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'We turn pollution into flip flop art'

Words by Tess Becker

It was around 10 years ago that a woman named Julie Church saw some mums making toys for their kids using rubbish washed up from the sea in Kenya. 

In that moment, she realised there was a creative solution to this problem: turn trash into treasure.

Those were the simple beginnings of Ocean Sole, a flip-flop art recycling company – and a solution in Africa to the global pollution problem. 

Now run by Erin Smith, Ocean Sole has developed into a social impact community, with more than 100 full-time employees in Kenya. They give 15% back to conservation efforts – partnering with nonprofits to help elevate their missions. And they host weekly beach clean-ups along the coast in the eastern part of Africa every Saturday, targeting the dirtiest beaches and rescuing around 3000 pounds of ocean trash each week. 

“Last year, we cleared over one million pounds of trash,” Melissa Anderson, 31, who lives in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and covers marketing for Ocean Sole, tells me. “This year, we’re on track to do more.”

In 2019, 60 Second Docs made a short video about Ocean Sole and the amazing work they were doing. “It completely blew up and had 180 million views on Facebook,” says Melissa. “It was so amazing but so unexpected.

“We were a small little shop at the time, we didn’t have a website, so we quickly got one and started selling online. That’s when we started to see growth in our business.”

Flip flops into art

So how does it all work? After the weekly beach clean-ups, they take all the trash – specifically the flip flops and styrofoam – back to their workshop in Nairobi.

It’s all cleaned, sanitised, and then a team of artisans get creating. “They’re amazingly talented,” says Melissa, “they used to carve out of wood, but when the mahogany trade became illegal, we trained them to carve out of a different medium: flip flops. And they love it.”

They have around 75-115 artisans, a range of ages. And while they’re primarily men, Ocean Sole also trains women to become artisans, too. They are no machines, it’s all done by knives.

Artistic projects will range from things that can fit into a palm of your hands, to large animal sculptures. “We built a car sculpture for a Honda dealership,” says Melissa. “That took about three months to do, with a team of 10 artisans.”

One of their best-sellers is the turtle, which come in 3 sizes and is run by a team of women. Often, the bigger sculptures are sold to businesses who are moving towards eco-friendly models and want an impactful educational piece in their office. But while these large sculptures may serve as more educational pieces, the flip flop art is also sold through their website and in shops worldwide. 

Not only does OceanSole have a great environmental mission, they also have a strong social impact. “We feed our employees every single day,” she tells me. “We put their kids through school, and we have an employee welfare programme. We’ve had people come from the slums, who then get jobs with us – we’ll bring doctors in so they get eye care for the first time, for example.”

What does the future hold?

Quite a lot. 

Ocean Sole is getting more involved in the zero waste movement, looking to turn their offcuts into creatives, too. They’re also getting involved in refugee programmes, employing women to sew mattresses and donating these to underprivileged communities. Plus a soon-to-be launched range of eco shoes, and branching out into more functional products.

But most of all, continuing to support their employees through welfare. “Our two biggest pillars and people and the planet,” adds Melissa.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Climate Action and No Poverty.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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