline: ahimsa, loosely translated from Sanskrit to mean “do no harm.” It’s also the founding principle behind a Brazilian shoe brand of the same name, manufactured in the world’s only fully vegan footwear factory.
Former airline pilot Gabriel Silva founded Ahimsa in 2013, following a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis that forced him to quit his high-flying career and adopt a vegan lifestyle. “When I turned vegan I did not find suitable footwear options for me,” recalled Silva, whose father has worked in the footwear industry for 35 years. “I decided I could start something small that proved the concept. If it worked, I could throw myself into it full time.”
While some shoe brands are happy to slap a vegan label on products made from synthetic materials and call it a day, Ahimsa’s core values drill deeper than that. Six months after launching, the company opened the doors to its own factory to ensure that its shoes were ethically produced from concept through to final product.
“Our thought process behind this decision was that only by controlling the entire supply chain would it be possible for us to have the product we were aiming for. Quality control is much easier when everything is done in-house,” Silva explained, adding, “By employing everyone directly, we can guarantee they are all being paid fairly and working under ethical conditions.”
Production is based in Franca, a footwear hub in southern Brazil, where all Ahimsa products are crafted using animal-free, alternative materials, like uppers made from recycled cotton, recycled PET plastic bottles and vegan leather made from non-toxic polyurethane. Insoles are bio latex (a natural latex rubber) covered with natural cork, while outsoles are made from rubber, natural crepe and EVA.
“Like any traditional shoe factory, most of the labor is done by hand,” Silva said, noting that his manufacturing facility currently employs 14 people. “Of course we have machines that help accelerate many processes, but in general all our products are handled by all employees.”
Indeed, the brand’s Instagram page is peppered with pictures and videos of the factory workers cutting and stitching uppers by hand, surrounded by hammers, pliers, paring knives and eyelet setters.
Inspired by traditional footwear shapes, Ahimsa’s women’s offering spans simple sandles and slip-on loafers to slim-fit work-style boots (a bestseller), while men’s styles include sneakers, wingtips, chukka boots and boat shoes. Prices range from $80 to $150.
“Our current designs are aimed at bringing classic back, usually with a modern twist. When we started everything was much more simple, more basic looking, but after four years of learning and developing our skills as a collective group, we are now able to make more complex styles,” Silva said.
Ahimsa now has retail partners in the U.S., Canada, UK, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Uruguay, Austria and Australia as well as free worldwide shipping on all online orders. But the journey has not been without its bumps and hurdles.
“I clearly remember how hard it was to explain our demands when we outsourced everything,” Silva said. “Even when we started our own factory and started hiring more employees, we had classes to explain everything that was allowed in our products. The footwear industry is heavily populated with animal byproducts, not just leather, and we had to work really hard to ensure everything was really vegan.”
Despite this, Ahimsa does not yet have any certifications under its belt, nor has it been audited by an independent party to assure its employees are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions. The reason: Certification can be a long and expensive process, with little evidence that it may increase sales.
“As a young company, we prefer to invest in areas that are more in need,” Silva explained, adding, “We are lucky that Brazilian regulations are already very strict. Oversight is very present, so we are held to much higher standards than you would expect from similar companies based elsewhere.”
That being said, Ahimsa is PETA-approved vegan, which means it lives up to its animal-free claims. Plus, the brand participated in Brazil’s Fashion Revolution Week, posting pictures with the hashtag #imadeyourshoes to highlight its supply chain transparency. Not carrying an official certification hasn’t hurt its image either: Silva describes Ahimsa’s typical customer as “vegan or vegetarian, between 25 and 35, who thinks about how product was made, in addition to what it is made from.”
“It’s amazing to see how much the awareness towards veganism has changed in just the four years since our start,” he said. “We hope to keep adding more products to our collection and to continue our expansion to more markets globally.”