By Emma Moneuse

Ocean Sole cleans Kenyan beaches, making sculptures from the collected debris.

In places of extreme poverty, flip-flops are the most affordable shoe option available. Meaning for over 3 billion people, flip-flops are their main footwear. Estimating that each person buys two pairs of flip-flops per year, around 7 billion pairs of flip-flops are discarded in countries or villages with poor waste management infrastructure. The result is millions of pounds of flip-flops ending up in the ocean, polluting waterways and washing up on beaches across the globe. One of the countries deeply affected by this waste is Kenya– the birthplace of Ocean Sole, a non-profit organization of artisans who turn old flip-flops into art. 

It started as a passion project when Ocean Sole’s founder, Julie Church, noticed women on a North Kenyan island collecting trash from the beach. Amongst the debris were flip-flops, which they would turn into toys for their children. Church noticed the potential in their work and encouraged them to sell their products at local markets to provide more income for their families. Church received a grant from the UN to help the women create more toys and artifacts from the recovered flip-flops. Ocean Sole has grown to over 90 employees and artisans who create colorful works of art

Ocean Sole is best known for its animal sculptures but recently collaborated with fashion house Chloé on their Lou sandal, which has a sole made from repurposed flip-flops. “One of the designers from Chloé was on vacation in Florida, saw our art, and said, ‘oh my God, we could do something with this.’ And that’s how the collaboration started,” explains tech-exec turned Ocean Sole CEO, Erin Smith. “We’ve had several partnerships come off the wall like this. When you have an innovative design, people in fashion can see the possibilities.”

Ocean Sole is all about possibilities. Not only do they provide their artisans with liveable wages and support for their families, but they are dedicated to making a larger, long-standing impact. When an initiative is driven by a passion for doing good, good things will come. One of the most important things about running a successful business, Smith says, is keeping people focused. One of Ocean Sole’s best carvers came to them when he was only 16. He was an addict, spending a lot of time in the streets when he started as a washer, cleaning the flip-flops found on the beach. He then worked his way up to become one of their top artists, and with the work he has done at Ocean Sole, he has been able to put his children through school. 

“We operate in terms of being very people-focused and employee-focused, which has helped people out of poverty,” says Smith. “All of our artisans are paid above-average wages. We have a profit share for them. We provide health care and hot meals. We have lifted many people out of some very bad circumstances, particularly women.”

Ocean Sole comprises a 50% female team, specifically supporting fishermen’s wives whose livelihoods have been severely affected by climate change and overfishing. Ocean Sole is not only doing the work to prevent further pollution but also helping those who have already suffered because of it. The organization’s drive to stay focused on its purpose makes its impact so significant. In total, Ocean Sole recycles over 1.2 million pounds of flip-flops annually. Supported by charitable donations, Ocean sole hosts weekly beach cleanups across the Kenyan coastline, bringing the local community together to keep the beach beautiful and improve the ecosystem. 

When asked how it feels to make such an apparent difference in the world, Smith responded, “it’s amazing. I feel like I have found my true heart.” She hopes the younger generation will keep making decisions toward positive change. “I’m so impressed by young people, but I think people my age who have a lot of experience have a real opportunity to pivot in their careers and bring their skills to make such good happen right now in life.” 

Ocean Sole’s goal has always been to create a positive impact. Whether by employing workers in a country with over 40% unemployment, reducing waste, or simply producing art that makes people smile, the organization is a testament to the idea that when you do good things, good things happen. 

Images courtesy of Ocean Sole

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