“Every brand has started taking small measures in becoming sustainable. During Covid we have seen more focus on health and natural products and thus I believe sustainability could be a strong motivating factor for customers to choose a brand in the next couple of years,” Taran Chhabra, founder, Neeman’s.
Neeman’s, the sustainable shoe brand, is looking at the pandemic as a gamechanger for its shoes produced with sustainably-sourced merino wool and other recycled materials. Chhabra is a firm believer in the future of the fashion industry being sustainability and explained just how many levels of checks the shoes go through before hitting the market.
The recently funded startup was born out of Chhabra’s fascination with the various shoe trends and designs around the world. Though he was working in the US in 2018 — around the time of Neeman’s inception — he told Inc42 that he always wanted to come back to India and do something for the society at large.
In his research, he saw the shoe industry is dominated by synthetics, which has a lot of impact on the environment. India has been noted to be the second-largest producer of synthetic fibre contributing over 7.64% of global production. The realisation led him to launch Neeman’s along with Amar Preet Singh.
Though the hazardous effect of synthetic fibres have been pointed out by many leading organisations such as American Chemical Society — that warned of the danger of plastic pollution — and Swedish Chemicals Agency (Kemikalieinspektionen), it’s still the most prevalent way of making shoes today.
“Sustainable footwear is the need of the hour and it’s important for all of us to realise how small changes in our lifestyle can have massive impacts in saving the environment,” explained Chhabra.
With the pandemic, the startup shifted its focus improving internal operational changes and product innovations, improvement and design. It told Inc42 that, thanks to this focus, it will be launching new products in the next couple of months.
Here are a few excerpts from Inc42’s conversation with Taran Chhabra, where he explains his business, ideology and its business and more
Inc42: Ecommerce has taken a major hit in the pandemic in India. How are you countering the issues and challenges in the times today? What is your strategy to survive in the harsh market conditions?
Taran Chhabra: After some amazing months, we took a sudden dip and went to near-zero during Apr and May this year. That didn’t stop and discourage the team here at Neeman’s. We started working on improving our internal processes and started working more towards product development and improving our existing range of shoes. The market hasn’t come back to normal yet, but we do see 70-80% of demand coming back.
Inc42: Exactly how are you ensuring that the materials used in your shoes are sustainably-sourced?
Taran Chhabra: After a lot of trial and error, we found that merino wool was the best choice for our mission and along with that, we use castor bean oil and recycled rubber for our soles and all our packaging is made with recycled waste paper.
The fibre obtained from the Merino sheep’s fleece is super soft compared to traditional wool and can be worn all year round. The hair of Merino sheep regulates its temperature according to the weather to suit the human temperature. Plus in many cases, it’s healthy for the sheep to be shorn off their wool for their survival.
We ensure that all our wool is non-mulesed and no sheep are harmed in making our shoes. All the wool that we buy from Australia is from family-owned farms and it has a quality number associated with it. Using that quality number we can actually trace the wool all the way back to the farms from where it was sourced. Additionally, the wool we source has a non-mulesing certificate that means that the wool was sourced using the best practices and from the upper body of the sheep. And that is when AWI is satisfied, it comes and checks the practices we are following using the quality number.
In fact, we also pass this information to our customers so that they can also see where the wool has been sourced from.
Inc42: What are you trying to accomplish with sustainable materials? What is the real advantage—all material needs to be processed with chemicals or other techniques—what is the real advantage then?
Taran Chhabra: We here at Neeman’s are on a mission to use materials which occur naturally within nature or materials which have lost their lives and we bring them back via recycling them.
Our focus here at Neeman’s is to choose better and sustainable materials such as merino wool in making our shoes. Though the process cannot be 100% carbon neutral and we are not claiming to have achieved it but it is a process and a journey that we have begun and we are optimistic that we will be able to slowly reduce and streamline the entire process.
While initially, we were building our product from the ground up and thus we scouted best from across the world, but now we are working towards building up our product in India itself.
Inc42: Please elaborate on opportunities in the India market as compared to the US, especially for a brand such as Neeman’s?
Taran Chhabra: USA is the largest market for footwear in the world, but India isn’t far behind. We here in India have started valuing for better products and Indian brands which create better products. Hence there isn’t a better time to start something here in India.
While the US has evolved more for eco-friendly shoes, the advent of Covid has led to an awakening of sorts for nature-friendly products amongst more countries. This wave can be seen in India too where consumers are getting to a point where they have started valuing brands with better ideas and better products.
Inc42: Take us through your journey with Neeman’s so far? How have you grown in the past year?
Taran Chhabra: We launched in Dec 2018 and in the 20 months of our journey post-launch there have been many exciting rides. Within a year of our launch, we have educated millions of consumers across the country on why ‘Natural Materials and Sustainable fibres’ are the future in wearables and fashion.
Our customers have been our biggest advocates and our Re-order rate of over 20% within a short period of time speaks volumes of why our customers love us. We have grown 18% month over month since our launch. Plus, we have 98% of five-star ratings from our existing customers.
Inc42: Tell us how hard or easy has the journey of building a sustainable brand in India been so far? In a market dominated by names such as Nike and Reebok, how do you plan to capture users and make your space?
Taran Chhabra: India is a wide market and our people are slowly but steadily keen to explore brands which are Indian and have something innovative and clear, differentiator. We have used content marketing to our advantage and focused on how we can narrate our story and reach out to our target audience across various demographics.
Inc42: How did you convince the users of the viability of your product? Tell us about the pricing model of the startup?
Taran Chhabra: We have dug deep into how we could build a community for Neeman’s and preach how amazing our shoes are. We have used influencer marketing and social media marketing to dig deeper to connect with different audiences. Our shoes start from INR 4000 in pricing and are on par with various other international brands which sell in India. We have spent our efforts on driving a story on how amazing the shoes are instead of focusing on the price.
Inc42: You recently also picked up funding for your startup. How difficult is it to convince investors on investing in a business that is into sustainable footwear?
Taran Chhabra: Frankly, it wasn’t easy considering the premium pricing of our shoes and also starting on a journey that hasn’t been chosen before. We did get told that this concept wouldn’t work in India by several major names. But we were confident in the product we were building and the support we had from our existing customers.
We have raised after spending a good 24 months bootstrapping, building an in-house team, creating a deep product-market fit and identifying a set of Investors we believed in would be backing us for the long haul.
Inc42: Where have you set up the manufacturing plants for Neeman’s? How are you ensuring sustainability while sourcing these shoes from across the world?
Taran Chhabra: Our shoes get manufactured in a couple of countries. We start with sourcing Australian merino wool and then we make 6-7 types of merino wool fabrics.
See, it is a process as I have said before. We have already taken a giant leap with our product already. We are not claiming that our processes are 100% carbon-free, nobody in the entire world can do that right now. So what we did was we identified a problem and started looking for solutions in India. During this we found that we do not have the expertise in making these kinds of fabrics in India today and so we travelled and picked up sources, countries and manufacturers who knew about working with merino wool and we started working with them and set up the entire supply chain.
We understand that there is a certain amount of carbon footprint involved in traveling and making these shoes from multiple parts of the world, but having said that we are working with several major Indian companies in getting them up to speed on how to make this in India.
It is a work in progress and hopefully, by the end of this year, we should have a ‘Made in India’ Neeman’s shoe as well.
Inc42: What about using sheep farmers and shepherds in India for acquiring wool? It may not be the same quality of wool but have you looked at the sustainable fibres in India as well?
Taran Chhabra: The reason we picked merino wool and we go for extremely fine and premium quality merino wool is that it is 60% in diameter of a human hair. That is the level of quality we work with because we are not just aiming at sustainability but comfortability as well.
In India, the type of sheep that are raised and bred, their fleece is a lot thicker so what happens is that material can only be used in winters. For example, you cannot wear a sweater directly in contact with your skin.
That is the reason we chose wool that is extremely fine and soft. Although, there are a few people who have reached out to us who are trying to breed merino wool sheep in India, but the weather conditions here do not allow the sheep to be bred.
Inc42: There is a notion and thinking that sustainable products are not only hard to manufacture but also hard to monetise. Is that true in the case of Neeman’s? If not, how did you balance the two?
Taran Chhabra: Synthetics are cheaper and easy to source. Hence they have been resorted to by most brands. Sustainable materials do come at a fair price when made in smaller quantities, As we start scaling more the price of the materials could be brought down a little.