Walking on good ideas

A casual conversation at the beach changed Adriana Mano’s life. The founder of Zouri Shoes doesn’t hide her smile when she tells us how she transformed a “crazy idea that everyone said no to” into one of the most innovative – and sustainable – fashion brands in Portugal. This brand was internationally awarded and is present in 27 countries, but came very close to not existing at all.

Adriana was collecting rubbish on a beach in northern Portugal with other volunteers when someone asked her something unexpected: would it be possible to use waste to produce shoes? “I totally dismissed the idea.” Her experience as a footwear designer told her that the plastics that pollute the seas and beaches decay and lack the flexibility, strength and durability needed to produce footwear. More senior colleagues only confirmed her suspicions. But so many “no’s” only sharpened her curious and entrepreneurial spirit: “When people tell me something is impossible, I need to understand why.”

She had good reason to insist. After a lot of research and development, Adriana’s persistence and effort paved the way for something new. A few years later, Zouri was born.

Rubbish isn’t waste, it’s raw material.

Adriana Mao, Zouri Shoes founder

The fashion industry – especially fast fashion – is a major polluter; on the other hand, the vast majority of plastic collected from the seas and beaches is not recyclable, invariably ending up in landfills or incineration.

Reversing this modus operandi and understanding how Zouri could do things differently was the first step. “For us, marine litter is a raw material.” It took almost four years of research and testing before the plastic collected on the beaches could be incorporated into the soles of Zouri sneakers and sandals. With a developed product and proven effectiveness, it was time to take Zouri shoes to market. With a limited budget, Adriana once again tapped the main engine of all great inventions: creativity. “At a time when the world is in environmental peril, we need to get creative with what we have around us.”

Zouri’s sustainable production process features several partners and volunteers – Adriana also defends the old mantra “together we go further”. It all starts with collecting rubbish and litter on the beaches, with the help of schools and environmental associations. This is the case of Brigada do Mar (Sea Brigade), a partnership association that provides, among other plastics, abandoned fishing nets.

The rubbish is then sorted and undergoes a triage. After shredding, the plastic is mixed with natural rubber, and the final product acquires the characteristic colour of Zouri soles – around 10% to 15% of plastic to 85% to 90% of rubber. This ensures the integrity of the sole, as well as the strength and durability of the shoe. This mixture is then cut into the shape of soles.

Zouri shoes sole

The rest of the shoe is made from natural, vegan and eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton and Piñatex®, derived from pineapple leaves. In addition, Zouri makes sure that all production is 100% made in Portugal.

Social entrepreneurship, creativity and sustainability

For Adriana Mano, “the brand is a tool which allows us to do environmental activism and pass on certain messages. The product is a way for us to feed our social and environmental impact actions.”

Zouri develops awareness-raising actions through litter collection campaigns, and holds workshops with primary schools, where students create objects with rubbish, such as small dolls or toy cars. The goal is to raise awareness of the importance of environmental responsibility and the use of creativity in the search for more sustainable solutions.

Entrepreneurship is also part of the brand’s mission: at universities, Zouri challenges students from fields such as management, design and architecture to become social entrepreneurs, and dares them to create something that has a positive impact on society, and that fits in a circular economy. “There is this longstanding idea that creating innovative solutions requires large investments, advanced machinery, and enormous environmental impacts. For me, Zouri shows that you don’t need to have a great idea, or to invest millions. You just have to create something new out of what already exists.”

Zouri shoes

Zouri in numbers

  • In 2022, Zouri’s turnover was close to half a million euros;
  • It’s present in 27 countries, including the United States of America and Australia;
  • Since it was founded, Zouri has already collected 9 tonnes of rubbish from Portuguese beaches;
  • More than 60 schools participated in the litter collection actions;
  • The clean-up actions covered more than 300 km of Portuguese coastline;
  • A pair of Zouri shoes contains about 60 to 90g of rescued plastic, which is equivalent to 6-8 33cl plastic bottles.

Zouri has also won several national and international awards and distinctions, including second place in the Social Innovation Tournament, in the Sustainable Production and Consumption category, by the European Investment Bank (EIB) in 2019. In 2022, the “Outstanding Female Entrepreneur” distinction was awarded to Zouri’s founder, Adriana Mano, within the framework of the United Nations Ocean Conference.