Your sneakers are made of plastic: it's time for a better alternative.

The foam in sneaker midsoles is derived from fossil fuels, just like plastics, but cork is an amazing eco-friendly alternative.

/ Posted on

‘Plastic shoes? That sounds super uncomfy, no thanks.’ If this is your response we don’t blame you. When we think of plastic we think of things like shopping bags, single-use straws, water bottles and toys. You don’t see heart-wrenching images of turtles choking on running shoes. But that’s just the thing; the foam in your sneakers comes from the same place as single-use plastics. It's all manufactured from petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels.

To make plastics, fossil fuels (like petroleum and fracked natural gasses) are processed to produce petrochemicals like Ethylene and Propylene. These chemicals are then further processed and combined in different ways to create plastics. You may be familiar with the acronym PET. This is Polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic that single-use water bottles are made from and one of the most common types of plastics. 

One of the most common types of foam, which revolutionized the sneaker industry in the 70’s is EVA or Ethylene-vinyl acetate. Note the common use of the petrochemical Ethylene. The differences between PET and EVA are the other chemicals with which Ethylene is combined, and the processes via which this happens.

So why are fossil fuel foams a problem?

Billions of pairs of shoes are produced every year. Just like more obvious types of plastics, fossil fuel foams in footwear are a significant part of the world's growing plastic pollution problem.  Considering the climate crisis, fossil fuel foams are also problematic for another pressing reason. The extraction and processing of fossil fuels has a major impact on the climate and is one of the most important drivers of global warming.

We've all heard that to fight climate change we need to replace coal power plants with clean energy, and choose electric vehicles over gasoline. But it’s not just powering our homes and cars that is the problem. As reported by the Centre for International Environmental Law, “if plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030 . . . emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.” 

The same report reveals that in a single year the global emissions from producing ethylene are equivalent to 45 million cars driven for a year. And that’s just Ethylene, one of the many fossil-fuel-based components of plastics used around the world. The footwear industry needs to take responsibility and use cleaner, greener alternatives. So what’s the solution? 

We're in the midst of a constant process of improvement. It takes diligence and determination, but we believe that this is the only way to do business responsibly in the 21st century. 

There are three ways to tackle the problem of petroleum-based foams in footwear.


Solution one: replacing fossil fuels with a natural alternative.

The first and most effective solution is to almost entirely replace the petrochemicals in foam with a natural alternative. That’s what we’ve done with the new ReCORK Recycled Cork midsole. Our revolutionary formula takes used natural wine corks, grinds them down and recombines the granulate. This allows us to create a material that's just as cushioning, flexible and durable as the foams used in your favorite sneakers. 

This process takes an incredibly sustainable material and gives it a second life in the shoes you wear, as a direct replacement for harmful fossil-fuel based foams. The manufacturing requires incredibly little energy relative to petrochemical foams. The result is a material that does all the things that synthetic foams can do, with a tiny fraction of the environmental footprint.

Solution two: foams that partially replace petrochemicals with a naturally occurring alternative. 

The second solution is to use foams that offset petrochemical requirements with other alternatives that are abundant and naturally occurring. That’s exactly what Bloom algae foam does.  Bloom Foam uses the world’s fastest growing organism (algae) to replace some of the fossil fuels needed to manufacture their foam. While this solution only partially offsets its fossil-fuel requirements, it also has the added advantage of cleaning natural waterways. The algae added to the foam is harvested from harmful algae blooms, helping restore balance to natural ecosystems. 

Solution three: invest in carbon offsets.

The third solution is to invest in carbon offsets to 'make up for' the impact of petroleum-based materials. This could be achieved via giving money to an organization that runs offset programs, or it could be done by directly investing in initiatives like tree planting. The benefit of this approach is that it's possible to offset the impacts of more than just a material, like the entire production and shipping process too. 

The problem comes with the challenge of getting clear and accurate measures of carbon output versus the amount trapped in offsets. It's also an approach that relies on the successful execution and management of offset programs to 'undo' the damage done by material manufacturing. This process is often outsourced to third-party companies and programs and difficult to effectively keep careful tabs on. While this approach involves taking responsibility for the damage done, it's far more effective to avoid doing the damage in the first place, as is the case with the ReCORK Recycled Cork midsole.

What are we doing at SOLE?

At SOLE we often speak about beginning a journey toward a greener future for footwear. We're incredibly proud of what we're doing with ReCORK Recycled Cork. We hope that we will have far-reaching positive effects throughout the footwear industry with this incredible material, but this is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

We're in the midst of a constant process of improvement. It takes diligence and determination, but we believe that this is the only way to do business responsibly in the 21st century. We feature introduce plastic-free packaging on all our products, and we're also committed to creating thorough audits of our overall carbon footprint to best understand our company's impact and account for it.  We do all this so we can say without hesitation that our overall impact as a business is not only positive for people, but for the planet too.  Stay tuned.