Soul to Sole: Recycling Footwear for the Unshod

Two dynamic, young entrepreneurs, both from totally diverse backgrounds, have pioneered an eco-friendly enterprise, GreenSole, by recycling old shoes to provide footwear for the unshod in India. Their common link was that both were joggers at Mumbai’s Priyadarshini Park along Peddar Road.

The running mates met in 2012. A decade later GreenSole has “donated 580,000 pairs of footwear till date in 18 states pan-India, our beneficiaries are primarily India’s rural school children. A great positive for GreenSole will be when we touch the 10 lakhs footwear mark by next year, which would have saved roughly 50 lacs CO2 Emissions (lbs). (Calculated using software GaBi 2.0). GreenSole has also ventured into sustainable materials made from waste like EVA, rubber, foam, coffee and much more, fitting in with the life cycle of many footwear and apparel products,” Shriyans affirms.

Meet Shriyans Bhandari, 29, CEO GreenSole, Mumbai & Director Heritage Girls School (HGS), Udaipur and Co-founder Ramesh Dhami. The former from Udaipur, schooled at Mayo College, Ajmer, and graduated from USA’s Babson’s College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with a Management of Entrepreneurial Leadership program. Shriyans authored ‘Birds of Aravalli’ and has spoken at the Wharton World Economic Forum, Mumbai 2016, MIT and Harvard Kennedy School, to name a few.

The latter, Ramesh, now 30, ran away from home in Uttarkhand when eight years old. Ramesh survived in Mumbai aided by the Sathi Foundation. He aspired to be an actor but instead became a fitness coach and a national level marathoner.

“We found an estimated 20 billion pairs of shoes are produced globally each year, and nearly 350 million pairs are discarded annually in the USA alone. Yet according to World Bank statistics there are over 1.5 billion people worldwide without footwear who are infected by diseases,” details Shriyans.

Ramesh recollects how the idea ‘sprouted’, “I couldn’t throw away my old running shoes. They were too expensive. Instead, I modified them into slippers.”

“We were too young when we started GreenSole in December 2013. I was 19 and Ramesh, 20. Not having any prior knowledge of footwear manufacturing or designing, it was not easy to run a factory or negotiate deals, especially in this labour-intensive sector,” the CEO continues.

The company’s graph started looking upwards after 2014 when Shriyans participated in a competition at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India (EDII), Ahmedabad. “They asked us to write about our target market, potential customers, and the impact we could make. We were selected among the top 30 innovators in India. That is when we realised there was a commercial potential that could be turned into a business venture,” says the then a third-year student at Jai Hind College, Mumbai.

Shriyans initially pumped in Rs.1.5 lakhs of his family money, and simultaneously he and Ramesh won, first, the business competition at Jai Hind College followed by the Technology and Sustainability Award at Eureka; Asia’s largest B-plan competition at IIT-Bombay; and the second position at Ridea National B-plan. These victories have since been GreenSole’s main funders. GreenSole has also received two industrial design patents (D262161 and D262162).

The head office and flagship Mahape factory in Navi Mumbai is in partnership with Ram Fashion Exports. The small team behind this success story comprises Shriyans at the helm and Ramesh overseeing field research and distribution. Others involved in the venture are Rishi Bhasin, overseeing design and manufacturing which ensure minimum carbon footprint. Rishi has worked on GreenSole’s R&D and standardised its manufacturing process. Nitesh Bhasin of Ram Fashion Exports helps in policy making and looks after the retail segment of GreenSole. Marketing is Karan Bhasin’s domain while finance is under Kunal Kapadia.

Further, thanks to Ratan Tata’s interest in GreenSole – after he responded to Shriyans’ letter (2015) and email on separate occasions – in 2018 Tata Steel sponsored the facilities and machinery in their Noamundi, Jharkhand plant. Six people are employed and are upcycling about 1500 units every month and creating jobs for the tribal community. Along with that, more than 100 people are being skilled in footwear manufacturing every year with potential to get jobs in other footwear companies. Two more skill centers in Maharashtra near Mumbai, and in Rajasthan, Eklingi, Udaipur, are doing similar work.

Acknowledgment has come in the form of former President Obama’s letter. “I had written to the President while I was at Babson and gifted him a copy of ‘Birds of Aravallis’. He and First Lady Michelle Obama sent a thank you letter in response,” affirms the author.

GreenSole’s publicity is mainly via media coverage in numerous newspapers and magazines, participation in talk shows including TEDx Youth WASO, talks at MIT, Harvard Kennedy and various environmental forums. In the pipeline are plans to get celebrities to donate their shoes which will then be refurbished and auctioned online.

“GreenSole shoes and slippers are available to individual buyers online from our website. We were exploring export opportunities to retail our brands in the USA and Europe, as well as co-branding with established companies for our upcycled footwear range. But CoVid has put a halt on this for now,” rues Shriyans.

“For donating GreenSole shoes to support those still unshod, we are updating our online channels and websites so users can buy shoes as well. GreenSole also invites established shoes brands for tie-ups in order to put to good use the 0.5% (7.5 million) shoe wastage, which are primarily due to defects,” says the CEO.

Looking back, he admits, “Life hasn’t been all smooth. We have overcome hurdles – including convincing family, friends, college authorities and other backers of our serious intent!”

A novel platform which garnered media attention was GreenSole’s participation in both Lakme Fashion Week Summer and Winter 2019, in partnership with Tilla and A&T respectively.

In 2023 GreenSole won Dun & Bradstreet Top 50 Trailblazing Startups of India Award – adding another feather to their cap.

In retrospect, what are the complexities and big challenges faced recently and overcome? Shriyans answers: “There are a lot of established footwear brands in the market, thus we need to take small, careful steps to become mainstream with lesser resources – but, critically, in lesser time. We are using these brands as platforms by co-branding and entering multiple stores. Looking at multi-retail outlets instead of our own stores, which is presently not feasible. We also have to work towards creating something unique constantly, and in educating the customer to prefer our footwear than a brand not supporting social or environmental good. Currently, all brands have started moving towards sustainability, and thus the availability of sustainability material is also increasing. We are working on new technology which would make use of 15 percent waste leftover after upcycling. This will be reused as footwear soles, floor mats and other varied products.”

“GreenSole has evolved and bounced back stronger post-Covid 19. We are now into sustainable materials and solutions for footwear and apparel. We are now into vegan fashion retail which means mainly choosing alternatives which are good for the environment, such as PET bottle mesh, wood cork, and plant-based materials in lieu of leather and synthetic. We are noticing more people shifting to vegan products and lifestyle not only in western countries, but in India as well,” he says.

Looking forward – after GreenSole, what next? Shriyans promptly replies, “GreenSole is forever, as the planet  will need more recyclers, more sustainable materials and solutions. We are constantly upgrading our recycling reach from footwear to apparel, tyres and even flex – and making our own sustainable material.”

Another commendable mention is that GreenSole has become a replicable model and an inspiration to many other youngsters. There have been startups of GreenSole for spectacles, denim and other fashion items. Shriyans is happy that they are propagating social and environmental changes through their ventures.

Finally, the founding CEO’s concluding appeal to Destination India readers is: “Next time you – or your friends and family – are discarding your shoes, do think of donating them to someone who could use them instead. Or send them to GreenSole – a project very close to our hearts.”

And GreenSole continues to move forward, hitting a lot of targets through a single concept – sustainable recycling.


Amita Sarwal is a freelance journalist who has contributed to numerous publications over a career spanning over four decades. She is a regular columnist for our group, including Destination India magazine.



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