Innovation has been front and center in footwear circles—from uniquely fashioned uppers to performance-based midsoles that detect neurological diseases, and components made from algae or wine corks. But when it comes to midsoles, they’re still white, they’re still made from ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) foam and they’re still largely manufactured the same way they were in the 1980s.
The biggest pain point in footwear manufacturing today, according to Stuart Jenkins, founder of foam midsole and insole manufacturer BluMaka, is that “foam sucks.”
“Making foam sucks. Everything about it is wrong. Everything about it is archaic,” he said speaking at the recent Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America’s Sourcing and Sustainability Summit in New York City. “We do all this design work on uppers and we get to the bottom and we go, ‘give me white.’”
Though most shoe manufacturers think they’ve hit on some new advancement with the foam in their footwear, Jenkins says it’s really all the same single color, 50 durometer foam the factories say they can make. (Durometers are the unit of measure for midsole resistance and indentation. The higher the durometer, the stiffer and more resilient the midsole will be.)
“You’d like to make limited-edition product. You’d like to do exclusive formulations. None of this can you do using the current foam making process,” he said, noting that just changing colors or making a two-color midsole could cost companies almost twice as much.
What’s more, Jenkins explained, foam manufacturing has a “dirty little secret” no shoe makers in the sector want to talk about.
“All of that foam is made in a filthy, dirty, nasty, polluting process,” he said. First, it’s the costly process of cutting steel for the midsole or outsole tooling mold, then adding a silicone mold release that can run off into water sources, and then it’s the amount of water required to cool the mold down and finish the process. With that “medieval technology,” Jenkins said, “We waste one gallon of water for every single pair of foam midsoles we make.”
The single most important thing the footwear industry can do to improve sustainability more than anything else would? Stop using cut and buff EVA, Jenkins says.
“Are you really going to put out an upper that’s ‘oh, it’s organic cotton picked by virgins in somewhere,’ and put it on a cut and buff midsole and tell me you’ve got a sustainable shoe?” he posed. “That’s what we’re doing. This is the state of the foam industry.”
Foam, he said, needs to be done “faster, better, cleaner, greener and cheaper.” It should also come in multiple colors and durometers, with more MOQs and without any added cost.
And the way to do it may be with BluMaka.
The company Jenkins—who is also the owner of White Hat Innovation consultancy and was formerly SVP of innovation and product development for Deckers—founded, has set out to solve the problem of slow and expensive footwear tooling. In doing so, BluMaka has created a manufacturing process that provides for greater foam performance, design freedom and lessens the impact on the environment. All without formulating foam.
To make the midsole or insole component, BluMaka uses 85 percent granulated foam, made from recycled material (like rice husks or even ground up old flip-flops), EVA, PU, biofoam, Bloom, Poron, high-performance TPE-E, TPU, Styrofoam, silicone, neoprene, or any other foam that can be chopped up. From there, a TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) micro-skin gets added to the outer surface of the midsole to reduce deflection and help the foam recover. According to the company, the TPU skin also serves as a barrier against water, chemicals and other materials that could “deteriorate the foam’s integrity.”
“You have to start at the beginning of the process and you’ve got to start with tooling. $50,000 for a set of tools is nutso,” Jenkins said. “Shoes are a fashion item. It’s like apparel. And we make tooling for the midsoles and outsoles of our shoes like we’re building a 1954 Ford. We’ve got to change that to make sure we’re moving into a modern age so that we can do rapid tooling faster and inexpensively.”
BluMaka’s tooling solution, according to Jenkins, is 80 percent to 90 percent cheaper and four times faster. It can also incorporate up to 85 percent recycled content, and the process’s carbon footprint is as much as 90 percent lighter than traditional foam manufacturing.
“If you want to use cut and buff EVA, give us the waste from your cut and buff EVA and use it in another product,” he explained.
Color options also prove less costly, as BluMaka can pour 20 colors of PU at any one time, giving designers flexibility over a component of the shoe where they were previously limited.
Footwear manufacturers, Jenkins said, should be able to control the performance of their foam, the material that goes into it—mixing those materials for better results as they deem fit—and determine weight, hardness and density.
“If you want the bottom layer of your midsole to be 50 durometers and the middle of your midsole to be 45 and the tactile area next to your foot to be 40, we can make it that way, again, with no extra cost,” he said.
BluMaka manufactures its midsole solution in a 3,000-square-foot space, with five people who collectively produce 6,000 pairs per shift. And all of the necessary production equipment can fit into one container.
“What this does is it makes foam manufacturing nimble,” Jenkins said. “If you really want to manufacture locally, you can do local-to-local because you can just put the production line in a shipping container and move it to where you want to.”
Sourcing flexibility like that may become even more critical for footwear manufacturers backpedaling on China manufacturing amid the trade war with the U.S. and hitting on capacity constraints as they look for other locales. But one thing shoe makers won’t be able to avoid is the increasing demand for sustainability from an ever-savvier consumer.
“The craziest thing to me in the world is to be making classic shoes that are not sustainable,” Jenkins said. “And all of these can become the most sustainable product in the world if you guys want to.”