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Trendsetters: Okabashi

Most shoes sold in this country – roughly 98 percent – are manufactured elsewhere, but Buford-based Okabashi has carved out a niche among the 2 percent of footwear made in America. Its eco-friendly, ergonomic and economical shoes have become an American success story.

“Okabashi sandals have become something of a timeless, cult classic because they incorporate wellness technology, from elements of reflexology to strong arch support,” says CEO Sara Irvani. “They’re great, comfortable sandals and affordable as well.”

The name Okabashi is derived from Japanese with a broad interpretation meaning wellness, Irvani adds. Her father, Bahman Irvani, who immigrated to the U.S. from London, founded the company in 1984, anticipating there would be a market for a flexible Japanese-style sandal that featured arch support and foot massage. He created a process where molds are filled with a plant-based material called Microplast, which is a foam and vinyl compound that helps the sandals maintain their shape after repeated wear.

Initially, he sold the sandals in drugstores, and the company has maintained a 25-year relationship with CVS and Walgreens. Including sales at retailers and on the company’s website, more than 35 million pairs of shoes have been sold in the past 30 years.

Bahman Irvani chose Buford as the site of his 100,000-square-foot factory because of its central location to population and transportation centers. “Buford is unique in its strength of logistics, and its proximity to warmer markets is key for a sandal company,” his daughter says. “Our shoes travel 93 percent less than the average imported shoe.” This results in a huge carbon footprint reduction.

The Okabashi factory, which employs about 200 workers, uses a closed-loop recycling process to reduce the amount of virgin material needed and to keep old shoes out of landfills. The average pair of shoes contains 15 percent to 20 percent recycled material.

Customers can recycle their shoes by sending them back to the company or putting them in most recycle bins. The shoes, which sell from $15 to $60, can also be easily washed in the dishwasher and have a 2-year warranty.

Twenty-nine-year-old Sara Irvani recently took over the family business and has energized the company’s e-commerce, increasing web sales by 500 percent since taking the reins. Along with company President Kim Falkenhayn and CFO Kerry Cunningham, she is revamping the marketing strategy and creating a new line of shoes aimed at millennials.

In July, Okabashi was recognized at a Made in America Certification Event held at the White House. Irvani was the only CEO under 30, and she represented one of two women-led companies at the event. Her goal within the next three years is to double the current production of up to 20,000 pairs of shoes a day.

“I feel lucky to have the opportunity to create a real impact in the community and with our sustainable product,” she says. “We have a vision of Okabashi brands becoming synonymous with sustainable, American-made comfort.”

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