Today you are all in for a great interview! Eric Meyer, founder of Simple Shoes tells us all about why he started Simple and what he’s up to today. He is quite good at recollecting the past and articulating the future- let alone awesome at life. This is just part 1 folks, so enjoy and stay tuned for next week!
LC:  You’ve done so much! What was your initial ‘itch’ that inspired you to begin Simple back in the day?

EM: In order to understand what prompted Simple… you have to remember the context of the time period… the late 80’s.   Bright obnoxious prints… loud graphics… Max Headroom is on MTV… big hair… massive optimism… BMW cars… Ronald Reagan is President… big houses… “Dallas” is the top show on TV… EGO ego ego.  Everyone in the action sports/outdoor industry was trying to outdo each other.   Louder, crazier, more punk… whatever.  In footwear it was all about gadgets and technology.  Nike Air, LA Gear Catapults…overly designed clothing and footwear were the rage.

Simple was the opposite… a reaction.  Simple was a product that did not stereotype it’s wearer… or give them an overly hyped “technical advantage”.  The product merely was a hybrid of casual and athletic… (a novel idea in 1991)  made with the highest quality inexpensive matierials… minus all the hoopla.  Many people did not want to be walking billboards for the brands they were buying… they just wanted clean, plain, wholesome product that worked and didn’t say anything.  We used natural gum rubber… thick cheap suede, natural undyed cotton liners.  It was a relief from the status quo.  We were the first shoe brand going this direction.  We were first to use 100% recycled packaging and promotional materials… natural inks etc. too.  At the time this was a new movement

I had been designing clothing and shoes for the skateboard clothing pioneer Vision Street Wear.  This brand was very successful.  Basically I just wanted to have my own brand and make my own statement rather than build a brand for somebody else.  So I quit Vision Street Wear on Friday the 13th, 1991 and started Simple.  I was 29.

LC: ‘The Green Toe line’ came out in 2004 & helps Simple operate according to the triple bottom line as much as possible. Was this measurement scale in place from the onset of the company? It seems to be very much in line with the culture and ethos of Simple iniatiatives from the getgo.

EM: I was raised in several alternative communities.  My mom was a student of alternative religions and I grew up switching back and forth between buddhism and hinduism.  For a few years I lived with my mom in a cooperative community (some might say commune) called Ananda in the foothills of the Sierras near Nevada City CA.  We had solar hot water, no electricity, our own wells, we raised our own vegetables, we had goats, we had our own natural foods store, we did both hatha and kriya yoga every day.  This was in the 1970’s.

From this upbringing I have a different view on what is cool than many people.  I don’t really care what kind of car you drive or how big your house is or what your job title is.  At the same time I am tired of spiritual egotism as well… having been raised surrounded by people who thought they were cooler than everyone because they were vegans or raised their own food or meditated longer than anyone.

This puts me in kind of a tight spot… riding the fence between environmental awareness and egotism.  I feel like I have been battling with ego, either spiritually or materialistically my whole life. But I imagine we all do.

So the challenge I set upon myself was to create a brand that was neither.  I didn’t want to look like a “holy’er than thou” enviro nazi brand… nor did I want a brand built on ego or status.  I just wanted a brand that said NOTHING about anything like this.  I just wanted simple shoes… that did as little as possible… said as little as possible… and were built out of simple good materials.

but we have to go backwards a bit first…

My dad Gerald Rupp was a modern architect who in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s built a group of 12 small modernist houses out of redwood, masonite, and glass and sold them to musicians, artists, and philosophers.  in the 50’s and 60’s this area of Morro Bay, CA was known as Beatnik Hill.  I was raised there before moving to Ananda.

Many famous Beats came through on their way to SF or Big Sur… they would stop for the night.  My mom ran a metaphysical book store that also sold Jazz records and she served coffee.  So I was raised in this beat culture household… full of really creative types… and then moved to the intentional community Ananda.  I have always had this strong community feeling… about what is the right way to live a happy healthy life… even today I am a Planning Commissioneer here in San Luis Obispo.

I am not sure if you are familiar with what are known as the Awahnee Principles???… but this is a fairly new idea really… wrapped around a lot of old knowledge.  IT is about how people should live.  I think I was raised amongst this old knowledge sorta… I grew up with parents searching for this type of thing.  Anyway… this upbringing led me to feel that people need to live a certain type of life… they need fulfillment, happiness, love, shelter, quality food.  After that there is very little we need.

The “Triple Bottom Line”… is a great idea… as is “sustainabilty”, or “green”…. or even “organic”.  I am really happy to see this conciousness evolution…But these are all danger words to me now.  Green as a trend really is a two edged sword.  People begin to question the green movement when they see Hybrid Cadillac Escalades advertised as the green alternative.

Billion dollar brands touting how green they are via well paid PR companies… while in reality they are doing just the absolute bare minimum and then screaming about it at the top of their lungs… and meanwhile all the profit they are making is going towards their top executives jets, mansions, yachts, supercars and or simply bank accounts.  This scares me… as these types are the ones using and ruining jargon like “triple bottom line”

IT is not a trend… it is a deep philisophical mindset that must be ingrained in a person.  I came to the conclusion that I should NOT market Green.. but rather just build the best product I could.  I actually made fun of the fact that we used recycled products… one our catalogs said at the bottom…”printed on 100% virgin paper… made from first growth trees cut down in their prime by dull, smog producing chain saws”.

We ran ads that said things like:

“Sell everything you own… none of it will make you happy…  all you need are the clothes on your back… and … well… some shoes of course.”

I am happy to see so many people really moving towards a more holistic life choice… but I don’t really like the “Ecotistic” advertising.  I actually think it takes away from the truly aware companies status.

People can tell when a brand is honest I think.  You can see  it without the brand having to yell it.

The other issue with going super hardcore green in your marketing is that the”alpha” green customer… is a non-consumer!  So for a brand to target hardcore green… well it means your prime customer.. will eventually outgrow brands and consumer products altogether.  This is very difficult to understand ahead of time.  Simple of late I think has realized this… and is evolving to another level.

It is best to be green and then not talk about it… or talk very queitly over on one corner of the website rather than making green your prime agenda.  Those that are interested in environmentally sustainable practices will figure you out… and everybody else…. just let them evolve on their own.

Ethics, wellness, generosity, conciousness evolution… these are the new leading edge trends… they will encompass green… green will be a moot point.  This is where it is all going.  I am a tad blown away by the vastness of this overarching evolution.

Green Toe happened long after I sold Simple.  I was not involved.  I love the product… and the materials research. But I wouldn’t have pushed the green branding so hard.  It limits who (what stores)  will buy.  Better to sell a lot of green product to people who don’t know how green it is… than a little green product to only the green alpha consumer.  Simple has figured this out I think and is moving in a very positive direction branding wise.  Let people evolve on their own.  It is happening all around us.

So the short answer to your question… No.. I never had a measurment scale.  We just did the best that we could possibly do at the time… striving to always be better.

The tricky part came when it dawned on me that nobody needs anything really… and that I was flying back and forth across the planet just to make a consumer product nobody really needs… wrapping this product with a veil of spiritual aspiration we are all striving for…and selling it for profit … this became really stupid and cheezy to me.  What I really wanted to be doing was building cool small houses like my dad used to.. and gardening… and riding my bike!  I didn’t enjoy making a profit by fufilling people’s aspirational desires with a consumer product.

So I found a like minded buyer… and walked away.

LC: More and more companies are emerging with similar philosophies or ‘sustainable’ lines  (Arbor Collective, Kids Konserve, Incase). Do you think this is due because its a way for companies to differientiate themselves from competition in a crowded market and/or correlated with the increasing amount of conscious consumers?

EM: There are always new companies following trends.  In this case it is awesome to see so many HONEST great brands evolving.  IT pushes everyone to new levels and legitimizes the category within the eyes of the retailers.  I really think that this Trend will become the new norm… move beyond trend.  It has to!  The consumers seem to be dragging the retailers along… they are coming slowly.  The real work to be done is at the level of the supplier level… where the manufacturers buy their raw goods.

It is important for the consumer to understand the difference between actual green and marketed green.  Research your purchases.