Far beyond a diet that excludes all food of animal origin, veganism is a lifestyle and philosophy of life. Prioritizing the conscious consumption of products from all sectors of production, the vegan has as its starting point the respect for animals and the planet Earth, keeping a close eye on the entire production chain of the most varied consumer goods.
Factors such as the social and environmental practices of companies, working conditions and the valorization of the professionals involved in the production, the origin of the raw material and also its possible impact on the environment are important, for example. In other words: from the supplier to the point of sale, from the care with the employees to the final disposal of the product, the whole process is essential for a vegan business.
Tricky? A little. But to meet the needs of this demanding audience is what the vegan shoe brand Ahimsa has been doing in an industry sector guided by scalability and the unbridled consumption of articles made of animal leather. Located in Franca, a leather and footwear hub in the countryside of São Paulo state, the vegan factory emerged from the combination between a personal need (and also of humanity) and the opportunity seen by Gabriel Silva, who in 2013 created the brand Ahimsa - a Sanskrit word that means "do no harm"; the perfect translation for the principles of the company.
WAKING UP TO THE CAUSE
"WE HAVE TO PROVE ALL THE TIME THAT WE ARE EQUAL TO OR BETTER THAN CONVENTIONAL PRODUCTS"
But this story begins a little earlier when a diagnosis of type I diabetes changed the life - and career - of Gabriel, who at the age of 21 was a young airplane pilot. The same disease that prevented him from flying was also responsible for opening the doors that started the walking to the cause he and his company are defending today. "I chose to be a vegetarian about 6 months after this diagnosis, but more for health reasons; thinking only about myself, because of my illness". This was his first step towards what vegans call "awakening".
The "awakening" is nothing more than the awareness for the vegan cause when you suddenly realize something that was right in front of you. While some are fierce activists, others don't even know the reasons that lead a person to adopt the vegan way of life. Some take longer, others less, but little by little, as the debate reaches more people, this transition takes shape and the number of followers of this philosophy, of people who "awake" to the cause, increases exponentially around the world.
With the disease diagnosis, Gabriel stopped being a pilot to work with his father in the footwear sector in Franca, falling in love with the business and acquiring the know-how that he would apply a few years later when creating Ahimsa. However, before adhering to the vegan diet, he started to apply the principles of veganism in other areas of his life, avoiding buying items such as wallets, shoes, and belts that contained materials of animal origin in their manufacture. "Until I noticed I wasn't finding products that would be cool for me to use," says the businessman. That's when he realized that the opportunity was knocking on his door - after all, nothing better than himself making the products he was looking for!
They spent six months researching the market and a name for the idea. Also in this period, during the process of development and launch of Ahimsa, the turning point that was missing in the life of the former pilot happened: when adopting a puppy and following its development, he realized that it no longer made sense, even though no longer ate meat, the exploitation of puppies or cubs. "This was the turning point in my relationship with animals. For me it was a way to raise this flag even higher, which was what I wanted to promote with my brand too," he recalls.
That's how Ahimsa was created. Vegan since its conception, the first 100% vegan factory in the world uses today a 1300 m2 shed in the Industrial District of a city internationally recognized for its shoes and leather goods. With a daily production of 150 shoe pairs and more than 40 employees, in 2013 the company assumed the commitment to show consumers around the world that it is possible to abolish animal exploitation and direct the industrial production towards a new era of conscious consumption, with less social and environmental impact and that this does not require the sacrifice of style, quality or exorbitant prices. "And for this, the responsibility is huge. We have to prove all the time that we are equal or better than conventional products", says Gabriel.
To prove the brand's engagement with the vegan cause, I invite you to take a tour in the factory to see the careful production process of our shoes and also to meet some of the employees who are wearing this new world, conscious from head to toe.
MANUFACTURING: SILENT ACTIVISM FROM THE FACTORY FLOOR TO YOUR FEET
When asked if Ahimsa is an activist brand, Gabriel answers that to some extent yes. "The most important thing for us is to be inclusive all the time because from the moment you become an intense activist, you end up excluding", points out the director of the brand. "I don't need to exclude anyone, I can't exclude anyone from this change in consumption; therefore our activism happens silently, but it is always present."
If the activism is silent, the result of the debate, at least among some of the employees, is loud. Even if almost everyone keeps the meat in their diet, the consciousness about veganism affects everyone inside the factory, some more, some less. This is the case of Maicon Silva. Being responsible for the warehouse, he and his team receive and analyze all the material that will be used in the making of Ahimsa's products. "We analyze everything that arrives at the factory, we check if it can be used and if something has arrived in a different color than the order. Everything passess through our hands," he says. He is the one who releases the raw material for the next stages of production.
With experience in the footwear sector as a leather classifier, Maicon admits that he found odd this “vegan talk” when he arrived at the company. "When I came here I thought, 'these people are a little weird", he laughs. He also adds that he hasn't stopped eating meat, but that reconsidered some old habits after attending some lectures offered by the company about the vegan lifestyle. "I notice that I have already gained many things for my life just from working here, from being involved in the company. For example, the issue of separating the garbage: in the past, I didn't do that, today I'm already adapting some things in my life", he comments. He also emphasizes a key differential in the company: the attention to the employee. "Today companies think about productivity. This is what matters for other companies, not what you eat, how your life is or if you are well... This is the first place I felt I was valued."
Leaving Maicon’s hands, the material goes to production, where the shoe starts taking shape. Several employees are divided between cutting the raw material, joining the cut-out pieces and the stitching - which is the sewing required for each shoe model. Carlos Eduardo works at this stage and is responsible for handling a super-technological cutting machine at the factory. "In Franca, there aren’t many machines like this one", he observes. To handle the equipment, Carlos took a 3-month course at SENAI; and to work in the company, he says he had to adapt to the new work pace. "Here the main thing is the quality, because in other companies what is most aimed is production, it is the quantity and not the quality. When I arrived I was a little surprised because the pace of work was a little slower, more focused on this quality," he says.
Besides the unique pace, adapting to the synthetic material used in the products is one of the points that the employees emphasize to be a little complicated. Because many of them came from factories that used animal leather, this change requires some patience. That's what Lucimara Messias Martins pointed out to me. She is responsible for different phases in the preparation of the pieces that came from the cutting stage. "It's not that it's difficult, it's that to work with shoes you have to feel. You have to have a standard, know if it will be cool or not, so it takes a little while to get used to the material," explains Lucimara. She admits that she "took a couple of months" to get the hang of the synthetic material used by Ahimsa, the polyurethane (PU or PUR). "But after I started learning, I adapted my work and I succeeded," she says.
Lu, as she is known in production, admits that she has changed her meat consumption very little since she learned more about veganism in the company. "I think that for you to have this lifestyle you have to go very deep. I think you need to have a focus, a commitment", she says. But, on the other hand, she says that she started to see the small animals with different eyes. "Today I look and think 'what am I going to kill him for? It's also a living being!'". After the pieces are joined together and the all necessary adjustments are made,comes the upper sole appears - just above the sole. The upper sole goes to the assembly where it is attached to the sole and goes through the final manufacture process to become the shoe you know. Today, Ahimsa also produces the sole of its shoes, with exclusive models. This process is one of those that were internalized by the company in order to qualify its product within the vegan market, thus ensuring the ethical and environmental conditions required by the consumers of these products.
It is in the last stage of production that we find friendly Aílton Gonçalves . He is the area's supervisor and integrates the team of employees responsible for assembling and finishing the footwear. At Ahimsa since its foundation in 2013, Aílton remembers that it was thanks to the training offered by the company that he was able to lose about 6 kg. "I didn't know veganism; I had heard about it but I didn't know what it meant", he says. It was after some training with the assistance of a nutritionist that a lot changed for him. "I still like meat, I can't deny it, but I was very exaggerated! I had a big belly, I was pretty heavy," he says laughing. "But I changed my life radically from my arrival at Ahimsa. Before I attended a barbecue every weekend, ate fat meat and lots of animals. Today I'm not ready to be a total vegan, but I'm in the middle of the road, which is a big advantage! For me, it made the difference". The difference in medical exams, such as cholesterol, and in Aílton’s private life, who took home the principles he learned in the factory and today his family has already rethought meat consumption. "Ahimsa is a school for us, for all of us. Every day is a novelty here, there is something new that we see, and so we learn on a daily basis".
The young Renan Dias agrees with the experienced Aílton. "Here in Ahimsa I learned a lot, I gained a lot of professional experience", says him, who is responsible for the expedition, the place where the finished shoes go before leaving the factory. "My job is to dispatch the orders. All the orders that are generated in the company, I have the responsibility of sending them away. I sort the shoes out, pack everything correctly, check them and send them away", says Renan. From here, Ahimsa's products cross the world, reaching destinations such as Australia, France, Germany, and the USA.
It takes between 20 and 30 days for this entire journey to be completed by a new batch of products. But the work at Ahimsa does not end with the shipment of the finished product.
ATTENTION FROM START TO FINISH
Ahimsa's Customer Service still has the role of giving support and checking feedback the company receives from its customers, verifying the acceptance of the audience and the potential criticism that may arise. Led by Rafael Julião , the Customer Service makes it possible to get in touch with the customers' vision of veganism and also with their stories. "A lot of people tell how they got to know the brand, or how it changed their lives in this issue of veganism. Others also talk about how a shoe makes them think better about their attitudes and choices. These are very interesting reports and feedback", says Rafael.
The assistant designer Marina Andrade tells me that her inspiration comes from what is basic, classic and timeless. "We try to show that shoes do not need to be made from animal products to be considered beautiful, and to be suitable for daily wear. To achieve that, we try to use the best available materials.” She goes on to say that “Some people still consume animal food, but have already understood that animal leather is unnecessary with such good alternatives available that are cruelty-free."
Another important sector that has also been verticalized, starting to operate within the company, is the IT area, where Diego Queiro z works, hired to develop the brand's online sales platform. "Before, we worked with an outsourced company," recalls Diego. Even though he didn't quit barbecues on weekends, he warns that people need to start doing something to try to change the logic of production and consumption around the world. "I still eat meat, but the company really changed my view of the world. I started to understand 'their' part, the vegans, what they stand for and why", he says.
As a vegan entrepreneur, Gabriel points out the benefits that this philosophy of life can bring to the industry: "In a capitalist world, what veganism can help a lot is to make the businessman, the owner, the entrepreneur, look at the next as an equal. Regardless if he is human or animal, no one is inferior by a function or by capacity, everyone is equal". With this dynamic, since 2013 Ahimsa has been fulfilling its role of delivering an ethical and qualified product, which has its entire production chain verified, thus ensuring an adequate treatment for employees and making sure that in that factory in the countryside of São Paulo state, only alive animals come in!
Let's wake up to the cause? Then #GoVegan now!