Conversation with Alfena Footwear

A few weeks back, we welcomed a very special footwear brand produced in Portugal to our Oculus store. Within an hour of displaying them, the first pair had walked out with its new owner (literally, on their feet). Call it luck or call it the softest sneaker you’ve ever felt, but these shoes are hard not to fall in love with.   Let’s rewind a bit…to an idea thought up during the 2020 lockdown. Much like the rest of the world at this time, two women had some time to sit and think. They reflected on the social and environmental impact of the shoes we put on our feet everyday. The conversations that followed soon turned into a 100% sustainable sneaker brand using the highest quality materials directly derived from the earth.  These women are Anna and Christine Tarragó, mother and daughter duo and founders of Alfena Footwear. As the brand is approaching one year since their launch, we were eager to sit down with Anna and learn of Alfena’s global debut. And we think you just may want to walk a mile in their shoes after hearing this story - trust us, you won’t regret it.

Anna, how did you get started with Alfena?

Anna: So Alfena was not planned at all. A lot of people ask how we came up with the idea and we truly didn't have a plan. We didn't think ‘okay, we’re going to create a sustainable shoe brand.’ During COVID, I was talking to Christine (my mother) and telling her how I needed a new pair of running shoes as I had started running outdoors. This sparked conversations about how so many shoes and clothes look nice on the outside, but are made up of plastics, dyes and toxins. And most people don’t even think about this - they just buy an item because it looks nice. Not much thought is given to who made it or where it came from.  More importantly, consumers often don’t think about the social and environmental impact their purchases have. Christine and I were both brought up in very sustainable homes - she grew up in Germany and her parents (my grandparents) were very environmentally conscious. They had a compost that they used for soil to grow their own food. And then Christine brought us up this way as well - I was the kid bringing metal lunch boxes to school because we didn’t use plastics.  

So how did these conversations evolve into a business? 

Anna: Yes, so essentially Christine said ‘someone has to make shoes without plastic,’ and I said I would do it. Like I said, it was the pandemic and I was finishing up my studies and had more time on my hands. At first, I don’t think Christine took me seriously - she probably thought her daughter was just saying something. But I informed myself and found that it was actually possible to make a shoe with zero plastic. I learned there are far more sustainable materials out there than the ones traditionally used in shoe production. And all you really need to get started is time and effort. So I got started!

Amazing. And did you study fashion or have a fashion background? 

Anna: No, I studied sports medicine - in Cologne, Germany actually.  And I loved my studies! I feel very thankful to have studied that and still do a lot with it. But Alfena is what fueled me. When I started doing research for it, I found myself completely lit up.  So that’s how Alfena started. And we've been on the market for less than a year, actually - December 21st, 2022 will be one year since we launched. So we're very new. It's been a journey and a big learning experience since then.  And I do try to incorporate my studies, as I believe sustainability is not only about what you purchase, but also about the lifestyle you lead. Conscious consumerism obviously has a lot to do with what you purchase, but it extends to making intentional daily decisions.  

Absolutely. So that brings me to the next question - what is your number one piece of advice for readers who wish to live a more sustainable life?    

Anna: Think twice. Simply think twice. Don't just act and be impulsive. Like, are you really going to wear that $5.00 top that many times? Do you really need another one? It’s so much better to spend more money on one good quality top that was made ethically and has an inspiring story, than 20 cheap ones that were made unethically and will not last more than a month. So my advice is to think twice about everything. Not only with fashion, but also what you're consuming in terms of eating, about where you’re putting your energy etc. It all matters.

Awesome. So going back to Alfena - from a sustainability point of view, can you walk us through the process from supply chain to materials etc.? 

Anna: Yes, so we choose the materials and ship them to Portugal, where our production takes place. We're very close with the production team - it's a family owned business, just as most of the businesses we work with are.  As for materials, the outer soles are handcrafted in France and made from the pulp of the Lactae Hevea tree. Basically, the milk is poured into a mold and dried before being shipped to Portugal.  The upper part of the shoe is made from 100% biodegradable, vegetable tanned and chrome-free leather. The fact that there is no chrome makes the biggest difference. Chrome is not only bad for the environment, but very bad for those working with it.  Regarding source, the leather comes from local German cows. These cows are not harmed for the shoes - the leather used is actually a byproduct of material that would have otherwise been thrown out.  Lastly, the inner sole is made of cork from Portugal. Cork is not only great because it's a natural product, but when you harvest a cork tree and the tree grows its cork back, it takes up to three times more CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. So it's actually really good to use it! Cork is also an anti-fungal, so people with sweaty feet don’t have to worry with cork soles. 

Wow, I didn't know that about cork- so interesting! So you told me what inspired you to build the business, but what inspires you from a product design perspective?

Anna: So we knew what the shape was going to be from the beginning - that part was intuitive. We wanted to create a shoe that everyone could wear so we went with a simple classy look. It’s a unisex shoe as we wanted to show that sustainable options can be available to anyone - women, men, old and young people.  For the colors, we looked at a palette and decided which combinations would look nice. I’ve always been a creative person and am a big fan of art, so I really liked the design part - drawing and choosing the colors, etc. For example, we have one shoe called ‘Ocean Sunset.’ Before designing it, I came up with a vision of how I wanted the shoe to look and then pulled color samples from our leather person. After we put the colors together, we gave it the name.  In general, the creative process is also really inspired by intuition, experiences and emotions - especially in regards to mindfulness and energy. The design process and the picking out of the names is a reflection of us.

And what's been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?  

Anna: I think the biggest challenge has been continuing to see unsustainable brands grow. Watching popular brands take advantage of people and use up so much energy is tough to swallow. It's super hard knowing the unethical practices they use and then seeing how successful they are. On the other hand, smaller brands want so badly to make a difference, but it’s so much harder for them.  These big companies have the power to make a massive global difference, but they’re consciously choosing not to. I think that’s the hardest part - accepting that there are people out there who could make a difference but don’t want to.  

Absolutely. So what makes you get up every morning and go to work? What drives you?   

Anna: I love it… I don't know how else to describe it other than it's my baby. I could not imagine my life without Alfena, and that sounds kind of crazy but it’s truly what I love. It's where I want to put my energy so it doesn't feel like work. I don't feel like I'm getting up for work, I feel like I'm getting up to do something I love.

That’s incredible. And last question - which of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals do you address?    

Anna: We actually address a few. For example we pursue the ‘No Poverty’ one as we focus on fair labor. I’ve gone to visit almost all of the people we work with and these people are receiving fair wages and have a good working atmosphere. Then there's ‘Good Health & Well-Being.’ Like I said, we believe sustainability starts with oneself. On our social media, we have ‘Mindful Mondays’ where we promote wellness topics, and do posts around mindful topics like healthy foods that are in season. I actually want to do a live cooking session for the holiday season where we cook something with seasonal ingredients - you know, to mix it up a little and promote other sustainable lifestyle techniques.    We also address ‘Gender Equality’ one as our production facilities are essentially made up of 50/50 men and women. Finally, we focus on ‘Life on Land’ as we use renewable sources. Everyone we work with (from materials to production) are all looking for ways to be as sustainable as possible and have a minimal environmental impact. And that’s how I think we will start to see real change - by working with people and parts of the supply chain who are all focused on this very crucial mission.