A project to create income for citizens in rural areas of Peru led two University of Cincinnati alumni to create a shoe company that puts workers first.
Piola, meaning “cool” in Peruvian, resulted from the efforts of Antoine Burnier-Dechon, a study abroad student from the Audencia Nantes School of Management in France and Josh Rudd, a 2012 UC graduate with a bachelor’s in business administration.
“We started by setting up an economic development project with our rubber producers in Peru. So, we started Piola from the sole up,” Rudd said. “A lot of companies start with designers and end up creating a shoe, whereas the rubber is the first material we had set before we even had a shoe produced.”
The two, who hatched the idea while attending UC, envisioned a shoe company that boasts fair working conditions and wages for their workers while maintaining transparency as they run their business.
“We pay our workers around five times the market price for rubber,” Rudd said. “And in addition to that, included in each of our shoe boxes is a code for five euros that our customers can reinvest back into our big producers through our website.”
This reinvestment is to help the producers fund the expansion of their businesses. Rudd said that for the rubber producers, this means building more workshops and finding more sources of revenue.
Piola’s website clearly states that it is not a fair-trade or help program, but that it is an intermediary between customers and producers.
“I’m sure you’ve seen in the stores when things say ‘Fairtrade Certified’ or ‘Rainforest Certified,’ ” Rudd said. “These are typically third-party sources that companies pay to put a stamp on their product.”
These third parties are created to check in with producers of a company’s raw materials two to three times a year. According to Rudd, a company will ramp up its image during check-ins by bringing in legal and presentable workers that don’t interfere with third-party labor standards
This is exactly the type of situation Piola makes a point to avoid.
“Nobody really sees what goes on behind the scenes,” Rudd said. “That is why we aim to be transparent in that process and tell everyone what we’re doing and what we are paying for the products so people can judge for themselves if it is fair or not.”
Piola’s transparency can be seen on the business’s website, where specific facts are listed including workers’ monthly income and how much the company pays for utilities like rubber and cotton, all the way down to what they pay to package and ship raw materials.
The business even points out unflattering aspects to its customers, illustrating its pledge for honesty between business and consumer. An example is the fact that Piola uses the processes of leather tanning and canvas dying, which is, according to the website, “still not eco-friendly. We are working on it.”
Rudd said most big-name shoe companies would outsource to third-world countries and pay lower wages to increase their own profit margins.
“We didn’t want to be that company,” Rudd said. “We want to be visible and transparent and change the trends of what these major shoe companies are doing.”
Mike Warwavesyn, a second-year computer science student at UC, is more lenient toward companies who outsource to third-world countries.
“I think it is O.K. since the value of money is significantly different in other countries, although I do believe they deserve an actual livable wage, or it is completely unethical,” Warwavesyn said.
Though most of Piola’s shoe sales are made abroad, they are working on expanding into the United States.
“Europe and Asia have been our main markets so far, but Nordstrom’s should be carrying some of our lines by the spring,” Rudd said.
Piola catalogues shoes from each of its collections on its website. After looking through them, Morgan Cassidy, a third-year liberal arts student, was excited by the idea of a new brand of stylish shoes for men.
“I’d prefer a guy to wear unique shoes in that kind of style rather than the usual basketball shoes or Sperry’s most guys tend to wear,” Cassidy said.
The duo isn’t stopping here — Rudd said he and Burnier-Dechon are hoping to open up flagship stores in Paris, London, New York and Tokyo within the next fix years, as well as launch a clothing line to accompany their shoes.
“And of course,” Rudd added, “we want to hire more employees.”