Two former Army Rangers report for duty in a different kind of uniform. Sporting flip flops and t-shirts that read, "Bad for running, worse for fighting," they're on a new mission. Veteran business owners Matthew Griffin (Griff) and Donald Lee, and their third co-founder, Andy Sewrey, are now a part of what they call "The Unarmed Forces."
Over 10 years ago, it was all "combat" and no "flip flops" for two of the founders, Griff and Lee. Having served several tours in Afghanistan as Army Rangers they, "witnessed firsthand the hardships that people were actually going through," Griff said. "We got to see the true nature of what war looks like."
Griff joined the Army wanting to change the world for the better. Though he left the service believing that trust isn't built through war and invasion. Griff said he realized, "The strongest tool we have as a country is our economy. Why aren't we using that to help these nations to get out of poverty?" He began thinking about the positive influence that economic growth could have in regions devastated by conflict.
Shortly after leaving the military in 2006, Griff returned to Afghanistan to do clinic and aid work. In doing so, he landed at a combat boot factory that was making boots for the nation's army at the time. He recalls looking down to find the sole of a combat boot that appeared to have a hole punched through the top of it, similar to a flip flop. Coming from a culture that doesn't wear shoelaces, factory workers had developed this sandal from the materials at hand so that they could pray and meet their cultural considerations while at work. As Griff took a closer look, he realized the potential for U.S. consumer interest in a "combat-flip flop."
"There are those moments in your life where you go 'this was supposed to happen for a reason,' and it was just one of those moments," he said. "I literally picked it up and looked at it and thought, 'this will work.'"
Supporting the education of over 200 girls in Afghanistan
That night Griff and Lee registered the domain name, Combat Flip Flops, with the goal of launching a business that sells flip flops made from the soles of combat boots. A year later Griff's brother-in-law, Andy Sewrey, joined the business, recognizing the potential for these flip flops to be a tool for effecting positive, lasting change.
Their mission is simple: to improve conditions in war-torn countries by creating safe and steady jobs, and by educating women. Combat Flip Flops manufactures their products in Colombia, Laos and Afghanistan in order to create jobs in these conflict, or post-conflict areas.
Every product they sell funds a day of secondary school for an Afghan girl. The founders believe "the path to peace is through education." Education is often not an option for many girls in Afghanistan, where only one-quarter of Afghanistan's population is literate, and among women the rate is 13 percent. Among school age children, about 5 million do not have access to schools, most of which are girls.
"If we can fix this model in Afghanistan, then it can be done anywhere," Griff said. "Last year we put over 200 girls in school in Afghanistan. And the curve is going up rapidly because we're finding ways to sell more cool profitable products that provide the margin for us to be able to give."
In addition to positive change through education, the company based in Washington State believes real progress can be made through trade, investment and business. And flip flops were just the start. Over the years they've expanded into a larger market segment, with the same mission in mind. Now manufacturing scarves and sarongs handmade by Afghan women, jewelry made from the metal of landmines in Laos, and more recently ‘Claymore’ messenger bags made by U.S. veterans in Washington.
Combat Flip Flops joins forces with Amazon
None of this is feasible without a sustainable business that delivers results, and that was a challenge for the company initially. They realized they couldn't effectively market their mission through traditional retail channels. Customers weren't grasping the significant difference their purchase would be making by seeing the products on a shelf. "It only works if consumers buy," said Griff.
Combat Flip Flops launched as an Exclusives brand in July of 2016, taking advantage of the marketing support that Exclusives offers its sellers. Amazon Exclusives is a marketplace that showcases a wide range of unique brands that have chosen to sell their products only through Amazon and their own company website.
"Amazon is the best for our business, so Amazon is the best means of achieving our mission," said Griff. "We can work together to make the most meaningful difference in these communities."
Within the next year, Combat Flip Flops hopes to be about 5 percent of Afghanistan's exports to the U.S.
The way Griff sees it, the more they grow and sell, the more women they can help educate, the more jobs they can create, and hopefully, the better off the world's economy is. "The change will happen," he said with a confident smile. "We're stoked!"