Sole Finds New Sources for Cork

Sole wants to shrink its carbon footprint — one bottle of chardonnay at a time.

Over the past three years, the Calgary, Alberta-based company has been developing a global wine cork recycling program in partnership with Portugal-based Amorim, the world’s largest producer of natural cork closures. The collected items will be ground and used in Sole’s footwear products, replacing the less-sustainable petroleum-based materials the company uses now.

“Cork is an amazing, renewable material that can be used in so many different applications, and it suits footwear particularly well,” said Mike Baker, president of Sole, which also manufactures insoles and performance socks. “By collecting used wine corks, we’re taking what would otherwise be a waste material and giving it new life. The ReCork program allows us to tell a really compelling sustainability story.”

Natural cork is harvested from the thick outer bark of cork oak trees, grown primarily within the 6 million acres of forest dotting the Mediterranean Basin. “A lot of people don’t even realize that cork grows on trees. I like how simple that message is,” Baker said, noting cork forests absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, support a large and diverse ecosystem and drive significant economic development for the Mediterranean region. (In tandem with the recycling program, Sole has pledged to plant thousands of new cork trees in Portugal as a good faith measure for the future.)

So far, the footwear company has built a network of more than 1,300 cork recycling partners, including vineyards, restaurants, wine merchants, hotels, spas and airlines. In addition, a number of Sole’s retail accounts, including Nordstrom and a mix of independents, have signed on to serve as drop-off sites for consumers. Nearly 40 million corks already have been collected through the program. Baker said that’s only a small fraction of the spent items being tossed into the trash. “There are 13 billion corks used globally each year, with about 1.3 billion of those in the U.S. There is an enormous collection opportunity,” he said.

Sole expects to debut its first footwear styles featuring the recycled cork for spring, including men’s and women’s sandals and flip-flops. For fall ’13, the company will add boots, ballet flats, casual slip-ons and lace-up looks. Some of the shoes, which are priced from $79 to $225, were previewed to retailers this past summer at trade shows including FN Platform and Outdoor Retailer, and Baker said the response was enthusiastic. “The cork still has a subtle hint of wine scent, so it’s a pretty awesome moment when you can slide the shoe across the table and say, ‘Smell this,’” Baker said. “When your mind starts to connect on everything that’s had to happen to bring this all together, that’s the kind of story we want to tell.”

The fact that retailers and consumers can be active participants in the process makes the ReCork program even more compelling, he added. “When a retailer can serve as a collection partner and then sell shoes made from the cork that was brought into their stores, it’s very self-fulfilling. And it’s a great story that retailers can bring to their customers.”

Brooks Maitland, merchandising director for Planetshoes.com, said the simple, accessible nature of the ReCork program is a big part of its appeal. “While it feels great as a consumer to buy a sustainable product, it will feel even better [to them] knowing they somehow had a part in it,” she said. “Consumers who drop off their used corks at a recycling location can get a real sense of fulfillment when they purchase a pair of Sole shoes [made from those corks]. It’s a [sustainability effort] that’s very easy to understand.”

Nordstrom spokeswoman Tara Darrow agreed: “It’s rewarding to think that by recycling wine corks — something we would otherwise toss away — we can have a significant impact on the environment. We’re very pleased to participate [as a drop-off site] and provide this service to our customers.”

As the program grows and evolves, Baker said Sole will seek to sell the recycled cork material to other footwear firms. The company also plans to make the material available to manufacturers of flooring, building insulation, sports equipment, packaging materials and other applicable products. “We’re going to reach a point when we’re collecting far more cork than we could ever use ourselves, and duplicating what we’ve already created with ReCork doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Baker said. “The intent is to make ReCork more of an open-source project in the spirit of sharing best practices in sustainability.”

Although the program is off to a strong start, Baker said taking it from experiment to reality has been a serious labor of love. “Even my own team thought I was crazy for doing this initially,” he said. “It’s been an extremely complicated undertaking with a lot of moving parts, logistical challenges and a significant upfront investment. We’re still very much in the early days of refining and scaling the program, but we expect it eventually will work its way into every aspect of our organization. It’s something we feel confident we can hang our hat on for a very long time.”

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