Founded in 2004 by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, her husband, and her brother, soleRebels marries an age-old recycling tradition with modern design sensibilities to create recycled tire footwear that has changed the face of a community.
soleRebels is the brand of Bostex plc, the first registered Ethiopian member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). Bostex stands for “By Ourselves Textiles”- a nod to the fact that the company makes most of its inputs by itself, by hand. “In Ethiopia, a historic and vital shift away from aid and towards trade is underway” says Tilahun Alemu, “[so we created bostex as] a critical push to control own destiny by exporting higher value finished goods instead of low value commodity exports.”
Their success comes from reimagining the “selate” and “barabasso,” traditional recycled tire sole shoes found in Ethiopia for generations. At soleRebels, recycled tire soles are combined by hand with recycled and sustainable materials, such as handspun, hand-loomed organic fabrics, vintage camouflage fabrics (redeployed into peaceful use!), revived canvas, and natural fibers, to create fashion-forward footwear. They also use many traditional Ethiopian inputs, like heritage cotton, from small scale cotton farmers. This commitment means that traditional Ethiopian artisan crafts are preserved and promoted while small farmers can continue growing a historic crop in the traditionally organic manner they have employed for centuries.
Less than four years ago, there were hardly any jobs in the founders’ community. Now, soleRebels provides 40+ people with full-time dignified work and a further 100 with part-time jobs. Looking forward, the company wants to expand in order to generate even more jobs for their community. Alemu sees current growth as just the beginning. “We founded this company to bring opportunities to some of the most marginalized citizens in our nation -- people who coincidentally happen to be our neighbors and relatives. In addition, we are helping to preserve local culture, giving citizens a sense of pride, while bringing amazing footwear to our customers worldwide!”
Ethiopia’s leading eco-ethical footwear brand and one of the few Fair Trade footwear brands globally, soleRebels’ sandals, apparel, and accessories are gaining more and more traction. Products now retail in ten countries, including the USA, UK and Italy. “As the market toughens,” says Tilahun Alemu “I think people are looking for compelling reasons to embrace authentic brands. As the world’s first WFTOregistered footwear company, a company that is green down to its DNA, and the first African footwear brand to penetrate major retail in the US market, I believe we offer something unique and compelling.” While the handcrafted nature of soleRebels virtually eliminates any carbon output from production, Bostex is also pioneering other renewable energy sources by embracing solar power and repurposing production waste materials into production inputs. Shoe leathers are artisan processed and vegetable tanned – a very different origin than most commercial leathers employed in the footwear business Yet, as important as Bostex finds their environmental credentials, they want to ensure that the focus remains on their Fair Trade work.
“We know that … people around the world…want to see that the companies that sell their products care as much about the people who make them as they do about reducing their footprint on the world….[At the same time,] we are green by heritage and not because some marketing whiz told them to be. [We] believe that saving the environment plus concern for workers never goes out of style.” Tilahun Alemu notes.
Their combination of Fair Trade and environmental responsibility will hopefully keep soleRebels in step with their plans to grow. In the end, through, Tilahun Alemu believes it comes down to the quality of the product. “Stepping into a soleRebel is truly a treat – its like slipping your foot into your softest socks. If your feet don’t jump up and kiss you in a fit of comfort induced joy, we’ll refund your money . it’s THAT comfy! ” Tilahun Alemu explains with a laugh.