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One Foot in Canada, One in Africa

Fair trade shoes-and-accessories maker Oliberté is based in Oakville, Ont., and manufactures in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

How did a fellow from the western Toronto suburb of Oakville, Ont., end up making shoes in Ethiopia? The official story goes that Oliberté founder Tal Dehtiar was exploring a marketplace somewhere in Europe when he came across a cobbler who complained about being crowded out by dirt-cheap goods — the kind you just know are cranked out of sweatshops.

Having founded MBAs Without Borders, Dehtiar was looking to dig into a new project, says Oliberté marketing head Todd Cunningham. That cranky cobbler inspired a venture that would eventually see Dehtiar and his team opening a shoe factory in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Oliberté achieved the world’s first certification for fair trade footwear in the fall of 2013, making rugged-looking shoes, boots and accessories for men, women and children while creating good jobs for more than 120 Ethiopian factory workers.

The ideal is “trade not aid,” Cunningham says: Oliberté exists not just to make shoes, but also to prove that North American capital and consumers can receive products and profit from the developing world without exploiting workers there or behaving badly with regard to the environment and animal rights. Cunningham elaborated on the company’s everybody-wins philosophy over a coffee with Billy in Toronto.

Billy: Africa’s a big continent. Why Ethiopia?
Cunningham: [Founder Tal Dehtiar] got a tip that Ethiopia was kind of the next place for manufacturing. Ethiopia was becoming a manufacturing hub, especially for shoes.

Africa as a continent, it’s so rich in resources. People want to work, they just want the opportunity. Ethiopia was perfect … it was so rich in everything [we needed]. Massive skill set – they’ve been doing this forever and ever. Also, because they’re so skilled and because they’re so eager for people to come in and [help] build a sustainable economy, it was a such a perfect fit for us to go in and create something like Oliberté that exposes [shoemakers] to a bigger market.

What are the workers’ conditions like?
We went through Fair Trade USA for our certification, because they have the most hoops you can jump through. We unionized the employees. There’s more than 60% women working in the factory. [We pay] double the minimum wage. There’s a community premium … we put money back into the community, so that if they want to build a road or a school or anything that they decide that they want, the factory workers [can build it].

What’s your primary market? North America?
Absolutely. I think people here are really receptive to positive change.

That’s surprising, because the awareness of fair trade and related issues seems to be higher in Europe.
There’s always interest over there. [But] we had a distribution warehouse over there, but for some reason it didn’t catch for us. Marketing is a relatively new thing for us, so we might not have been talking to the right audiences. But we just found that there was enough attention in North America [so] we focused on what was working.

Where are the shoes available?
We’re in MEC, REI, we’re in Sail, Nordstrom. We do a lot of third-party online stuff, too, through Zappos and Call It Spring. A good chunk of our business is direct to consumers, which is easier to control through marketing as well – we’re talking to an audience and you can buy from us while the conversation is happening.

Courtesy Oliberté

How are you getting the word out?
A lot of it’s word of mouth. [People] try the shoes on, they love them, and it’s kind of wind in the sails for the product. The marketing is really image-heavy. We work with incredible photographers.

Is the demand there for fair trade shoes, or are you having to create it?
I think it’s a balance. People want cool shoes. A lot of people are drawn to our shoes aesthetically; they just like the look of them. And then when the story is revealed through a little bit of research, that speaks volumes to people. I don’t think we’re creating [demand for fair trade shoes]. I think there’s a real trend toward corporate responsibility, manufacturing responsibility. Luckily, we’re in a place where we ingrained it into the business from the start.

Do you owe part of your growth to a consumer backlash against sweatshop manufacturing?
I think so. I think that’s part of a larger conversation that’s happening around the world right now. We’re lucky enough to be part of the conversation in terms of how [manufacturing] can be done properly. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive to produce ethically and turn a profit.

If we accept that the product is well-made, the workers well paid and the prices decent, it seems like there has to be a catch somewhere. What’s the compromise? Are your shoes less profitable than others?
We’re a really small team. On this side of the ocean, there’s maybe six of us, seven of us? Plus a couple of reps in the States. We keep things really bare bones so that we can put the profit back into what we’re doing over there.

So it’s low overhead, in other words?
Exactly. And we’re doing this because we love it. We’re not trying to become millionaires out of this. The social innovation aspect comes way before the actual turning of the dollar. But at the same time the example needs to be set that you can make money doing this. 

Published Tuesday, May 10th 2016

Header image credit: Factory workers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Courtesy Oliberté

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