GEA means “planet earth” in Greek, and it is the watchword of a company that appears to be a kind of utopia come true. Not just a factory of footwear and other accessories, GEA – Waldviertler creates new values and has opened its doors to teach two young Portuguese people everything about the craft of the shoemaker. We present the story of a footwear company which serves as an example of how we should walk on earth. And we’re not just talking about shoes.
The way in which we walk on earth is extremely important and it contributes directly to our physical posture and morale. As far as footwear is concerned, our contact with the ground is through our feet, it is they that connect us with, and tread on, the earth, and make it move. It is in this regard that GEA – Waldviertler is an example, in its financial model but also in its view of economic and ecological sustainability, and in its respect for the land and for the planet. The company opted for a methodology that is the opposite of the one principally employed by the consumer society, but it seems to have won the debate. They take time to produce their goods: the production of a pair of shoes can take between twenty minutes and three and a half hours, depending on their complexity, but they guarantee that they will last between five and ten years, even with regular use. And it is to ensure the longevity of the different models of shoes that some of the 49 GEA shops in Austria, Germany and Switzerland have a special department for repairs or replacing soles, at the disposal of their clients. But let’s start at the beginning. The history of the Waldviertler shoe factory located in the town of Schrems in the province of Lower Austria, close to the border with the Czech Republic, could have been the same as that of many others in a region with a rich industrial past. Companies in the textile industry that closed their doors in the 1980s and 1990s, but this is a different story. In 1984, Heini Staudinger, the then owner of two GEA shops, took over the Waldviertler factory, which had just 12 workers in 1984, and now has approximately 170 employees. Schrems is still a peaceful town right at the heart of Europe, but it appears to be a forgotten area. We are talking about a part of the interior which has seen a sharp fall in population in recent decades. In 1971, Schrems had a population of over 6,000; this has now fallen to just over 3,000, not unlike what has happened in places like Monchique or Alcoutim in southern Portugal.
A phenomenon of popularity
At present, GEA – Waldviertler is so popular that there are daily excursions to visit the factory where some 400 pairs of shoes are produced per day. Apart from the shoes, other leather products are also made such as bags and other accessories, and mattresses (made from natural rubber or coconut shell fibre), beds and other items of furniture, all produced exclusively with organic material, without the use of synthetic material, and made by hand with the help of machines. “I believe in the product, it’s real, it is not like Nike or other products for mass consumption, here we do things with passion, we believe in what we are doing, and this makes us more committed to the company,” says Christophe Bodnir (26), who has been working in Schrems for six years, with pride. At present he divides his time between the shoe repair department and responsibility for guided tours of the company. “Every day, we are visited by groups, ranging from four people to one or two buses full of visitors, who come from Austria or Germany to find out about our factory and philosophy,” he adds. Direct sales to consumers are a main part of the company’s approach and visits by members of the public support this. Apart from visits to the shop and the production line, in direct contact with the workers, visitors get to know the whole factory and at the end they can watch a short film about the history, concept, methodology, and the use of renewable energy by the company. The presentation of the techniques for producing shoes and the material used is one of the key moments of the guided tours. “The material we use is made from animal skins, derived from nature, more comfortable, adaptable and resilient,” Christophe stresses, as he points out the durability of the shoes, which can cost between 100 and 180 euros. “They are not cheap, but if people buy shoes made in China for 30 euros, they buy them without thinking and then they throw them away without thinking. No joking, we have shoes that are worn every day and go on being worn for ten years; we can change the sole two or three times but the rest remains in good condition,” he says and gives an example. “One of our clients aged about 80 has had a pair of shoes for 24 years, and recently he came to change the sole for the fourth time, but that is a special case, on average they last for 10 years. They may seem expensive, but as time passes they become cheap,” he points out.
Strictly speaking, GEA – Waldviertler is not a community, but it functions with a strong community character, of sustainability and a sense of responsibility. Every Friday, the company gives each department of employees a box of fruit, vegetables, eggs and cheese, all bought from local producers, to be divided among themselves. It’s an initiative that helps some of the region’s local producers to survive; otherwise, they would cease production, and at the same time it instils in employees awareness about the importance of including organic foodstuffs in their diet. It simultaneously promotes dietary and commercial habits. Both directly and indirectly, it stimulates the purchase of these products from local producers by the company’s workers, instead of from the shelves of the large supermarkets where the quality of the foodstuffs is often not the best. In terms of energy sustainability, almost all the buildings of the premises in Schrems are built with specific thermal insulation which allows energy to be saved, maintaining a balanced temperature in relation to the exterior. According to the people in charge, “the company has the biggest building in Europe with insulation made from sheep’s wool.” The production of photovoltaic energy is another of GEA – Waldviertler’s major projects because it produces double the energy it needs and it sells the remainder to the national electricity grid. The investment in the photovoltaic network, which is also installed in other buildings in the municipality, was made through financing from the general public. “People can support the environmental cause by purchasing €200 vouchers which we invest to make use of solar power, and in return they receive ten €30 vouchers totalling €330 to spend in our shop,” says Renate Gönner, the director of the Academy, when explaining the model adopted by the company, adding that “more than ten thousand vouchers that were invested in the installation and production of photovoltaic energy” had already been sold.
Valuing the workers
The measures undertaken by the company and internal company relationships, whereby many of the 170 workers all know each other, make the difference. In social terms, relationships are greatly valued, and the man in charge of the company, Heini Staudinger, calls almost all the employees by name. In the canteen, photos of the workers who have birthdays in a particular month are given pride of place, promoting due recognition. There are several reasons why many people go to GEA – Waldviertler to work, on their own initiative. One of several cases is that of Alpha Barry (33), who was born in Guinea and has been living in Austria for ten years, where he has worked as a locksmith, shoemaker, carpenter and mechanic. “I came because I identified with the philosophy. I earn the same here as before but I feel like a person and not just a number, when you’re ill they don’t ignore you, here they’re concerned. I’ve been here for nearly three years and I’m not going to leave,” says Alpha, with a sparkle in his eyes. For her part, the young Austrian Lisi, the daughter of a couple who have owned a GEA shop for the last 20 years came to spend her holidays with her parents on the premises of the company in Schrems and she ended up staying. “Heini asked me why I didn’t stay to work here because I already knew the concept through my parents, and I stayed, that’s over three years ago. My friends feel cheated because they have a degree and they don’t earn as much as they think they deserve, to buy a bigger house or a bigger car. For the people who are here, the real wealth is within us and not outside, it is in the happiness we feel day by day as we contribute to a better world”.
Academy of awareness
Apart from the shop and the different production lines, GEA – Waldviertler also houses the Academy building, one of the most important sectors in terms of awareness and the philosophy practised by the company. It is here that, every weekend, several dozen people arrive from Austria and Germany to participate in workshops on everything from music, photography, handicrafts and manual work to homeopathy, yoga, meditation and training courses in chi-kung. The employees can participate for free. There is also a possibility for participants to produce their own GEA shoes with their own hands on the factory’s production line during the weekend. The Academy is a kind of nerve centre where the programming of all the activities is managed. Twice a week, specialists in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and massage visit the company. “We give priority to homeopathic medicine and it has proved to be a good form of prevention so that people don’t fall ill,” says Renate Gönner, the Academy’s director, one of the people who is also responsible for the Africa Foundation. “We have an Africa account which receives donations for the foundation; most support is intended for the health area,” she points out. There are two quarterly publications that are an important part of the company’s communication: the GEA magazine, which is more a product catalogue with articles for reflection, and the magazine “brennstoff” which aims to be pure food for thought and for the soul of readers, and which has a range of authors, journalists and writers as contributors. “Guests on Earth” is one of the fundamental ideas in the company’s publications. Another two guests are two young people from Monchique who will have the opportunity to learn the art and craft of shoemaking and become part of a company that seeks to make a difference and makes a point of pursuing a different path on this earth.