On a table in a Kabul boot factory sat a makeshift desert sandal: a flip-flop thong attached to a spare rubber sole. Workers used them for quick trips to the mosque to pray at the muezzin's call. The facility manufactured police and military boots for combat, and former Army Ranger Matthew Griffin thought it looked out of place. After three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, Griffin had traveled back to Kabul in 2012 to build medical clinics with Team 5, a nonprofit founded by veterans that provides medical care in remote areas. To him, this odd flip-flop meant a combat boot was never made, transformed instead into a symbol of peace and a reminder that, when the United States pulled out of the country, hardworking Afghanis would be out of a job.
"It was heartbreaking," says Griffin. "It didn't sit right with me." Griffin had spent months living on Afghanistan's fringes, rolling through the Hindu Kush, and surviving winters with local villagers who, despite their rampant poverty, took in the Rangers. "We got to develop a real sense of empathy for the people of Afghanistan," he says. "And you realize it's not what you see on the TV screen."
That's why, in 2013, Griffin, his brother Andy, and fellow former Ranger Donald Lee founded Combat Flip Flops, a gear company aiming to support local textile businesses in conflict areas such as Afghanistan as well as post-drug-insurgency Colombia. They tapped the veteran network to push the idea, what Griffin calls "guerilla marketing." It worked. Vets from all over the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia spread the word, and soon the team had sold 4,000 pre-orders. Then, President Obama announced America's withdrawal from war in Afghanistan, which meant the factory hired to make the flip-flops lost its government contract and would soon shut down.
They rushed 2,000 pairs into production and flew to Kabul to pick up what they could. "They were all bad — 100 percent failure," he says. So they gave away the faulty footwear to locals who needed shoes, went home, sold everything they could, and built 4,000 pairs out of their garage. Afghanistan's lack of rubber and leather tanneries forced CFF to transfer manufacturing to Bogota, Colombia, a country still reeling from decades of narco-financed guerrilla insurgency. Through Colombia's vocational rehab training, ex-guerrillas gradually stopped fighting and learned how to make solid footwear. Their reputation drew Griffin's attention, and the anti-narcotics efforts in a post-conflict region fit CFF's "Business, Not Bullets" ideology. When it comes to actually producing the shoes, CFF makes its flip-flops from the same rubber found in combat boots, which typically last a decade or more of hard wear. The flip-flops' uppers also feature cast bullet casings. These flip-flops, however, are still bad for combat.
Soon after, Griffin, who still wanted to stay committed to his mission's original goal, contracted an existing factory to do product work in Afghanistan, where it now manufactures other product lines such as sarongs and shemagh scarves from local fabrics.
CFF also donates 10 percent of profits to Aid Afghanistan for Education, a nonprofit that empowers thousands of marginalized women and children through education. Its donations to the Mine Advisory Group have also cleared nearly 1,300 square meters of land mines and unexploded ordnance in Laos and Cambodia, where old mines have left tens of thousands as amputees.
"Nobody has really gone after what Griffin is going after here, which is, how do you give a population hope and let them believe that they can rebuild their lives?" says Ned Post, an advisor at Combat Flip Flops and former president of Smith Optics. "It's kind of a swords-into-ploughshares way of thinking."
Last month, Griffin and Lee landed a $300,000 deal on Shark Tank that they'll use to expand inventory and staff and ramp up operations in Colombia and Afghanistan. "Having our mission validated by the Sharks is powerful," Griffin says. He says that will mean more Afghan girls in schools, new swaths of land cleared of mines, and more support for transitioning veterans, who CFF employs as sewers and sales officers.