When her friend Chico Mendes, an activist and rubber-tapper from the Amazon, was gunned down by farmers, Bia Saldanha decided to close her fashion label to focus on helping Amazonian communities make a living out of their natural resources.
Saldanha, who at 18 launched a beachwear label in Rio called Cores Vidas, later helped to co-found the Brazilian Green Party, where she met Mendes. He was a “seringueiro”, someone who uses the process of rubber tapping, whereby sap is extracted harmlessly from rubber trees and the rubber is then used in products such as car tyres or shoe soles. It is a sustainable agricultural system, but one which can impede profit making as far as some farmers and miners are concerned.
After Mendes was ordered to be killed by one of the ranchers in 1988, Saldanha began to work in collaboration with Professor Floriano Pastore of the University of Brasilia to develop a technology called Folha Desfumada Liquida (Liquid Smoked Sheets). This process allows the rubber tappers to transform latex into rubber sheets without any industrial intermediary processes.
This led to Saldanha’s relationship with footwear label Veja, whose shoes are all made from this rubber.
“We work towards making our clients, like Veja, pay a fair price for this product. It’s not mass produced, so it has a social and environmental value,” Saldanha tells me at Veja’s showroom in London. “When we started we had 20 producers at the Chico Mendes reserve in the Brazilian state of Acre. Now we have 40 and the aim is to reach 300.”
Acre’s government, for whom Saldanha now works, has asked the entrepreneur to implement this technology in other parts of Acre.
But while Saldanha says she is encouraged by the consumer’s appetite for fair-trade products, she is also aware that there is a lot more work to be done. “People are more concerned by their own health, which is why demand for organic and fair-trade products in food grew [faster than in fashion],” Saldanha explains. “In fashion, it’s still a niche; the offer is still small. But fashion is linked to impulse and desire. You have to convince the consumer with the product, then tell them the history.”
Saldanha adds that ambassadors like singer Lilly Allen, who paid a visit to Acre and wears Veja shoes, and actress Angelina Jolie, whose baby was photographed wearing a pair of Veja trainers, help to raise awareness of the cause.
“I tried to leave fashion behind, but I can’t seem to,” Saldanha laughs. “Still, I believe in it as a form of social change.”