By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Tucked behind a strip mall off Old Palm Valley Road is Ocean Sole — a studio that contains upcycled flip flops found along the beaches and waterways in Kenya. Flip flops turned into turtles, giraffes, manatee, hammerhead fish, zebras, hippos, rhinos, key chains and pretty much anything imagined or requested. The art is available in any measurement, including life-size, otherwise known as a “masterpiece.”
While the studio is easy to miss, its impact as a social enterprise is far-reaching. Case in point: Ocean Sole collects 47 tons of flip flop waste per year and recycles 750,000 flip flops. Ocean Sole has 90 employees, mostly Kenyan artisans.
In 2008, Ocean Sole was founded by Julie Church as a way to help local Kenyan women collect, wash, and cut the discarded flip-flops into colorful products to then be sold at local Kenyan markets as another form of family income. In 2016, Ponte Vedra Beach and Kenya resident Erin Smith became the CEO, excited to bring her business background to the social enterprise.
“We want to have a social impact and be impact-driven,” said Smith, in between car rides to take 20 Ocean Sole masterpieces to the September Jacksonville Fall Home + Patio Show. “The artisans receive full payment, we create loans, scholarships, invest in a welfare program and the ethos is people focused. We are also big into helping unskilled women.”
After a video on Ocean Sole went viral in 2017, Smith said the demand for the product increased, and people wanted to support the cause. And now Smith’s mother and sister-in-law both work at the non-profit.
“I love working at Ocean Sole. It is a non-profit that has a huge impact on conservation efforts, employment and cleaning beaches. After working for over 20 years with Congressman Crenshaw and Rutherford, I was excited to join my daughter, daughter-in-law and son in this fun and rewarding endeavor,” said Jackie Smith.
Erin Smith lives half of the year in Ponte Vedra Beach and half of the year in Kenya, the latter location a place that she and her husband treasure.
“It is an amazing place,” said Smith. “We live on the Indian Ocean, which is why we are so passionate about the beaches. The beaches are so dirty in Kenya.”
Erin said three billion people wear flip flops, and it is known as “the poor man’s shoe.” And in places like India and China, it is the only shoe that is worn. With no waste management in Kenya, the flip flops eventually end up in the ocean and wash up on the shorelines, she said.
“It is a massive problem that most folks never see,” said Smith.
In addition to collecting the flip flops, Smith said Ocean Sole also cleans the beach of all trash, divides it up and protects the turtle hatching areas.
“We aim to recycle a million flip flops a year, recycle over one ton of Styrofoam a month and save over 500 trees a year by using flip flops instead of wood,” said Smith. “We contribute over 10 – 15 percent of our revenue to beach cleanups, vocational and educational programs as well as conservation efforts.”
International online orders account for the majority of sales with the smallest revenue coming from the United States, according to Smith. With constant collaborations in the works and the world’s first “Flip Flop Gallery” slated for the link building in Nocatee, she hopes to improve sales locally and build more support in Ponte Vedra Beach.
“Sometimes people do not connect with the brand because they do not connect globally,” said Smith. “I would love if Ponte Vedra Beach or Jacksonville would connect with marine conservation. I think the beaches here are so clean that it is hard to comprehend the actual mess we find on our beaches — it is the same in some parts of the Caribbean, Central America and other parts of the Indian Ocean.”
The launch of the Flip Flop Gallery will be held Nov. 13, and tickets are still available. Proceeds will go to Ocean Sole and the Sapna Foundation (the link CEO Raghu Misra’s non-profit).
“This will be our first exhibition and with the CEO of the link’s support, we will be able to use the link as a platform to interact with the community, school children and others about conservation and art. To be able to have all of the art in one place is so exciting for us to show off and tell our story in such a great place,” said Smith.
Misra agreed, adding that 15 – 20 flip flop masterpieces are already at the gallery with more to be added in the future. The launch will also include the announcement of a Conservation Club in which one endangered species will be highlighted each month.
“the link is all about entrepreneurship and conservation. Ocean Sole fills both of those buckets. Our family gets excited about these things and creating art is just icing on the cake,” said Misra. “This is also a phenomenal way to educate younger people and to promote rethinking, reimagining and conservation.”
For more information, visit firstname.lastname@example.org or call (904) 907-3596.
Photo courtesy Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Ocean Sole items at the PVB-based studio.