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Sole trader takes recycling in his stride

By Natalie Snedden and Chris Hrubesh, CNN
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The shoemaker with heart and sole
  • Okabashi footwear lets you send your old shoes back to be recycled
  • All new shoes are made with up to 25% recycled material
  • U.S.-based family-run business was started in Iran in the 1950s

(CNN) -- As protests continue across the Middle East, American shoemaker Bahman Irvani remembers 1979. That year, he and his family fled Iran after the revolution leaving behind their thriving footwear business.

"We left Iran because the government took over not only our businesses but our personal assets as well," said 59-year-old Irvani, whose family had been manufacturing shoes there for over 50 years.

In 1983, the family business was reborn, a long way from Iran, in Buford, Georgia in the United States.

Irvani called his new enterprise "Okabashi" in honor of the Japanese practice of reflexology and, as the company's website states their shoes have: "tiny massaging beads are strategically placed across the foot-bed of each shoe to stimulate different areas of the sole."

Having just celebrated the company's 25th anniversary of manufacturing in the U.S., Irvani says his team is really proud to have manufactured 100% of their shoes domestically.

To date, Irvani's company has sold over 30-million pairs of the inexpensive ergonomic sandals.

Irvani believes too many companies have switched to importing goods, but it's not a trend he's about to start following.


"Our core competency is in manufacturing and what we like to do is design and manufacture really comfortable shoes and I think we do that just as well in the U.S. than doing it overseas."

Two-billion pairs of footwear are sold each year in the United States with 99% of them made overseas.

Jason Boswell, vice president of sales for Okabashi credits Irvani for bucking that trend.

"While other companies send their operations overseas and cut corners on quality, Bahman insists on keeping our operations domestic and instead of lowering quality actually increasing it," Boswell said.

Irvani's factory employs around 200 workers that produce up to 20,000 pairs of shoes each day, with his sandals selling for as little as $12.

"Our shoes get to the American consumer after traveling an average of 800 miles," Irvani said, "compared to Chinese shoes which can travel 12,000 miles on average."

The sandals are 100% recyclable and made of up to 25% recycled material.

All the materials Okabashi use are entirely recyclable, Irvani says.

"Very few shoes, by the way, are recyclable -- the leather shoes one wears for example. There are a lot of components going into the shoes so you have to undo them and that process of splitting them up is incredibly time consuming and just not practical. Our shoes are primarily one material," he said.

The company also takes great pains to ensure a zero waste manufacturing process.

"Obviously not everything comes out beautiful and perfect so we end up with scrap or process waste or returns from customers," said Brad Laporte, vice president of manufacturing.

The company encourages their customers to return their worn out sandals where they are cleaned, ground up and mixed with the new plastic.

The future for Bahman Irvani's company looks bright despite the recent recession -- Okabashi export to 16 countries, including Asia, Laporte says.

Irvani has no plans for retirement. His father worked well into his 80s and his son -- 28-year-old third generation shoemaker Hadi -- has taken a more active role in his beloved company.

Irvani smiles when asked his thoughts on achieving the American dream.

"The American dream is filled with many sleepless nights," he said.