Travel always brings new learnings and experiences into our lives. And for all the social media-worthy images of destinations you might dream of visiting, inspiration can strike in the most unexpected and mundane travel moment.
It’s a lesson Kyle Parsons, the founder of Indonesia and California-based upcycled footwear company, Indosole, learned during his first trip to Bali in 2004.
Originally from New Hampshire, the then 25-year-old was working a retail job in California when he decided to take a three-week surf trip to Bali, inspired by travel stories he’d heard growing up from his father, who visited Indonesia regularly for business.
“Bali grabbed me,” Parsons says. “The culture is very vibrant, the colors, the food is amazing, the beaches are beautiful. The surfing is great and there’s amazing artisanal manufacturing.”
But it was a less photogenic moment that ultimately altered the course of his life and career during that first trip.
“I was walking down the street one day in Seminyak and I had a blowout,” Parsons recalls, referring to the thong of his flip flop breaking apart from its sole, leaving him shoeless on the asphalt in one of southern Bali’s most bustling neighborhoods.
Parsons popped into a nearby shop to look for a solution to his situation and spotted a “unique pair of sandals with a natural weave on top and part of a tire for a sole.”
Motorbikes–Bali’s primary means of transportation, the island is home to millions of them–were whizzing by the window outside the shop. Parsons looked at the shoes he was about to buy, their soles made from motorbike tires, and had an Aha moment.
“I thought, wow, that’s so resourceful and cool they’re able to upcycle these sandals,” he remembers. “They were very uncomfortable and gave me blisters right away, but it was the story that stuck with me.”
Years later, after many return trips to Bali, that story eventually eventually evolved into the B-corp certified and 1% for the Planet-recognized shoe brand Indosole, which to date has kept more than 150,000 motorbike tires out of Indonesian landfills by incorporating them into functional and fashionable flip-flops and slides that retail for between $35 and $75 a pair and transition from the beach to the beach bar and boardroom (depending on where you work, of course).
In Indosole’s early days–the company officially launched in 2010 with 500 pairs of sandals to distribute–the sandal soles were made from cut out pieces of motorbike tires, ideal because they don’t have steel wiring inside them, like car tires.
But as the company grew–Indosole currently has three brick and mortar shops in Bali (in Uluwatu, Ubud and Canggu) and sells more than 100,000 of shoes a year online and through brands like Madewell–Parsons says a decision was made to scale up and change the manufacturing process.
It was a decision both to keep up with increasing demand and as a way to keep even more tires out of landfills, he says. Today, motorbike tires are pulverized into a powder that’s used in a mold to make the sandals’ soles, with the shoes still manufactured entirely in Indonesia.
And while the word is out about plastic pollution, tire waste–a plague that National Geographic referred to in a 2019 article as “the plastic polluter you never thought about”—is a huge global problem that doesn’t command nearly the same spotlight.
TIres are made from natural rubber, plastic and other materials that do not break down and ultimately end up in landfills as well as polluting oceans and rivers. Parsons says once he became aware of the problem, he began to notice tire pollution everywhere he went in Bali and beyond.
“Tires are one of the biggest environmental problems and lots of people don’t know they’re a problem,” he says. “They’re also being burned by small factories. When you burn a tire, they’re made of oil, and black smoke goes into the air and the oil seeps into the ground.”
Indosole, which employs three people in California and 17 people in Indonesia (manufacturing has moved to Java from its early days in Bali), sources all of the motorbike tires used in its sandals from Indonesia, getting donations from big tire companies as well as from local mechanics and individuals, says Parsons.
The brand’s ESSNTLS line goes truly full circle, using motorbike tires in their entirety to make the brand’s recycled tire soles. Upper materials used in the sandals are all naturally sourced, vegan and waterproof.
The company recently launched its Lost Soles Collection, using defect sneaker parts thrown away by huge factories in Indonesia and pulverizing it into a substance like the tire powder used in Indosole sandals.
The next frontier for his company, says Parsons, is looking to other countries to help evolve their economies by creating products that walk the walk when it comes to sustainability.
“Anywhere there’s a tire problem, we can make an Indosole-like product,” he says.
Helping consumers think more consciously about the shopping choices they make is an ongoing goal for his company, too.
“From an environmental standpoint, the true meaning of sustainability is a product that can withstand the test of the time,” Parsons says. “A recycled tire sole is very strong and doesn’t shred or break down.
“We feel Indosole are truly sustainable because they’re durable.”