Visiting New Zealand proves life-changing for ex-musician

Gillian Boucher, founder Orba Shoes, sits at a picnic table. She wears a black top and is smiling.

Gillian Boucher founder of Orba Shoes.

Gillian Boucher is a co-founder and the sustainability manager for Orba Shoes. It released a world-first sneaker called ‘The Ghost’. Designed in New Zealand, ‘The Ghost’ is made from biodegradable, non-toxic, and plant-based materials. It’s designed to completely break down at the end of its lifetime.

Since hitting the global market, Orba has captured international and national acclaim. It won the sustainability category at the Global Footwear Awards in 2021, the sustainable product design category at the 2021 New Zealand Design Institute Awards, the emerging product category at the 2022 Welly Awards, and in late 2022 the Kāpiti and Horowhenua Business and Innovation award for retail.

Bumper year for Orba

It’s fair to say 2021 was a big year for Orba, having also achieved certified B Corporation status. There are also plans to expand into North America and Europe. And to release a range of coloured Orba Shoes made with plant-based natural and non-toxic dyes.

“It’s been quite the ride! Our success in this space is because of our innovative approach to the industry by creating a shoe made from biodegradable, plant-based materials, yet still absolutely fit-for-purpose,” says Gillian.

Now she’s on a mission to convince the rest of the world to buy footwear that leaves no trace. And she’s doing it from her Waikanae Beach home office.

“As a travelling musician, I absolutely fell in love with New Zealand when I first came here and ended up spending three to four months here every second year or so.

“My work at the time didn’t allow me to consider living here full-time, but that changed nine years ago. During a summer in Waikanae Beach with my daughter Lily Rose, I made the decision to stay permanently.” And she has never looked back.

“It seemed like a rather crazy decision at the time, but the way everything has worked out in our lives since moving here has proven it to be the best decision we ever made.”

Gillian Boucher
A person wearing white Orba sneakers walking in wet sand.

Work-life balance just right

“I literally smile every day over my morning coffee at how lucky I am to be here. My husband Scott also works for Orba, and we have individual home offices on our property just a two-minute walk from the sea.”

Gillian’s career in music as a Celtic violinist and dancer also led her down the sustainability path. “During a gig in Manila and a visit to a slum, I saw horrific poverty and waste, and it just blew my mind.”

Having been a professional musician from the age of 15, she went to university as a mature student and completed a sustainability degree remotely in 2019. Just after her move to New Zealand, Gillian met co-founder Greg Howard at her Waikanae Beach local when Orba’s ‘Ghost’ sneaker was just a concept.

The rest, as they say, is history. “Now we are fighting back against the pollution caused by the 20 billion shoes produced globally every year that are destined for landfill,” says Gillian.

“Most people don’t realise their shoes are made with harmful synthetic and plastic materials that release toxins into the ground as they break down — it means they can sit around in landfill for hundreds if not thousands of years.”

Doing business in Wellington is easy

Orba has developed a unique sole made of natural rubber, rice husk ash, and coconut oil. With insoles made of cork, coconut husk, and natural rubber. “We’ve been able to remove synthetics and plastics from our shoe. We haven’t seen many footwear companies achieve that.”

Creating a product for a global audience from within the Wellington region has been anything but difficult. “I simply love how easily connected we can be here in the Wellington region, in both a geographical and social sense,” says Gillian.

“It’s big enough to support small start-ups, yet small enough to network and enjoy a real sense of community. The local community here is one of the friendliest and supportive I’ve ever lived in.”

Composite of two images. Woman sits on colourful steps, wearing a blue blazer, bright pink skirt, white sneakers and an Orba tote bag (left). Man jumping in a running man position, in front of a beige stone facade, wearing a blue jacket and white Orba sne