Freewaters is a Local Brand Making a Global Impact
Written By: Carli Critchfield
Photographed By: Bradley Blackburn Freewaters Shoes
One of the best things in life is being able to do what you’re passionate about while making positive changes and giving back. Co-founder of Freewaters, Eli Marmar, seems to have done just that. Freewaters is a footwear company that sells shoes and sandals for both men and women and each time a shoe sells it helps support their clean drinking water projects. To put it specifically, yet simply, 1 percent of gross sales directly funds Freewaters water projects.
Freewaters launched only a few years ago, opening up an office in Laguna Hills in 2012 after working out of a small art studio in San Francisco. However, founders Marmar and Martin Kim’s journey began long before that. The two were friends while in design school at Art Center College of Design. While they both went their separate ways after graduation, Kim started designing for DC Shoes and then Burton in Vermont and Marmar began designing wetsuits for O’Neill. After being with O’Neill for about seven years, Marmar made a move to Amsterdam. O’Neill had created a position for him as a brand and design manager. Unknowingly at the time, his experience he earned while in Amsterdam would help him tremendously with Freewaters. After a total of eight years with O’Neill, Marmar said he was ready for the next chapter in his life and had to make a decision, either commit to live in Europe or move back to California. He moved back and, as fate would have it, Kim was in the same situation. He was living in Vermont and ready to make a change. Thus the very early stages of what would later become Freewaters began.
Marmar had said that the timing for Freewaters was perfect for both him and Kim, they were ready to start this company and both of them had enough experience to understand what it took from the product side of things.
“For the rest of it we were pretty naïve, ” Marmar says.
Being naïve was good thing in Marmar’s eyes because if they would have known from the beginning how much it took to start your own company they probably would have been scared and overwhelmed. He says they jumped in and never looked back. There have been moments of scariness and uncertainty but in those moments it’s sink or swim. Both Marmar and Kim are California natives and both love the water and love to surf and when they started Freewaters, the clean water projects weren’t initially part of the plan.
There was one moment for Marmar that made him realize that Freewaters needed to do more than just design a great shoe. One day in 2010 when him and Kim were living back in the bay area they were in the process of developing their business plan for Freewaters. Marmar had gone and seen Michael Moore’s film, “Capitalism: A Love Story, ” and after he saw that movie he said it had a huge effect on him.
“The very next morning I got in the car with Kim to go surfing, and I was chewing his ear off about this movie and how we had a moral obligation to do a lot more than create really cool footwear, ” Marmar says.
In the beginning they didn’t exactly know how to give back. However, once Kim absorbed this idea that was thrown to him out of nowhere, they both knew that it had to be about water, and the healing power of water that they felt as surfers. When it came down to it, it needed to be basic and fundamental which is how the focus became drinking water.
The projects that Freewaters has been able to provide through their sales are located in Haiti, Kenya, and now a new project in the Philippines. Kenya was their first water project. Marmar and Kim went over there in 2010, months before a shoe was ever sold. The wells they dug created a sustainable way to provide clean water to the community and to date there are 25 wells with another five in progress. Those wells are serving over 5, 000 people clean drinking water.
One of Freewaters brand ambassadors, Shroder Baker, has a brother, Jesse who was working on a water project in Haiti and by those connections the Haiti water project began. In 2014 Freewaters partnered with Jesse’s nonprofit, Project 509, to provide clean water in remote mountain villages by providing water filtration systems. However, after about a year into the filtration system project, it was clear to them it wasn’t the best solution for the people in Haiti. The filters were slow and hard to get to and the community wasn’t really using them. Jesse ended up finding cisterns, a concrete storage tank, like a well that holds water. So they created a system that captures rainwater off of the roofs and they took PVC piping to drain the water down into these cisterns. The local people loved the idea, it was easy for them to grasp and they didn’t have to walk long distances to get to the water. After a year and a half they’ve built six cisterns and have a seventh in progress that serve around 1, 000 people.
The newest project that Freewaters is working on is one in the Philippines. They’re still in the first phase of this project but they are providing filters, similar to the ones done in Haiti, but the feedback from the community is that the filtration system is working really well. Freewaters have plans to launch another domestic project soon.
Marmar stresses that Freewaters is really hands on; Both him and Kim have travelled to each of these places and have worked on each project. The goal is to create projects that are sustainable and respectful to the community and he has achieved those goals.
Now we know the water part of their name but what about the “free”? Marmar and Kim’s design inspiration comes from designing footwear that sets you free and takes you to amazing places. They start with the consumer-mindset of what they would want in a shoe, while keeping it fashionable. The duo pulls a lot of their inspiration from nature but also looks to Japan and Korea for their forward-thinking designs.
Opening and starting a business is a step-by-step process and Marmar says it may look like Freewaters has achieved a lot, but he believes they are only reaching their tipping point. Starting this spring, Freewaters will be placed in all REI stores.
“In many ways I feel like the brand is just now starting to blossom, ” Marmar says.
The work that Freewaters has done is inspiring and Marmar compliments his team for being nimble, ready to react, and adjust quickly all while being honest. The team has been crucial to Freewaters and each helping hand has gotten the company where it is today. Marmar left me with this piece of business advice: “Adapt as you go, but never give up on your core vision and values.”
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