All natural, stylish, and comfortable shoes, which cater to all your needs and have the potential to turn into an ecological revolution — sounds like the perfect sustainable business idea, right?
Founder duo Taran Chhabra and Amar Preet Singh have already put this business idea into action and are on their way to achieve their mission with Neeman’s, an online but not-yet-another shoe company. In a first in India, the Hyderabad-based startup has come up with a line of shoes — sneakers, loafers, and joggers — made from Merino Wool fibre that is environment-friendly as well.
So, how did the founders hit upon the idea of making sustainable shoes? Well, all the clichés that you hear about life suddenly start seeming true while travelling. And, sometimes, your experiences can give birth to a business idea — an opportunity that has the potential to turn into a revolution.
The idea behind Neeman’s came about when Chhabra was travelling, and he nearly missed a train, the reason being over-packing! The culprit was separate pairs of shoes for specific activities and it was the ‘no one-size-fits-all’ problem that led Chhabra to start thinking about designing one multi-purpose shoe that would be comfortable for all-day wear — be it casual or formal dressing needs to even exercise as well as do other activities.
Neeman’s founders Amar Preet Singh (L) Taran Chhabra
While on his quest to turn this idea into a reality, Chhabra travelled extensively to understand how the shoe production industry worked. It was then that he understood the magnitude of the environmental hazards caused by the industry.
“What I saw was puzzling, what I saw was disturbing, because every material that goes into the shoes is either synthetic or manmade,’’ says Chhabra.
Most shoes available in the market use synthetics, plastic, petroleum byproducts, liquid petroleum gas, and natural gas, resulting in a lot of pollution with excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. These products are non-biodegradable, take decades to decompose — in effect, they are extremely hazardous to the environment.
What started as a need suddenly turned into an altruistic mission. The single-minded desire to make Neeman’s’ shoes as nature-friendly as possible, while producing them in the most sustainable way, became a pledge for the cofounders.
Taking The High Road: The Making Of Neeman’s Shoes
The Neeman’s founders wanted to blaze a new trail by completely ditching synthetic materials in the shoes they produced. Naturally, it wasn’t easy — a lot of trial and error went into the making of the shoes until, finally, the founders chanced upon Merino Wool. The wool, which comes from Merino sheep in Australia, is naturally renewable, soft, anti-bacterial, moisture-absorbing, odour-resistant and designed to be worn all year round. It is also very durable. It was just what they needed.
The company collaborated with The Woolmark Company in developing the Merino Wool fabric. “I reached out to a company called the Woolmark Company, a non-profit funded by Australian wool farmers. I explained to them how India is a big market and how these wool-based shoes would be great for Indian weather conditions and that we could do with an environment-friendly shoe,’’ Chhabra explained.
Then started the process of designing these sustainable shoes. Neeman’s shoes comprises a removable shoe insole made of renewable rubber and castor bean oil, as opposed to the commonly used, hazardous petroleum-based oil. The shoe lining is abrasion-resistant, soft, and durable and perfect for Indian weather conditions, both for extreme summers and winters.
A People’s Brand, Sustainable All The Way
While the founder duo started off on their shoemaking journey with the initial thought of designing a multi-purpose shoe, Neeman’s later decided to come up with more than one style, but still limited it to three — a sneaker, a loafer, and a jogger. Primarily designed for men, these shoes are, however, unisex. They are priced upwards of $91 (INR 6,500) and Neeman’s is also planning to roll out shoes for women in 2019.
Neeman’s follows a direct-to-consumer model for its sales through its website and has a seven-day trial policy during which customers can return the shoes if they don’t like them.
Being ecofriendly is so ingrained in the DNA of the company that even the boxes used to ship the shoe are 85% recycled waste paper. Ensuring productive and humane working conditions for their employees and the workers who assemble their shoes is paramount for the founders and they ensure that each link in the supply chain resonates with the mission of the company.
“It’s always going to be a brand that customers are going to want to be associated with because they see the value of sustainability as well as comfort with the shoes,’’ says Chhabra.
Neeman’s has no plans of liaising with other ecommerce players at the moment but plans to open experiential offline stores to enable its customers to experience the shoes before purchasing them.
Wool-Based Shoes: A Rising Trend Globally
Wool-based shoes have been gaining popularity the world over, be it for comfort, style, or simply because they are an ecologically conscious choice.
While talking of woollen shoes, the first name that pops up is the famous San Francisco-based brand — AllBirds — which went on to be valued at $1.4 Bn in a mere two years since its inception. The brand, which, too, makes shoes from Merino Wool, has become a household name in fashion, akin to PUBG in games. Everyone who can is sporting a pair of AllBirds. AllBirds’ mission is producing eco-friendly shoes and the brand has managed to pass on that sentiment to its customers.
While Neeman’s is aligned in spirit with the environmentally conscious buyer, we will have to wait and watch for its impact in India, considering the slightly steep price points of the shoes, the road conditions in the country, and the general apprehension people have about trying something new. The company, however, has started out with a positive customer response and is very hopeful that more people join Mission Neeman’s.