Vegan boxing equipment: Destroy your enemy – not the planet
Vehement, a Berlin start-up, is the world's first brand for vegan, fair-trade boxing equipment – and is fighting its corner quite successfully in both Europe and the USA. Read More
Does the word “vegan” conjure up images of soymilk, tofu and veggie burgers? Your favourite Indian curry perhaps? While you might think of environmental activism and hemp sandals, you probably don't associate it with combat sports in general and boxing in particular.
Yet bringing the two together is not all that far fetched. The equipment traditionally employed in the ring and on the mats is generally made of leather, and it is no secret that industrial cattle farming is destroying our environment. Almost half of all the drinking water on earth is consumed by the industry, as is around 30% of the global grain harvest. Leather is not an entirely natural material either, and there are few processes that involve as many toxic chemicals as tanning.
So removing leather from the equation and creating vegan boxing equipment makes a lot of sense. This was hobby boxer Jan Lenarz’ initial idea when he began looking for organic boxing gloves. After an unsuccessful quest, he decided to found his own company:
Vehement, the first manufacturer of vegan boxing equipment.
“Anyone who believes that the tough guys and girls don’t care about people, animals, and the environment isn’t thinking any further than the typical cliché allows”, he says. Respect for your body, your opponent, and fair play is essential to boxing and the martial arts. So a lot of professional athletes follow a strict vegan diet, like former Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson.
Respect for your body, your opponent, and fair play is essential to boxing and the martial arts.
The company’s success is the proof of concept: Vehement is still so small that delivery bottlenecks continue to plague it, even as the company expands rapidly on the US market. More and more professional athletes are stepping up to promote the company’s line of vegan products. We talked to Jan about what goes into the making of a vegan boxing glove.
Jan, you’re a boxer yourself. How long have you boxed, and why did you get started?
I started Thai boxing around ten years ago. Like most people involved in the martial arts, I enjoy it as a hobby. It keeps me fit and helps me grow as a person. I am not interested in competing; the whole professional scene is just too crazy for me. And I’m not alone. Most people love combat sports because it is all about respect and having fun while you push your own physical and personal limits.
Vehement started with a set of vegan boxing gloves. How did this come about?
I was looking for some vegan gloves for myself and couldn’t find a single pair. So I looked into making them. Most companies don’t care about the environment, animal welfare, or fair working conditions, which are terrible in the sports industry. After the giant corporations like Nike and Adidas finally banned child labour for the most part in the 90s, no one seemed the least bit interested in the social conditions in the factories any more. Plus a lot of the equipment on the market is really ugly, emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, blood spatter, tribal dragons, or flames. Pretty cool on a toy car when you are twelve maybe, but I don’t want any of that on my equipment. Gloves for women are the worst: They are always pink. What a load of sexist crap.
“Boxing gloves for women are always pink. What a load of sexist crap.”
So you made your own collection. Getting an entire production line up and running must have been tough. How did you manage?
It is not easy if you have high standards like we do. Otherwise it is not too tricky: If you don’t care about how your workers are treated, you can order boxing gloves with your company logo from China any time you want for $5 a pair. It took me a long time to find a manufacturer who understood what we wanted and was willing to open his facilities to independent inspectors. The company is in the Netherlands and shares our philosophy and high standards.
You developed a synthetic leather for your boxing gloves – “Battleskin” – that is glued onto tear-proof fabric. Does it have the same qualities as real leather?
It lasts almost as long and is just as robust as animal leather, but it produces less than one tenth of the CO2 that the leather tanning process generates. It is even more environmentally friendly than PVC. Unfortunately it is not entirely organic. But there is no really long-lasting alternative yet, so we see ourself as filling the gap until something entirely plant-based can be created.
Why isn’t Battleskin organic?
We still need fossil fuel to make the gloves, as we tell our customers. As soon as someone comes up with an artificial leather that is 100% organic, we will be the first to turn it into boxing gloves.
“As soon as someone comes up with an artificial leather that is 100% ecological, we will be the first to turn it into boxing gloves.”
Your production is not just vegan; it is also sweatshop-free, doesn’t use any plastic packaging, and you avoid shipping by air whenever possible. What other standards do you try to uphold?
Our textiles are generally made of organic cotton and follow the Fair Wear Foundation standards in Europe. The boxing gloves themselves are made in Pakistan, along with almost all sporting equipment in the world. This is where our fair working conditions can make the greatest difference. Our production lines meet ILO (International Labour Organization) guidelines and we are currently working towards getting fairtrade certification. It will be a while though before every link in the chain is 100% fairtrade.
Aside from the social and ecological issues: Are there other good reasons boxers should buy Vehement equipment?
By supporting us you are supporting a small brand not obsessed with maximising profit at any cost. Our gloves are a bit pricier, but by using them our customers are taking a stand against huge corporations who don’t care about anything but their bottom line. Part of our profits also goes to the Wolf Conservation Center that is working to resettle the world with wolves – our logo is a wolf after all. Our equipment is also very attractive, which has helped us successfully fight for a share of the market.
You have grown pretty fast, won a number of prizes, and successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign. Your products are often out of stock. What do you think is driving demand?
The combat sport and martial arts’ market is huge and its potential is often underestimated. Around 3% of everyone living on our planet is involved in a combat sport or martial art of some kind. Even football can’t come close to these numbers. Our products sell out so quickly because we are the only game in town for customers who care about sustainability. And there are still a lot of people who aren’t even aware that a brand like Vehement exists. The orders start pouring in as soon as we are mentioned online or a well-known athlete promotes our products. On these occasions, we simply can’t keep up with what we have in stock.
“Around 3% of everyone living on our planet is involved in a combat sport or martial art of some kind. Even football can’t come close to these numbers.”
Founded just two years ago, you have already made it on the US market. What was the greatest challenge there?
The organisational side of things was the hardest part of entering the US market. We had to found a subsidiary in the USA, retain customs agents, and find a warehouse that would also do our shipping. I would only recommend that other firms go this route if they are really sure a large part of their customer base will be in the USA.
While we’re on the topic, what has been the most difficult moment for Vehement so far?
Creating an international brand for athletic equipment is rough, even when everything goes smoothly. We have no investors and our costs are pretty high, which means we constantly face financial challenges. We try to take the stressful moments as they come. Sometimes things you never dreamt of go wrong. I am planning to write a book about it. Take today for example: We got a check with a tax refund from the USA. Only no one can cash it, not even our bank. Little problems you could never have anticipated even in your wildest dreams happen every day. So you need to have the right mindset. If you sweat these little things, then a start-up is not the place for you.
And when did you think: “Wow, we've made it”?
Oh, soon I hope... we are just getting started. But it is pretty exciting when legendary fighters like Mac Danzig, Dan Hardy and Forest Griffin suddenly start praising our equipment on Twitter. Nothing motivates us quite like the emails we get from customers around the world though, thanking us for making a product they have been looking for for years. There is a lot of potential in the brand – and the time is right for a strong, sustainable sports company.