8000Kicks is lighting up the sneaker game. Founder Bernardo Otilia spoke with us about the company’s quirky origins, why they use hemp fabric and how they are preparing to pioneer the next generation of 21st century hemp apparel. This is a dope discussion for sneakerheads and supporters of sustainability alike.
When you think of hemp, what is the first image that comes to mind? Perhaps you visualise marijuana leaves or a canvas wallet. Others might recognise it as a new form of sustainable textile, a material with an abundance of environmental opportunities. 8000Kicks is a rising player in the sustainable footwear space, who’ve pioneered a line of eco-friendly sneakers, backpacks and accessories made from hemp fibres.
Today I’m joined by the company’s founder, Bernardo Otilia, all the way from Portugal, to learn more about the story behind these dope kicks. Bernardo, welcome to AMR
Bernardo: Thank you.
There’s a lot to cover here and I’m super interested in the dynamics of your sneakers, but before we go down that rabbit hole, I’d love to know more about how your company came to be.
I knew that I wanted to start my own business. I wanted to create change.
It’s actually a pretty funny story. I moved out of London, back in 2017-18. And I was, I mean, I would not say ‘lost’, but I knew that I wanted to start my own business. I wanted to create change. I wanted something that matched my values, but I was not sure what. Until one day, it was five in the morning, we were all very drunk, we all smoked up a bit. We were all just having fun, and someone came up with the idea of making a cannabis shoe. And I was like, well, that’s got to be the most stupid idea I’ve heard! But then I thought, I’ve seen wallets, and backpacks made of hemp. But why don’t we make shoes out of it too?
It was and idea that certainly gained some shape as I was telling my grandmother, who is a 50-year-old textile expert. She really knows a lot! I asked her, “hey, what do you think about…?”, I mean, she obviously didn’t like the idea at all! She was like, “don’t ever bring drugs into this house, I didn’t raise you to be on drugs!”
I thought, okay, I need to buy some of this stuff, so I can show her. So, I ordered some hemp, and she was very impressed because of the quality of the fabric. Suddenly it moved from nothing, to having a small idea, to thinking it was not such a bad idea. And then we soon realised that hemp was actually game changing, this can actually change the world! It was clear that hemp was not only durable but sustainable, very eco-friendly and absorbs CO2. I was like, wow, this is the future! And suddenly, what started as a stupid idea soon became, “we gotta do this”. That’s how it started. We began prototyping shoes, we launched on Kickstarter, and we sold 2500 pairs with one sample. It was wild!
Such a simple premise, yet clearly you were on to something. As you mentioned, hemp fabric has been used in a variety of products, yet hemp footwear was a path less travelled. Whether walking, running or training, shoes take a fair amount of abuse, so you must have had a lot of faith in hemp’s durability?
We’ve brought hemp into the 21st century. This is the beginning of the end of plastics in clothing.
It’s exactly what you just said. We spent thousands of dollars testing the materials and making sure they’re good quality, to make sure it’s up to standards and what we need. Recently, we announced in our newsletter, that we’ve brought hemp into the 21st century. I know this sounds a bit stupid, but you have to understand that hemp was stuck in development for the last fifty years. And we’ve now put hemp at the same level as cotton, and polyester. Our shoes come with this really strong fibre which doesn’t lose colour or fade, which is a major development for us. This is the beginning of the end of plastics in clothing.
I’m hearing that through your hard work and proof of concept, you were able to effectively demonstrate the benefits of hemp as a sustainable textile. Yet, there is still a bit of stigma around hemp, particularly with those who are unfamiliar with the differences between it and marijuana. So, how were you able to build a knowledgeable team and recruit people like your grandmother to help with this project?
She was the first one to look at the fabric and say it was good. For me, that was a very strong approval. I mean, I could get approval from anyone, but she knows her stuff and that was very important to me. The second thing was, initially I didn’t start working with the best partners, you don’t know they’re not good until you start working with them. And honestly, for all of us, when we start doing something, we don’t always hit a home run the first time. It takes us a little bit of time.
When we did the first production, things were not going well. I couldn’t understand why. I mean, you can look at a shoe and know it’s not good, that’s one thing. But to look at the shoe and know exactly what’s wrong, that’s another thing. And I couldn’t do that, but my grandmother could because she has the experience. She looked at the shoe and said, “this shoe is not even, the weight stage is not properly done, this thing is upside down, this has to be double folded here, this has to be here, this has to be there”. And I was like, okay, make sense, but I don’t have the experience to be able to say that.
It was very funny. She literally pulled the factory manager to the ground floor, and was talking with him for an hour explaining why the shoes were not getting made properly. And everyone was looking, like, what the fuck is going on here? There is an old woman giving lectures!
That would have been a sight! She had the knowledge to suggest the little tweaks to make it perfect, right?
Yeah, she was amazing with that. And I was like, okay, just let her do her magic. She’s not involved in the daily day to day business, obviously, because she’s older, retired and doesn’t speak English. But for us, it was very important to get her knowledge so that we are not launching any non-quality products. She brought the experience, which was critical for us to get the product developed faster.
Thank you, Nanna. Are there many differences when working with hemp, as compared to cotton or polyester?
Yeah, there are quite a few actually. Let’s start with the length of fibres, if you look at hemp, it comes from the stalk, the trunk of the tree. You remove the sheath, which is the wood that is inside, and you keep what is outside. Hemp also grows up to three metres tall and that means that the fibres, theoretically, can go up to three metres in length. This is one of the reasons that makes hemp so strong. The fibres are also very thick. On the other hand, cotton fibres, they grow in small bulbs, right? And they’re very tiny, and small. It’s completely different, complete opposites. One is small, tiny and fluffy. The other one is strong, long and very durable.
And then you have polyester, which is a perfect tool that you can adjust to every length, because it’s a plastic right? And you can do whatever you want with it, thicker, thinner or maybe longer. So, it’s totally different things and we had to relearn how to do it, observe how it’s done and also analyse the way they used to do it 50 years ago. And look at the way they built similar fibres like linen and flax and try to replicate it. Basically this was studying, studying, studying. How do they do it? How can we improve? And finally, we have done it. We have achieved production of this mega fibre that is super strong.
Any other standout features?
One amazing thing, other than durability, is the fact that it’s antibacterial and antimicrobial. People’s shoes can smell bad, because shoes breathe. When they breathe, there is humidity. If shoes are not antibacterial and antimicrobial, there is going to be humidity that leads to bacteria that leads to smell. And that’s what hemp fixes because hemp is naturally antibacterial, antimicrobial, so it doesn’t absorb humidity.
The moment you remove your feet from the shoe, the smell will fade because the humidity will not stay there. That is a big difference. Another thing is that hemp is very breathable, it is also temperature insulating, meaning your shoes wont feel so cold in winter or hot in summer.
It’s pretty impressive what one plant can do. And we banned it for 50 years. That was not smart.
Hemp also absorbs a lot of CO2. And just the fact that we use hemp, our carbon footprint is so much lower than cotton shoes, or wool shoes or leather shoes. We estimate our carbon footprint per shoe is about 4.1 kilos per pair of shoes. It still seems a lot, but one pair of leather shoes is almost 100 kilos of CO2. It’s pretty impressive, it’s crazy. Hemp is also a weed in the sense that it absorbs and replenishes the nutrients from the soil. For instance, it’s been used in Chernobyl to remove radiation and restore nutrients in the soil. It’s a long list, I could go on. It’s pretty impressive what one plant can do. And we banned it for 50 years. That was not smart.
In the last few months, we’ve had both very warm days and some heavy downpours here in Australia. I can confirm that no matter the weather, my feet did feel protected from the elements.
That’s great and it’s very handy when it’s cold and rainy.
Speaking of rain and water, one other unique aspect I noticed about your shoes was the algae bloom soles. Could you walk us through just what that is?
Sure. We’re building a sustainable shoe, so it didn’t make really sense to have like a plastic sole. Firstly, it needed to be vegan, second, we needed something that matched the unique values of the product in terms of sustainability. So, we were researching what materials we could use.
We partnered up with a company that was collecting seaweed from algal blooms. If these blooms are not controlled, what happens is they can cover a big portion of water and absorb all the oxygen, killing the entire ecosystem. This organisation continuously collects all the seaweed from algal blooms, all over the planet, but mostly in Asia in the US. We partnered with them and we started sponsoring the collection of this algae. They collect it, dried it and shred it into small pieces. Then we bring it to our lab and we mix it with substrate, making a kind of algae plastic. And there is a synthetic part of it that keeps it very consistent because algae doesn’t hold together well by itself. But with this substrate synthetic material, it holds very well. It is very durable, but we still have the lightweight properties and flexibility of the algae. We thought this was perfect. We developed that material, and it’s going pretty well, people are very impressed by it.
I’ve honestly never seen a material quite like that before.
Then you see the algae inside, which is pretty fun too!
And the process of how it’s made, I bet that’s equally interesting as well.
Yeah, but most people look at the sole and they don’t see it. But then I pointed it out. Hey guys, do you see that there are some small dots inside the soul? That’s actually the algae. It’s been made into powder, but you can see it inside the soul.
It’s clear that you’ve thought deeply about every aspect of the shoe to ensure it is as eco-friendly as possible. What other sustainability initiatives do you employ at 8000Kicks?
We have multiple things. We have recycled boxes and poly mailer bags made out of corn starch, that is fully biodegradable. We plant a tree for every shipment, which helps us offset the remaining 4.1 kilos of CO2, plus the shipping.
And we also donate a lot to charity. We have a campaign going on right now, where people pledge how much, whatever they want, to pay for the shoes and we donate the difference if they buy the shoes for a discount. If they chose no discount, we’re still going to donate 25% to charity. Basically, people decide how much they want to pay and we donate the difference to charity.
Last year we donated a lot of old pairs to homeless people. We have donated 30 pairs to a Ukrainian refugee centre. I mean, this is not sustainability. But it’s part of our efforts to give back to society. We do a lot, but we would like to do more, even more, but it’s just that we are very small team.
It’s incredibly impressive what you’ve been able to achieve at your current size. Though I imagine this will only increase as you scale up your brand. Speaking of, I think I saw that your success has led to a recent store opening?
Yeah, that’s correct, now we are finally moving out of COVID! We wanted to open a store since day one, but guess what? There’s two years we have to delete from our memories. But yes, we finally did open the store, which is a big milestone for us, for one reason. People find the idea of hemp shoes interesting, but they don’t know how cool it is until they touch it. There’s also the issue of sizes, not a lot of people feel comfortable ordering shoes online because of sizes and everyone has very specific needs in terms of feet. It’s very important for us to have a store so that people can come see, learn and test the products.
Even though it’s a small shop, we explain the whole process. How we make the shoes, how we make the fabric. We have some fabric there, some fibres and some plants. We try to educate people about it all.
Going back to the very beginning, you mentioned how this all began early one morning when you were hanging out with some friends. What other sources of inspiration have you had along the journey? Any more influential 5am chats?
I still go party with my friends. Because we are humans, right? We need to do this kind of stuff and that helps a lot. But right now, the main source of inspiration is customers. A lot of time people connect with us on Instagram, and they don’t know that they are talking with the CEO, and it’s just me replying and having a chat with them. And I ask them, “hey, well, what else do you suggest?”, and they might say they want a backpack, or socks, or this, or what would be really nice is a pair of boots.
And I’m like, that’s interesting, what kind of boots? And what for? And I try to validate the idea. But how, can hemp make it better? Oh, because I’m a farmer. And I’m always out there. Like, I need a pair of durable boots that easy to put on and easy to wash. Okay, interesting. Can you tell me more? What do you need. Now we have customers sharing their experiences, and it really helps us develop more products and continue, continue, continue.
It sounds like hearing feedback from the customer is very important to you. That you look to them as a source of inspiration to see, how to better serve them, as opposed to just pushing a product for them to buy?
Yeah, that’s correct. Obviously, at the end, we have to be critical and understand if a customer really needs something, or if they want it just because it seems cool. I mean, sometimes customers want faster horses. Customers want faster horses, so you give them cars, right? It’s not really the same, but you know what I mean, right? You have to understand the customer’s problem and then work out how you can fix it? Maybe hemp is not the right material for it. It’s our job to validate with the customer what they need, and how can we solve that problem.
What are some of the crazier ideas you’ve been pitched?
We’ve had all sorts of ideas. Some customers wanted hemp towels, some wanted sheets, bed sheets, which is not a bad idea at all, actually.
I’ve used hemp bedsheets before and they are very light, very breathable and temperature regulating, speaking to what you mentioned earlier.
This is super amazing, it means the hemp industry is evolving. But also, we don’t want to go into all these categories, because making bedsheets is very different from making shoes. And it’s very difficult to do everything right. It’s good to see other people taking the step forward and making all these new products. We’ve also been asked to make beach towels and umbrellas. All kinds of ideas, all interesting, but we can’t do all of them.
Considering the success you’ve had, what gets you excited about the future. What’s next for 8000Kicks?
We’ve hit a big milestone in terms of hemp quality. A lot of ideas that we decided we have to reanalyse because certainly we can make them now.
The most exciting thing right now is the quality of the fabric we have. Because I was just talking to you earlier, we’ve hit a big milestone in terms of hemp quality. We spent thousands of dollars of euros, developing and testing the fabric. Actually, just a few days ago, I was again in the lab, pulling fabric apart, testing the durability, and testing how fast the colour fades. And the results are incredible, this new fabric that we have coming up, it’s really amazing. It’s like it, it literally put hemp into the 21st century. The amount of products that we now can make will widen the range. When we started, we wanted to make backpacks but our fabric was not good. Now we make backpacks because the fabric has reached that level. But now we can make so much more. This is what I’m very excited about. And we have a lot of ideas that we decided we have to reanalyse because certainly we can make them now. So that is very exciting.
Sounds like the next generation of hemp products is on the way. So, you’re the founder and CEO of an up and coming hemp clothing brand, you’ve making huge strides with regard to sustainability initiatives and have a passionate and connected consumer base. What do you enjoy the most about your job?
For me, personally, sometimes I’m reading my emails, and I see reviews, the reviews come directly to my email. And even yesterday, I was just like, wow. I took a screenshot of this person who dropped some amazing reviews, saying they are the best shoes they’ve ever had. It’s one thing to say that they are the best shoes, but when she described this and this and this… that email really touched me because I was working personally on those things for three years. And she mentioned all these points that improved. And not just me, but the team has been working on all these issues for the last few years. And this person just touched on all of them with a review saying this is amazing, that is amazing.
And I was like well, that first one was really hard to do and the second one was, very expensive, but we finally made it. And you know, this email really was very rewarding for me. Just that recognition, people recognising, not directly as they didn’t know that these were problems for us, but just mentioning it. And we’re like, wow, we fixed this and we made it awesome. That was very, very rewarding.
That feedback must be very motivational for you and your team?
Yes, a problem that turned into something amazing. That people actually cherish and recognise even though they don’t know, it was a problem. That was amazing. Everyone in the team was very happy with one email, we looked like we won the lottery!
For a modern take on motivational posters you could print that out, frame it and put it up on the wall. Whenever there’s a tough day, you could point to that and know that you’re making a difference in the world.
Yeah, that’s a good idea. We’re going to print it out.
Bernardo, this has been a fun chat and I’m sure our audience has learned a great deal about hemp and its many benefits. I’m always interested in how changemakers like yourself, people with big visions, see solutions and ways to implement change. A question I’d like to ask is, given the many challenges we face each day, as people and as a planet, what do you see as a modern remedy for these issues?
That’s a tough question. Every single problem has a source. For instance, I can tell you that without the issue of oil and gas in Russia, there will be no war in Ukraine. I can tell you that for sure. So maybe without oil and gas, we wouldn’t have global warming either.
And no plastics.
Exactly. So maybe we can start with that, oil and gas.
People and those in charge should seek out alternatives?
Yes, I think hemp can be the answer for a lot of this. But there’s also hydrogen and solar for energy. We are on the path there, not as fast as I would like, but humanity is moving to a stage where we will have no dependency on oil and gas. And I think that will be critical to stopping this nonsense, once, for all.
Where do you see yourself in that future timeline? What role do you see 8000Kicks playing in terms of sustainability?
We want to drive change in this industry. Fashion is one of the biggest sources of pollution in the world. So we want to start there.
I mean, obviously, we are a small team with limited resources. So, we are focusing on very specific textiles, and shoes. We want to drive change in this industry. There are other industries that need different kinds of innovation. But for us, we want to focus on shoe apparel. Because fashion is one of the biggest sources of pollution in the world. So we want to start there.
We have some pretty cool products coming in 2023 which I cannot say, but they are very cool products. I mean, once again, with the new hemp fabric that we have achieved. Some Kickstarter campaigns coming next year as well. Things I cannot reveal yet, but very exciting stuff coming up. It’s exciting times.
We will definitely be on the lookout for those. In the meantime, where can people find 8000Kicks? How can people learn more about your dope products?
Thanks again for your time Bernardo. I feel like we could go another hour on this, but I’ll let you get back to your busy day.
Have a good one. Russell. All the best. ■