Friday, May 20, 2011

walk the eco talk with paperfeet

by frédérik sisa

So what DO you do with those vinyl billboard posters once they’ve accomplished their advertising assault? I admit I never considered the question beyond the general issue of what we do with all our “stuff” when we’re done with it. After seeing Wall*E, I remain surprised that we haven’t already reached the point when the surface of our little blue ball is covered with trash and needs robots to clear it all away. But for young entrepreneur Jimmy Tomczak, the question proved the answer to an idea that combined the great outdoors, barefoot living, and a practical (and inexpensive) alternative to higher-priced footwear like the ubiquitous Vibram FiveFingers. What began as a failed experiment with flip-flops made of Tyvek (the same material used in FedEx envelopes and in buildings as a protective membrane) eventually led to the durable, weather-resistant 3-ply PVC vinyl used in billboards. Jimmy started making sandals from these discarded billboard posters, in the process launching TOMBOLO, LCC with a focus on making and selling “uncommon goods for the common good.”

Jimmy’s sandals are called “paperfeet,” and they’re foldable, portable, waterproof, and durable enough to keep the soles of your feet protected while offering all the benefits of barefoot footwear. Each pair is unique, with colours and patterns varying with the underlying billboard art, and comes in one of two forms – the basic “skinny” for $29.99 and the $49.99 “grippy” which comes with a thin layer of recycled rubber at the wearpoints. Here’s a look:

Whether the style works or not is purely a matter of preference, of course, but paperfeet are notable not only because they embody a DIY ethic rooted in upcycling discarded materials, but because they’re part of a business model that subverts the usual capitalistic/consumerist perspective. Instead of starting with profit and, maybe, reverse-engineering itself into some kind of moral framework, TOMBOLO adheres to a model called social entrepreneurship. I caught up with Jimmy via eMail to talk about it.
What is social entrepreneurship, and how do you envision it serving as a business model?

The common definition of social entrepreneurship says that a social entrepreneur recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage a venture to achieve social change.

“Paperfeet” are patent-pending minimalist sandals made from durable and waterproof upcycled billboard vinyl. TOMBOLO is the company behind this eco-beach adventure gear, founded to encourage conscious consumption, creative reuse, and a get-outside-and-live mindset of everyday exploration. Every year enough billboard vinyl is thrown away that if laid out it would more than cover the state of Massachusetts. Waste can be diverted from landfills by creating functional products like paperfeet. A tombolo is a rare earthly land bridge that connects an island to a mainland. TOMBOLO “manufactures good” – connecting people with both tangible and intangible innovations for the collective good.

What are your inspirations and influences?

I try to pull together the innovation of Edison, the talent of Da Vinci, and the business-meets-art creativity of Warhol while staying true to what I really want and what the world really needs. You can learn as much from the interpreting the lyrics of a song from your favorite band as the book content of a $400/credit hour university course, but I drew on the inspiration of both to dream up new goods by TOMBOLO. Every day I talk to people and try to facilitate the creative connections between people-people, people-places, and people-things.

You're currently looking for funds to "upgrade and scale manufacturing and to pay for professional design consulting that will improve the fit and finish of the soon-to-be retail-ready sandals." How is that coming along? How can people help?

We need your help to grow this social venture. You’ll be contributing to a movement towards conscious consumption and creative reuse or simply “upcyling” and “saving the environment” by diverting waste from landfills. Please check out to learn more.

Also, if you know any companies or individuals interested in a unique co-branding and advertising opportunity please use the contact page at or find us on Twitter or Facebook @paperfeet. We’re interested in creating unique full-size banner ads that will be displayed at the launch party and beyond, blogged about online, photographed, tweeted, facebooked and more. Have you heard of We'll give the sponsoring company a similar chance at promotion and we can eventually turn the ad into our next set of shoes or other innovations.

Are you working on other products? What is your vision for TOMBOLO five years from now?

Yes. Paperfeet are TOMBOLO’s first innovation. Creative reuse and conscious consumption are long-term mindsets for TOMBOLO and the world. In 5 years it will be fun to measure how much “good” TOMBOLO has manufactured. TOMBOLO is also seeking space and funding to establish a multi-use innovation hub aggregating entrepreneurs, influencers, and people to build community while motivating and supporting one another in creating both the tangible and intangible innovations of tomorrow.
This sort of forward-looking way of doing business is, I think, the future of our economy if we are to have any hope for a healthier planet. If more companies like TOMBOLO and REUSE Jeans can think innovatively and brilliantly about how we use our resources, it won’t just be the fashion industry that will benefit. Here’s hoping.

Visit to learn more about Jimmy's story, paperfeet, and what TOMBOLO is up to next.

Many thanks to Jimmy for his time and for use of the images.

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