Reebok is growing shoes, and they are are about ready to blossom.
The global apparel company will release a limited edition plant-based line of athletic shoes in the fall that will feature a sole made from industrial-grown corn, along with an organic cotton upper.
The Cotton + Corn initiative is Reebok’s effort to create a more sustainable and recyclable shoe, and position itself as an environment-friendly label.
“Everything that goes into this product are things that can be grown,” said Bill McInnis, who leads Reebok’s innovation department, which it calls the Future team. That compares to petroleum and oil-based products, he said, which are "pulled from the ground, and once you use them, you can't ever use them again.”
Reebok’s effort is one example of a growing trend among shoe manufacturers to consider the Earth. Nike has its “Reuse-a-Shoe” and “Nike Grind” programs, which turn old sneakers into surfaces for running tracks, playgrounds and weight room floors. Boston-based New Balance is part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a collection of brands with a lofty vision to produce “no unnecessary environmental harm.”
While Reebok isn’t breaking new ground with cotton, it is among the first major brands to use corn to create an athletic shoe, the company said. Eventually, Reebok hopes to develop a shoe that can be composted.
The company, which will move its headquarters to Boston in the fall, partnered with the manufacturing company DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Product to come up the corn base for the new shoe. The material, which DuPont has trademarked, is called Susterra, and was developed from field corn.
U.S. consumers spend about $30 billion a year on footwear, according to StatisticBrain. That leaves a big carbon footprint from the manufacture of the products and their eventual disposal.
A 2013 MIT study found that creating a pair of shoes generates about 30 pounds of carbon dioxide, equal to leaving on a 100-watt light bulb for one week straight.
And when that shoe is worn out, Americans throw out an estimated 300 million shoes each year, with most of them ending up in landfills.
“If you stand back and look at the athletic shoe industry as a whole, neither the front end, how we make shoes, nor the back end, how shoes are disposed of, is the cleanest possible way to create or dispose of a product,” McInnis said.
Besides cotton, companies have looked for more innovative ways to create apparel out of natural fibers and crops. Among the most common is hemp, used in clothing and in footwear, with California-based Vans shoe and apparel company perhaps the most well known purveyor. While hemp has its environmental benefits, it is different from other crops because farmers must first get approval from the Drug Enforcement Agency before they sow the seeds, the Guardian reported.
For Reebok, the Cotton + Corn project has been five years in the making, but the company calls it only a first step. The goal is to have a range of plant-based shoes that will be compostable. That way, shoe owners will be able to say goodbye to their beloved pair of well-worn sneakers without having left the slightest footprint.