Julie Lewis is an inspired individual. What drives her is taking environmental problems and turning them into marketable products.
Lewis, who founded Deja Shoes, is now on her second business, Jade Planet. Jade sells bags made from Treetap natural rubber.
Treetap rubber is wild Amazonian rubber. It's sustainably harvested from natural forest trees in a manner as benign to the trees as harvesting maple syrup. The rubber is collected and melted. Then it is made into a laminate by painting the melted rubber onto cotton, which is then vulcanized by the sun. The rubber laminate is transported via dugout canoe and overland to Rio de Janeiro, where it is made into black and brown handbags and non-technical backpacks with colorful trim, handles and detailing by a women's cooperative. Treetap has a smooth and silky feel, and it's softer and lighter than leather.
"These bags promote the cultural survival of the rubber tapping community," said Lewis. "They raise the economic value of keeping the rubber trees and surrounding forest intact."
Lewis, who has a master's degree in biochemistry and a passion for botany, started down the sustainable products road with a concept for a recycled rubber shoe sole. She cold-called Bill Bowerman, founder of Nike, for advice, and he took her under his wing. He taught Lewis about the components of a shoe, so she could develop conventional uses for the recycled rubber. He gave her the Nike supplier and component source book, and had Nike make a prototype sole of her design from recycled tires. Bowerman had tried to get Nike to develop and use a recycled sole on some of its products, an initiative that was never realized. However, with the Nike-made prototype, Lewis was able to get a grant and raise $12 million in venture capital to start Deja Shoes.
Deja sourced a now patented natural rubber laminate from Acre, Brazil, called Treetap, but neglected to test the rubber for UV light degradation. It made 10,000 pairs of shoes, and had to recall all of them. UV degradation was a problem easily solved by adding zinc and other materials to the rubber. Deja's mistake helped the Acre rubber tappers that make Treetap finalize a stable and viable product recipe for the product and patent it. That mistake also put Deja Shoes out of business.
"It was a company before its time," lamented Lewis. "We made a huge error, and we couldn't recover."
That was 1996. Deja closed its doors, sold the trade name and closed out the defective product. The new owner of the trade name sat with it for more than six years. Lewis called to buy the name back but, as luck would have it, was a day late. Another company -- www.shoeswithsouls.com -- had purchased the name. Undeterred, in 2003, Lewis launched Jade Planet.
"Jade is Deja scrambled," said Lewis. "Jade is green, a fundamental concept for the company. And in China, Jade is a symbol of resurrection. I see Jade as a resurrection of my company, and as a symbol of the resurrection of the planet."
Jade's first products brought Lewis back to her natural rubber roots. A Rio de Janeiro cooperative that makes bags out of the Treetap laminate was looking for a North American distributor. It offered the contract to Lewis, recognizing her role in helping the tree tappers get their patent. Jade Planet is the exclusive North American distributor of Treetap bags. It also manufactures and distributes the Pachira boot, a hemp/cotton blend outdoor style urban/casual boot made from mostly recycled materials.
At Deja Shoes, Lewis headed the R&D department. At Jade Planet, she wears all hats.
"I learned a lot at Deja," said Lewis. "This time I am not interested in investors, I am trying to go it alone. The $12 million we raised at Deja ended up being a noose around our neck that forced us to bring product to market without fully testing it. As the former head of R&D at Deja, I know what materials work and where to get them."
Now Lewis has other challenges typical of small manufacturers, like minimum manufacturing quantities that are too big for the small company budget and orders.
"I don't have enough money and orders to make the minimum 5,000 pairs I need in order to use some materials that I want and to offer products like the Pachira in multiple colors. It's a Catch-22. I have a sandal and a clog that are ready to go to market, but I don't have the money to make them happen yet."
Despite lack of funding, Lewis continues with her creative product development. She has developed a sole from recycled and natural rubber, recycled polypro from reclaimed diapers, and she's made textile from a pest grass that plagues the northwestern United States where she lives. She has also developed a textile from Kudzu.
"This is where I get my juice," said Lewis. "I want to create a market for a material made from pest grasses that not only brings a new material to market, but solves an environmental problem. My dream is to find marketable solutions for environmental problems. That's how I define progress: solving environmental problems through commerce."
The Treetap bags are doing well for Lewis. Last winter was her first time at Outdoor Retailer, and despite high wholesale prices, the bags sold well. The Brazilian cooperative has upped its production capacity, and workers are considering a move out of their homes and into a factory. Lewis is working on getting the cost of the bags down, and she is working on sourcing organic cotton and hemp as the base material for the Treetap rubber.
"I miss the grand plans we made at Deja, and I miss the opportunity to be fully focused on R&D," said Lewis. "Now, as the owner and only employee of Jade Planet, I don't have the time or money for that. But then again, it's my company."
At SNEWSÂ®, one comment we sometimes hear from management of small and medium-sized businesses is that their companies are still too small to be able to do what is best for the community, the people and the environment while still keeping a healthy bottom line. We asked Lewis if she agrees.
"If I can't run a company with social responsibility and the environment as guiding principles, I don't want to be in business," said Lewis. "It's just not true that a company is too small to think about people and the environment. More often, a company is too big for new materials that may initially be available in limited quantities or in the U.S. only, not overseas where most companies are now manufacturing."
For more information on Jade Planet, and a look at the Treetap bags and Pachira boot, visit www.jadeplanet.net.