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Materials Magnified: From Unexpected Sources, a New Sustainable Solution

This is the latest installment of “Materials Magnified,” a column which looks at the newest developments in textiles and their applications for the footwear industry. So much focus is placed on the design and style of a shoe, but the raw materials can be equally important in achieving the right end result. This column will explore the changing role that these materials play in footwear production.

Brands committed to sustainability initiatives have commonly turned to recycled plastics for their polymers, but these can still pose complicated questions about what happens when the product is eventually discarded for good. They also rely on the original production of plastic bottles in the first place, which is unsustainable in the long-term.

To address this concern, a few enterprising companies have looked to the natural world for inspiration — and come up with surprising sources of green materials. From ponds to soil, our environment is rich in resources that can be transformed into wearable materials, if we just know where to look. These businesses are leading the way.

Bloom Foam – Algae

Green algae blooms can make for beautiful pictures, but recent increases in environmental pollution have exacerbated the growth of this microorganism to dangerous levels. Originally focused on removing this harm from our water ecosystems, co-founder Ryan Hunt of Bloom (formerly Algix) realized that treating the micro-algae resulted in plasticization that could make it useful for other industries, as a replacement for standard EVA.

Prior to water treatment, the lakes in Lee County were being taken over by algae blooms; this algae has since been repurposed into Bloom foam.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Bloom

The resulting textiles are flexible foams that offer high rebound, for use in footwear and sports products. Current footwear users include Vivobarefoot, Adidas, Toms and Clarks.

“People look at this green water and think, ‘That’s gross.’ It’s a problem. It’s a liability,” said Hunt. “No one is seeing it as basically a direct replacement for oil. But algae actually has a dollar sign attached to it, which it hasn’t had in the past. These companies are going to see that this is an opportunity.”

Solum Outsoles – Plant Nutrients

Shoes are put through harsher endurance tests than other apparel products, due to the wear and tear of daily use. This wear abrasion increases a product’s waste output, as parts of the outsole erode and sink into the natural environment. At Solum, the focus is on not just reducing this environmental impact, but on building a positive abrasion outcome.

“A tree can grow to be 275ft tall, live to be 2,500yrs old, and every part of its life cycle (and decay) has a positive impact on the environment around it,” said Thomas Bogle, CEO of Solum. “We found that utilizing the same nutrients trees use to strengthen their cells walls, stand up and grow tall had a similar reinforcing effect in our material.”

VIVOBAREFOOT's new plant-based Primus Lite II Bio shoe, the company’s most innovative sustainable shoe to-date and one of the world’s first plant-based performance shoes.
The Primus Lite II Bio shoe by Vivobarefoot is one of the world’s first plant-based performance shoes.
CREDIT: VIVOBAREFOOT

Having identified these nutrients, Bogle reverse engineered nature to produce an outsole that would meet industry standards of performance while offering a sustainable advantage. As the outsole naturally wears down, nutrients are released into the environment to promote growth.

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