Stylish Handmade Shoes with a Social Impact Mission

Stylish handmade shoes with a social impact mission—
via industry veteran and founder of Salt + Umber, Susie Bergquist.
By Lou & Grey 

WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH SALT + UMBER?

I came from mass-market footwear and it was really fun, but I saw the bad side of
the fast-fashion industry. There’s just so much waste involved. So I wanted to use
my business practice to make shoes that have less of an impact on the
environment. And believe it or not, the industry is kind of a boys’ club, so that was
important to me as well: Proving to myself that I could do it on my own, that I
didn’t need to have a man’s approval [to launch my own brand].

WHAT MAKES THEM BETTER

They’re all handmade. 100%. That requires zero heavy machinery, so right there
you’re cutting back on energy waste. We use a vegetable tanning process, so
you’re also cutting back on the chemicals that are being used. And then we try to
utilize as little packaging as possible, and what we do use is made with recycled
paper. Plus, there’s the pre-production process: Instead of getting a sample in
every single color, I try to do the work on the back-end in Photoshop, so there’s
less sampling.

MADE BY WOMEN

The uppers are handwoven by women in rural villages in India. These women
unfortunately aren’t really allowed to work—they’re supposed to take care of the
kids, cook and clean—so this allows them to stay home if they’d like and still weave
and make money. Microloans are provided to them, so they’re kind of owning their
own business, which is so cool. It’s giving them a sense of community and
accomplishment.

IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN THE SHOES

Consumers are wrapped up in how the product is actually made in its final stages,
but as a sustainable company we also have a responsibility to address all the other
aspects. It’s not just about how the shoes are made, but also the whole product
development and pre-production process, from how many emails you’re printing to
what type of packaging you’re using to whether you’re oversampling. No one’s
perfect and I’m not 100% sustainable or zero waste, but I can definitely say that
I’ve cut back on waste.

SMALL CHANGES MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Take that tiny, little step, because they all add up. When you go to the grocery
store, bring a tote bag or old plastic bag. Compost your food scraps. Get a Mason
jar to bring your food to work. If you don’t need a straw, don’t take one. If you
don’t need a napkin, don’t take one. If you go to Starbucks, but bring your own
mug, they have no problem refilling it! People don’t need to be conscious with
every little thing, but if once every five visits you say “no” to a Starbucks cup, it’s
going to add up.

SUSIE’S ADVICE ON STARTING YOUR OWN BIZ

There are two huge factors: Make sure it’s something you’re passionate about.
There’s going to be highs and there’s going to be lows, and if you’re not passionate
about it, you’re not going to be able to keep going. There will be points where
you’re not making money, and it’s hard. But if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel
like work. That’s important. And the other thing is to trust your instincts. If
something feels right to you, and your gut is telling you to do it, you should do it.
Nine times out of ten, it’s the best decision.
—Susie Bergquist