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Is Algae the Next Big Performance Story in Footwear?

Can the key to a more sustainable footwear industry be found in lakes and ponds? If Bloom has any say in it, maybe.

The maker of the world’s first plant-based performance foam for footwear found its key ingredient in algae. And the Meridian, Mississippi-based Bloom has created an innovative alternative to conventional foams for insoles, midsoles and outsoles by harvesting it.

Bloom launched three years ago with the goal of delivering the most performance driven materials in the most sustainable way possible. The company’s performance foam contains between 15 percent and 60 percent algae biomass, which acts as a natural polymer when combined with foaming ingredients.

When combined with EVA, for example, the algae “renatures” and becomes more of a hybrid EVA than a filler, Jon Van Drunen, Bloom sales and project manager for footwear, explained. The result is a foam that meets or exceeds performance characteristics of traditional closed-cell flexible foam.

“That’s why we can hit brands performance specs,” Van Drunen said. “Bloom is really a performance foam with an eco-story behind it. Before Bloom, footwear brands had to choose sustainability over performance, but we can give brands both at the same time.”

Instead of farming its own algae, which could have a negative effect on the environment, Bloom sources algae from freshwater sources at high risk of harmful algal blooms. By harvesting excess algae, the company said it helps keep ecologies balanced, protects vital freshwater supplies and reduces dependence on non-renewable oil, a main ingredient in conventional EVA foams.

“Algae does not require fossil fuels, water or land to grow,” Van Drunen said of the world’s fastest growing plant. “There’s other cool, sustainable alternatives, but they are food sources and take up crop land to grow.”

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Bloom makes all of its raw materials in the U.S. and partners with factories in Asia to convert the material into finished parts. More often than not, Van Drunen said Bloom works with the same factories that footwear brands are already well-acquainted with, meaning the manufacturing process and ability to adopt the sustainable component goes off without a hitch. “We work with brands’ factories directly,” he said.

Bloom’s foam has 20 percent to 41 percent fewer environmental impacts than virgin EVA. One men’s size 10.5 midsole and insole made with Bloom foam, for example, uses 62 fewer gallons of water than traditional EVA and prevents the equivalent of 47 birthday balloons worth of CO2 from being released into the environment.

Demand for Bloom’s price competitive technology is high, according to Van Drunen, and the material was named one of the five “Best in Show” products at the NW Material Show in February.

The company is working with several different brands, including Vivobarefoot, which debuted the amphibious Ultra 3 made with Bloom in 2017. But Van Drunen said the majority of products with Bloom will launch in 2020.

“The shoe development process can be lengthy, but reception is great. Brands love the story and love that they don’t lose performance when they use the material,” he said. “If we’re not in over 100 million shoes in a few years, I’ll be surprised.”