Outside, traffic on Fifth Avenue was backed up as Sarah Jessica Parker was shooting a scene exploring the continuing saga of Carrie Bradshaw, perhaps the most notorious consumer of shoes in the history of fashion, in Sex and the City sequel “And Just Like That.” Inside, Dr. Luke Haverhals and Eric Liedtke were onstage in The New School’s Tishman Auditorium as part of a summit discussing sustainability as it relates to footwear consumption last Thursday in New York.
Late last year, the duo combined to form what they bill as the first totally biodegradable shoe “The Degenerate”, called that because it quite literally will eventually break down right back into the world from which it came.
“These shoes are nutrients. At the end of their lives they can go back to soil,” Haverhals told the crowd, largely made up of students from the Parsons School of Design. “They came from the soil; they can go back to soil. This is here today; it’s a built-in, global supply chain and it’s a model for all the sneakers on planet Earth. We do not need to make sneakers with the old model.”
Haverhals, along with Aaron Amstutz were awarded the 49th annual Inventor of the Year Award from the IPO Education Foundation for their creation of Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) in a ceremony last December.
A fully biodegradable leather substitute, Natural Fiber Welding goes well beyond even the achievements of many a greenwashed vegan shoe offering, which typically uses polyurethane—a plastic—to simulate the feel and durability of cowhide, by instead using a multitude of natural materials. The footwear uppers are made of Mirum, the mid-sole of Clarus, and the bottom sole of Pliant, NFW’s plant-based curative that replicates the feel and durability of synthetic rubber by naturally tapping rubber trees.
In Haverhals’ invention, Liedtke, who had been the brand president of Adidas, signing major endorsers like Beyonce and Kayne West to the label, saw not only a business opportunity, but also a remedy to sleeplessness that dogged him in spite of the significant progress toward sustainability he helped engineer with the German sportswear giant.
“We recognized our customers weren’t just consumers, they were athletes, people who consume our product. We focused on them and yes, they want to run faster and also look good but most importantly, they wanted to wear things that do less harm,” Liedtke said. “We were the first brand in 2015 to launch an ocean-safe plastic product with recycled polyester, but in the back of my head, I kept thinking about it and it became more difficult to sleep. I was part of the take-and-throw-away culture… There’s only so many things you can sing yourself to sleep to. I just kept thinking, ‘what happens nine years from now if I don’t leave now?’”
So in 2020, Liedtke launched the Unless Collective, a coalition of innovators, engineers, artists, and activists looking to shake up the status quo in how fashion gets made. The Natural Fiber Welding collaboration was exactly what he had been looking for.
Liedtke said Haverhals’ invention could be for footwear what Tesla was for the electric vehicle.
“We’re either smart enough, confident, foolish or arrogant enough to think we can change the game and we wouldn’t do it if we thought we were just creating generational wealth for ourselves; we’re trying to create generational change,” Liedtke said. “That means doing it at scale and with urgency the world needs. We’re very focused on disrupting the entire industry by partnering with the entire industry. It’s going to take a village.”
The Degenerate is on sale at unlesscollective.com for $139 with the promise that even after “you’ve worn it to death, send it back to us and we’ll return it harmlessly to the earth.”
Humankind’s addiction to buying and throwing away shoes is one of the great threats to the planet, as Sian Sutherland, moderator and co-founder of PlasticFree: Our Incredible Future NOW, illustrated before bringing Liedtke and Haverhals on stage. According to her graphic, 2.5 percent of all carbon pollution comes from aircraft, but footwear disposal isn’t far behind at 1.4 percent, and, she said, if sneakers were a country it would be the 17th worst polluter.
To tackle the enormity of the problem, Haverhals urged attendees to think with even greater enormity, because “impact and scale are two sides of the same coin.”
“If you can’t answer the fundamentals of the question of how to get your materials to scale in not just the millions, but the billions, then your idea isn’t good enough,” he said. “That’s not to say you can’t have niche applications, but my point is that to make generational change, the majority of people in this [or any] room are going to have to consume different products from different places.”
The market will help those massive scales be realized, Liedtke said, because consumers will begin to force market change, as they have with other products already.
“If you give people the chance they’ll vote with their wallets,” he said. “Look at electric vehicles, they’ve crested at 5 percent of all car sales and that’s the tipping point to 20 percent. There are plenty of use cases out there. Think about plant-based milks. When I was younger there was stuff you had to choke down, but now, who doesn’t prefer oat milk?”
The message of the name “Unless Collective” is one of burden, responsibility and the dread of cataclysm, but Haverhals closed the discussion with a hopeful reminder of the replenishing nature of regeneration.
“There is already life in the soil that sequesters carbon dioxide using solar energy,” he said. “It’s at such an enormous scale, as long as you take care of the soil we can’t possibly exhaust it.”