After five years of trial and error in R&D that created some “spectacular failures” along the way, Reebok’s 18-strong Future team came up with a smart-looking, $95 casual lifestyle sneaker made primarily of cotton and corn that quickly sold out at launch on reebok.com.
The story of how the eco-friendly NPC UK Cotton+Corn shoe came to fruition started with the innovation-focused Future team, helmed by head of future Bill McInnis, “sitting around a table and doing all the research we could on sustainability in general.”
“Which piece do we want to attack first?” McInnis said.
For Reebok, the first attack happened on the materials side of the product creation process. In the athletic sector, shoes tend to be made of synthetic, petroleum-based and chemical-laden materials like rubbers and foams that aren’t sustainable or good for the environment. Discarded, worn-out sneakers typically end up in the landfill, where they can take as much as 40 years to break down back into the earth. Consumers in the U.S. toss an estimated 300 million pairs of shoes annually, contributing to an environmental crisis of escalating proportions.
That means the simple act of designing footwear with replenishable materials would represent a “big step in the right direction,” McGinnis noted.
In the search for a suitable eco-smart material for the shoe sole, Reebok became interested Susterra, a product produced by chemical innovation firm Dupont Tate & Lyle that uses kernels from domestic industrial corn and returns the unwanted husks and other waste to other applications. McInnis said China’s Wanhua Group uses the Susterra combined with the usual cocktail of fillers and binding agents to create the final resin that forms the sole of the NPC UK Cotton+Corn shoe, with 75 percent of the shoe bottom derived from corn.
The “super, super simple” upper is made entirely from cotton and cotton stitching sourced out of India through the Better Cotton Initiative, resulting in a shoe for which the primary materials were once living, breathing plants. Manufacturing was handled by one of Reebok’s regular factories in Asia.
While the NPC UK Cotton+Corn’s quick dot-com sellout is encouraging, McInnis said that ultimately, whether the shoe will be scalable comes down to continuing consumer demand.
“Like a lot of other products, it’s expensive to make small quantities of it,” he explained. “When you scale it up to the hundreds of thousands and millions of pairs, it comes much more closely in line with [the cost of] traditional products.”
Consumers never get to see the blood, sweat and misfires that had to happen in order to make something like the NPC UK Cotton+Corn shoe. Some of the earliest scrapped designs looked like the “Prius of shoes,” McInnis noted—very different and “out there.” With some market research and consumer insights, Reebok ultimately circled back to a style of shoe “we already knew people liked.”
McInnis said Reebok would like to bring plant-based materials into its performance footwear at some point. “The trick that we’re working on is making a foam out of these same materials,” he said. The Cotton+Corn’s cup sole features lattice-work design that provides cushioning—the “simplest construction style we make,” he continued. Coming up with a plant-based foam that offers comparable performance to the exact same or superior standards as synthetic options is much more difficult.
Because the footwear industry has lagged in innovation, developing Cotton+Corn was not without its struggles.
“I think the most challenging thing, certainly on front end, is there’s not a lot of off-the-shelf products you can start with,” McInnis said. “You really have to find them and combine them…and get the right people to work with you.”
There’s no shortage of traditional footwear materials and components but “when you jump off into this area, it’s a different ballgame,” he added. “You’re talking to different companies than you talk to in the footwear industry, and you’re trying to put things together in a different way.”
And on the manufacturing end, convincing factories that products can be created in a new way tends to be an uphill battle. “Part of the struggle is how do you keep them from steering it back into the funnel of ‘why don’t we make it the way we’ve always made it?” McInnis noted.
Understanding how important the consumer is to future product iterations, Reebok decided to offer Cotton+Corn online only to capture customer data and determine how much interest there is in a shoe built with alternative materials. “When you launch with a retail partner, you don’t get much more than sell-through data,” McInnis observed.
Reebok is currently producing a broader assortment of the sold-out Cotton+Corn model for a November drop, though it may expand on the design further down the road. “There’s some value in sticking to a recognizable single shoe for first six months to a year of the launch,” McInnis aid. “Once people get the gist of it, we can make other cup sole shoes.”