A Recycling Option

Companies that pay for employees' protective footwear can recover some of that cost through a new, charitable program.

Editor's note: Some ideas are so smart that you wish you'd thought of them yourself. Reused protective footwear, for example. If you haven't considered the possibility until now, Wayne Elsey, president of Kodiak-Terra USA, Inc. (www.kodiakterra.com) of Portland, Tenn., may make you a believer. He discussed soles4souls, a new program encouraging the practice, in a Jan. 26, 2006, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. (The program's contact person is GM/President Paul Wilson, 615-406-9738 or paul@soles4souls.org.) Excerpts from the conversation follow.

Let's start with these charity efforts. Tell me about them.

Wayne Elsey: Very quickly, very unorganized, we wanted to help people for both the tsunami and the Katrina relief. There's a couple of different things you can do: You can donate money, you can donate money, you can donate money--and you can donate time. . . .

If you read the news reports that came out of South Asia, they were saying one of the amazing things people saw was the unsurpassed amount of footwear where you would see all rights, all lefts, nothing mated up. . . .

So I got this idea: What if I contacted some of my friends in the industry and some local churches, etc. to see if they could do a shoe drive? Well, literally four days later, we started collecting shoes in several different parts of the country. We got container loads [and] shipped them to Southeast Asia. The amazing thing was, we're not a Red Cross, we're not a United Way. We're just a bunch of bubbas that have big hearts that want to make a difference in people's lives. We were able to ship over 250,000 pairs of shoes, one container at a time, to Southeast Asia.

Some of these were protective footwear and some were just sandals, tennis shoes, whatever?

Elsey: It was all over the board. Whatever you wanted to donate, we weren't discriminating. One of the things that we did do, we made sure that we didn't have anything we wouldn't wear ourselves--that it wasn't worn out.

I see. That was katrinashoes.com?

Elsey: That was tsunami shoes dot nothing, because we didn't know what we were doing. We just basically called on some friends and said, "What about us doing a shoe drive? What do you think?" We just did it. We didn't have a Web site. We just got on some people's radar screens and they started doing it throughout the Nashville community. Then [people] all over the world started collecting. We had factories, sending containers of shoes directly down there, that I knew in China.

Next thing you know, Katrina happened. All you saw on TV was New Orleans; I happened to take a private plane down there . . . and I quickly uncovered the fact that this is worse than what you see on TV. I can take you to places in Mississippi and lower Alabama that have nothing. I met doctors that don't have a practice that came in and got a free pair of shoes. I met a dentist that doesn't have a practice. . . . It was all over the board. People really lost everything, and the storm wasn't discriminating against any one sector, which is clearly what we didn't see on TV.

In 72 hours, we partnered with a marketing company. . . . I said, "We think we can collect shoes. We want an information resource on the Web. We want a daily blog update so people know what's going on. And we want to collect shoes."

Literally in 48 hours, they had katrinashoes.org up and running.

Not bad.

Elsey: If you go through the Web site, you'll see a daily blog from the beginning: X company gave this, Y company gave this, Z company gave this. Churches across the country--which was absolutely incredible--their ministers said, "I want you to feel one one-thousandth of what these people felt in Katrina. When you leave here, leave your shoes at the back door and walk home barefooted." And they did it. And they delivered the shoes.

Anyhow, 750,000 pairs later, we have distributed shoes to all the Katrina regions. Absolutely, people that had nothing at least got a brand new pair of shoes. . . . It really made a huge difference in those people's lives.

How this is evolving is, the people that did tsunami, the people that did Katrina, and I sat down about three months ago and said, "This is awesome. We've made a big difference. It hasn't cost us a lot of money because we had trucking companies donate the trucking, we had major shoe companies donate shoes, etc. Why don't we turn this into a brand-new 501(c)(3) charity that can respond very quickly and be there 52 weeks a year?" . . . .

We have a distribution center lined up. We've bought a truck to deliver product. We have hired a general manager/president to head it up. We're going to launch soles4souls that'll be a bona fide 501(c)(3). It'll launch sometime in the middle of February [2006]. And, candidly, I've already been asked to speak at some very, very major events. I've been contacted by some TV shows that want to talk about this.

Because, if you think about it, we collected a million pairs of shoes for two disasters that happened last year. If you take a very low retail [value] of $20 a pair, that's a lot of money.

No kidding.

Elsey: We're launching soles4souls in a big way. We've got the infrastructure set up to do it; we've got the warehouse to do it. And we are going to collect shoes from not only individuals, but wholesale people like myself, manufacturers like myself.

And then, another thing that could play into what you're doing: In the safety world out there that your magazine goes to, companies purchase their employees' shoes.

Or subsidize them, at least.

Elsey: What better way for them to get a tax writeoff at the end of the year than to take all those shoes, replace those shoes--which they do anyhow--and donate those to charity? So, for example, if they paid $75 for a steel-toe pair of shoes for their employee, they could get a writeoff for that at the end of the year if they donated that product to us.

What we would do is we would make sure those shoes went on people's feet that were in need of them.

There is a fair amount of useful life left after a year's use of most of those protective shoes, right?

Elsey: Absolutely. We want to get stuff that we wouldn't mind getting ourselves. And there's nothing wrong with a used pair of shoes when you have nothing.

The protective ones, some of them are protective against very specific hazards. Steel-toed ones could be used in many situations, but do you try to match them with what some recipient actually needs them for?

Elsey: It's funny you ask that, because we--soles4souls--actually take orders. This is a very complicated process. People would say, "Send us some sandals. We need some kind of foot covering." That doesn't mean just send down 20 cases of shoes because, you know what, the reality is, shoes come in sizes and widths.

We have assembled already in our warehouse pallet loads of shoes that are separated by size. So if somebody needs sandals, men's, there's a pallet load of sandals over there that are separated by size. A pallet load of women's, a pallet load of kids'. If somebody needs steel toe, if somebody needs metatarsal, the same thing. We have it all divided out so that everybody can get a shot.

Yes, if companies donate steel-toe shoes, we will get those to people that are rebuilding the disaster area first, that are in need of that for their occupation.

That makes perfect sense. I don't have any idea how many pairs of protective shoes are bought in this country in a year's time. What possible volume are you talking about here?

Elsey: The work footwear market is over $4.5 billion, retail, per year.

And if you could get even 10 percent of those shoes, that's a lot. Can you handle that kind of volume?

Elsey: As this thing has unfolded, I don't think there's anything we can't handle. We have a great team in place that can flex as needed, both in volunteers and space.

Our safety manager readers probably will like this idea. They want to keep their workers wearing something that's very effective, so they may want to do this replacement annually. But they've never thought of a way to do any kind of writeoff for it before, have they?

Elsey: Nobody has. I never thought of that until this whole thing started. I thought, wait a minute. We could go to Toyota, for example, that buys tens of thousands of pairs a year, and say, "Okay, when you replace your shoes, we'll take the old ones and make sure they get on people's feet." Their associates could donate the shoes and Toyota, the original purchaser, could utilize the tax benefits. They could have drop boxes, etc. in the factories to facilitate these donations.

That's pretty interesting. I would think a big company, or even a small one, would find that very attractive.

Elsey: Absolutely. If you take it one step further, how many unused shoes do you have in your closets that you are not wearing and could donate also? Something this small has [made] and will continue to make a huge impact in lives.

Will it be soles4souls.com?

Elsey: It'll be soles4souls.org, and it'll be live around the middle of February.

You'd be ready to respond to any kind of disaster?

Elsey: Pretty much. Or [to] anything. One of the things at our [Alabama] distribution center, if someone comes in with a receipt or a bill from their electrical company . . . and they can't pay their electricity, we'll give 'em shoes. We hold a Switzerland position and will not partner with any one organization. Our mission is to help the hurting, providing them new and used footwear.

Are you getting other safety footwear manufacturers involved?

Elsey: From a donation standpoint, yes. Again, we got three-quarters of a million pairs of shoes that were donated. . . . All kinds of companies donated product. Then we had sandal companies. It was really all over the footwear industry.

In my opinion, this was the largest effort that the shoe industry has ever seen.

That's really something. I hope our article can help.

This Q&A appeared in the April 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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