How the vegan shoe label Grounded People wants to change the fashion industry

Grounded People is a sustainable shoe brand from Vancouver, Canada. The PETA-approved brand is committed to reversing the global fashion industry’s harmful impact on the environment and has each pair of shoes made almost entirely by hand in what is said to be the only 100 percent vegan shoe factory in the world. Grounded People not only uses recycled materials, but also ensures fair wages and working conditions.

The brand also uses Retraced’s blockchain technology to ensure that customers can track where each material comes from and how it is used at every step of the production process. Additionally, the brand donates a portion of all proceeds to one of its global partner charities as part of its LACES (Learn to Achieve and Create Everlasting Sustainability) program. FashionUnited spoke to founder and CEO Maximilian Justus (via email) about the beginnings of the brand and its goals.

Shoes from the All SZN Boots collection. Image: Grounded People

What motivated you to start Grounded People?

Growing up in the beautiful city of Vancouver, I have always had a deep appreciation for nature and the environment. My passion for design and the creative process was instilled in me by my mother, who introduced me to sewing at a young age. My interest in fashion and my innate sense of entrepreneurship led me to start my career at the early age of 19 when I founded my first e-commerce company. It specialized in bespoke clothing through direct-to-garment printing and allowed me to develop my creative thinking and knowledge of different types of materials and fabrics.

I wanted to utilize the best possible resources the industry had to offer and began conducting extensive research with various supply and manufacturing companies. I soon discovered the harsh reality of unethical working conditions and the industry’s far-reaching environmental impact. These factories produced large amounts of waste due to their manufacturing process and paid little or no attention to the safety and well-being of workers.

These first-hand observations inspired me to become part of a positive change and set a standard for other future entrepreneurs to adopt ethical business practices. My goal was to establish a brand that embodies the principles of fair labor practices, sustainability, inclusivity and community engagement. Creating the Grounded People brand felt like a natural progression from my childhood and was a deeply fulfilling, full-circle journey for me.

The “Franca” and “Jundiai” models from the Sao Paulo collection. Image: Grounded People

Could you tell us more about the shoe factory in Brazil – the only 100 percent vegan factory in the world?

The factory has extensive experience producing vegan shoes for over ten years and continues to set the benchmark for ethical and sustainable manufacturing practices in the industry. We are pleased about this partnership and value the opportunity to create jobs for people in regions where employment is more scarce and to offer them social programs that help ensure that the treatment of employees is more than satisfactory.

Is it your own factory and is there enough demand for it to remain completely vegan?

We don’t own the factory; however, she is our trusted manufacturing partner, making each pair of Grounded People shoes almost entirely by hand. There is a huge demand for vegan products and I expect more factories and brands to serve this market in the coming years.

Maximilian Justus, CEO and founder of Grounded People. Image: Maximilian Justus

How do you monitor safe and fair working conditions and wages?

I often visit our manufacturing partner in Brazil and have seen the work dynamics and factory environment first hand. There is a big difference in the way these workers are treated compared to other manufacturing plants in surrounding areas, where they face unsafe and unfair conditions and wages.

It becomes clear how happy employees are to work where they are valued and not treated like replaceable workers, but like a real team of employees who are trained and looked after.

What else sets the factory apart?

It offers various social programs for employees as well as transportation options to and from work – some workers have even been there for a long time and have turned their work at the factory into a career. The man who founded the factory eventually passed the company on to his son, inspiring other second-generation workers to start their careers at this particular company. Aside from my own experiences, our partner also conducts frequent anonymous surveys to ensure employee satisfaction.

The “Lee” and “Mika” models from the summer collection. Image: Grounded People

The shoes are almost entirely made by hand – how do you manage to still offer competitive prices?

Our shoes are manufactured in limited, smaller quantities, so automation is not typically a standard practice, allowing us to produce at a competitive price. Because of these small quantities, our shoes also have an exclusive character. As a company, we are always looking for improvements in how we source materials and what is most cost-effective for our customers and target groups.

How are the shoes received? Is there a particular market that is particularly strong?

Our customer base includes a variety of locations such as California, New York, Vancouver, Toronto and other major cities and areas in between. Due to our recent market expansion, we also receive many orders from European cities. As a brand, we value authenticity and individuality and want to create a shoe that suits every lifestyle. Our shoes are extremely versatile and universal, so we have received a positive response from people of different backgrounds and lifestyles.

The new All SZN boots collection. Image: Grounded People

They currently ship to North America and Europe. Are there any plans to expand the reach?

The expansion into the European market was an important milestone for the growth and success of our brand. Our ultimate goal is to drive this expansion because our shoes have a universal style. We would love to see our shoes shipped worldwide in the near future as Grounded People is a global brand with charities all over the world. We continually strive to increase the number of charities we work with and increase brand visibility in new markets and demographics.

Keyword charity: On what basis do you select the organizations that the LACES program supports?

We are fortunate to work with a variety of charities and organizations around the world that share different missions and values. We reach out to organizations based on their work and the impact they make in the communities they support.

As a brand, we care deeply about the charities we support and hope to continue to grow our charity partners in the future. Although we are sometimes limited, we connect with as many organizations as possible and then fully leverage our partnerships with them to amplify their efforts to make a real difference.

The colorful laces support Rainbow Refugee, an organization that helps LGBTQ refugees resettle in Canada. Image: Grounded People

The way it works is that each organization selects a specific shoelace color to represent their charity. These include organizations such as Fashion Takes Action, One Tree Planted and Make-A-Wish Foundation Canada.

The path of each shoe can be tracked through Retraced’s blockchain technology. Is this something that customers appreciate?

When I founded Grounded People, I had transparency and authenticity in mind as the brand’s core values. I believe that brand transparency with consumers should be something that all companies should strive for, from material sourcing to accountability of the work and practices behind the production process.

This is particularly crucial for the fashion industry as a whole, as it is known for its environmentally damaging practices and terrible working conditions. We want to counteract this stigma. The best way to achieve this is to provide complete transparency to our customers about where and how our products are made.

Tracing the path of a product with retraced technology, here for the “Mika” model. Image: Grounded People

What motivated you to work with Retraced from the start?

Retraced fits this mission perfectly and allows our customers to see tangible, traceable materials and their use in every step of the production process. For those who don’t know him, Retraced is our technology partner that uses blockchain to digitize and track our supply chains, efficiently manage compliance data and gain full transparency right down to the raw materials.

Are there any exciting developments we can expect in the future?

We recently launched our All SZN Boots collection, which marked a pivotal moment as we now offer year-round footwear options, driving a more stable and robust sales model. We are constantly researching new designs, styles and materials to offer our customers a wide range of shoe models.

One area we are actively exploring is partnering with renowned artists for custom-made shoes. We are excited about the new developments we have planned and look forward to further revolutionizing the brand and expanding our customer base to new, broader audiences.

The “Billie” and “Jude” models from the All SZN boots collection. Image: Grounded People