Why You Need to Park Your Assumptions to Create Plant-Based Shoes
Mike Andrews shares a deep dive into what goes into innovating sustainable materials for footwear at Reebok.
The adidas Sustainability Series
A classic white and straw shoe, using a neutral pallet with earthy tones is how our marketing messaging describes our new Forever Floatride GROW running shoe.
It looks beautiful, right? Alongside the fabulous produce from a local Boston farmer this sneaker fits right in. And that’s the whole premise of these plant-based shoes. 59% of the shoe material comes from the land – castor beans, eucalyptus tree, BLOOM algae foam and rubber trees.
Sounds simple, right? Not exactly. I am Mike Andrews, Director of Advanced Development for Reebok’s Future team. In early 2014, I was challenged by the head of our team, Paul Litchfield, to learn everything I could about sustainability and build a plant-based shoes platform to support it.
Not only did I have to upskill myself in the area of eco-innovation, but I also quickly learned that I’d have to leave by assumptions about eco-friendly footwear at the door.
Meeting the unexpected
During my first visit to a composting facility in Washington, I was met by unexpected inhabitants: American bald eagles. By my estimate, there had to be at least twenty. For most of my life, I had only seen them on TV. They were an endangered species, and since I’d never actually seen one in person, their presence in such quantity startled me.
I had encountered what is often referred to in TED Talks and corporate speak as a paradigm shift – a fundamental change in basic assumptions. In the quest to build plant-based shoes and get Reebok started on a new path that might shape its future, seeing these bald eagles would only be one of a series of paradigm shifts, failures and learnings.
Defining our moonshot
Paul Litchfield had worked on a shoe called Telos back in 1994. Made from corn oil, recycled rubber and pecan shells, Telos was WAY ahead of its time. Sustainability topics back then didn’t have the same awareness of today. But fast forward to 2016? The appetite was growing for big changes to happen in the footwear industry.
For me and my team, that moonshot would be a performance running shoe that looked and performed better than any other – but would be made entirely from plant-based materials and commercially or municipally compost. This was certainly a lofty goal, but every mistake and every failed test has been a journey of growth, education and, of course, even some frustration and doubt.
Let the learning begin
So, with my assignment in hand, I spent the next three years attending trade shows and lectures from renowned plastics engineers. Whenever I came across an interesting material, I would test to see if it could fit within the project scope.
As I progressed, I also learned about the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides. The FTC is the US government agency that is tasked with protecting consumers from fraud and deception, and their green guides are designed to prevent corporate ‘green-washing.’
It became quickly apparent that, in addition to learning about materials, it would be equally important to establish a validation process to authentically (and legally) commercialize our plant-based shoes’ sustainability story. I set out to understand the compliance laws and testing standards, even attending a three-day course on commercial composting!
Where the composting magic happens
That discovery brought me to Cedar Grove in Everett, Washington. Cedar Grove is an industry-leading environmental solutions facility that composts more than 350,000 tons of residential and commercial yard and food waste annually, diverting it from a landfill. As it turns out, eagles love the warmth and readily available food scraps of this large-scale composting operation.
Along with technicians from Cedar Grove and the Compost Manufacturers Alliance (CMA), I oversaw a series of tests to see what happens to shoes after they’ve been worn and discarded – the back end of the process.
From failure to surprise
The moment of reckoning came when after 60 days at Cedar Grove my nylon bags with my shoes were pulled out just before the compost is made. I knew that if the technician found any trace of the shoes, the test would be a failure.
Unfortunately, the test was a ‘failure.’ But here again is where another major paradigm shift occurred – and my assumptions are proven incorrect.
While the cotton upper was completely intact, it was actually the plastic parts which had decayed significantly. The stiff plastic cupsole now had the consistency of Feta cheese, and had disintegrated into pieces.
Expectations dashed but knowledge grows
So, what do you do when your hypothesis is proven incorrect? When your expectations turn out to be the opposite of what you thought? You learn and move forward with greater knowledge and greater confidence.
In recent years, as the drumbeat of environmental issues like climate change and fracking have only grown louder, we at Reebok have become even more committed to be a leader and to move the industry in a positive direction. And, while we knew that our moonshot of fully-compostable shoes needed more time and research, we were able to take what we learned and pivot to create, test and produce products that delivered on our goal of changing the important front end of the process – what our shoes are made of.
Plant-based shoes start to bloom
In 2017, we introduced the NPC UK Cotton & Corn, a lifestyle shoe aptly named for the shoe’s ingredients, and established the Reebok Sustainability Platform, which has two key pillars, [REE]GROW and [REE]CYCLE. The platform guides us and gives us focus on this journey. It has also led us closer to the fully compostable plant-based shoes we’d envisioned years earlier.
Now, in just a few days, on October 1st, consumers will finally get to experience a product seven years in the making: Forever Floatride GROW, a plant-based, true performance running shoe, that is one of the most sustainable athletic shoes ever created.
Certified by the US Department of Agriculture, Forever Floatride GROW is the result of the work of many people, not just me, and we’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished. But it’s just the beginning.
Nobody said it would be easy and we have much to learn. But I take a great deal of pride in what we’ve accomplished.
I’m hoping to get a chance to see those bald eagles again when normal travel resumes. We’re still not at our moonshot goal of an entirely plant-based, compostable performance shoe. But we’re closer than we were and learning every day.
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