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Sustainability Drives Innovation at The Materials Show

After 25 years, The Materials Show continues to be a hub for footwear and material innovations, a source for design inspiration and a gathering place for the industry’s brightest minds.

The trade event, founded by former Nike materials manager Hisham Muhareb, celebrated its milestone last week in Portland, Oregon. The show’s long-term success highlights the importance of experiencing materials firsthand.

“Raw material shows will stay strong forever,” Muhareb said. “You can’t touch through a screen—that’s the strength of the show.”

And as consumers become more knowledgeable about the products they purchase—be it the story behind the brand, the technology, where it came from and how it was made—Muhareb believes it is more necessary than ever for the footwear industry to absorb information about new innovations.

Sustainability is at the crux of innovation. “It isn’t a buzzword or a fad. No one wants to waste, but every component needs to be setting a new standard,” said Hisham Muhareb, The Materials Show founder.

Open-cell foam manufacturer OrthoLite is doing its part. The insole maker bowed Eco Hybrid, a foam made from upcycled scraps from its own production floor.

The company collects scraps of foam, grinds the waste down into small pieces and blends it with virgin foam. The result is a product that contains 15 percent pre-consumer recycled foam, 5 percent recycled rubber and 80 percent proprietary open-cell foam. The price neutral innovation uses less petroleum and less energy, while adding less to the landfill, too.

Skip Lei, OrthoLite VP of innovation and strategic partnerships, said major athletic brands and boot companies searching for sustainable components at the show responded positively to the new product.

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“The uber trends show that everyone is moving toward recycling and sustainability,” he said. “Brands want this. We’re just one part of a shoe, but we’re always looking to make it better.”

Goodyear is turning its attention to sustainability. The tire company is fine-turning its message to the footwear market with new products like UltraGrip Z Max, a non-slip performance rubber with an asymmetric tread design, and R51, a technology that reclaims used rubber to its uncured state.

Sustainability Drives Innovation The Materials Show

The technology is part of Goodyear’s 2018 circularity initiative. For R51, Goodyear collects its own rubber scraps and blends it with a percentage of virgin rubber to create a new compound that meets the company’s high physical standards.

Whereas a lot of companies promote the use of recycled rubber, Jesse Pasternak, vice president of Polyconix Corp., the manufacturer of Goodyear brand shoe components, said the company can guarantee a verifiable chain of custody.

“We can tell you exactly where this material is coming from. That isn’t an easy thing to do with recycled materials,” he said.

Vibram aims to reduce weight and materials with Lite Base. The new outsole features a textile molded into the sole to add durability, while eliminating the amount of rubber used. The outsole comes at a premium cost. However, brands have a lightweight and sustainable story to share with consumers.

Seoul-based Atko Planning Inc. tackles waste by recycling leather scraps. Inspired by the tried-and-true catchphrase “reuse, recycle, reduce,” the environment friendly company produces 100 percent eco-recycled leather.

After collecting investigating scraps for quality control, the leather goes into Atko’s patented manufacturing process that requires no additional water, pollutants or toxic substances. The final product is 40 percent lighter than most leather and reduces costs by about 40 percent.

Atko’s process also requires fewer production steps—a benefit that falls in line with the market’s demand for speed.

One of the most industry-changing trends Muhareb has seen happen in the footwear sector is speed to market.

While churning out a T-shirt requires less time and fewer suppliers, Muhareb believes footwear is learning from fashion on how to turn over product to market faster.

“It used to be 12 to 18 months before you saw a finished product,” he said. “Now it’s shifting toward 3 to 9 months and that changes everything—the production cycle, forecasting—but the consumer is asking for it.”

It’s a demand that sneaker companies especially feel due to the popularity of athleisure footwear. As a result, more design directors and designers are attending The Materials Show.

“It used to be that just the material managers would come to the show and report back, but designers want to see what’s out there and be inspired by materials,” Muhareb said.

Ecco Leather found inspiration from the denim world for its new collection of indigo-dyed leather. The concept for the collection, said Adam Norton, Ecco Leather key account manager, is based on merging two sectors that value craftsmanship.

Ecco Leather
Ecco Leather

The tannery was experimenting with hand-dipping leather into indigo. It then developed a way to achieve the same effects in a more production-friendly processes using drums. Indigo cow and camel leathers are available. However, Norton said camel—with its scars and scratches—really pops and takes on an authentic denim appearance.

Sport continues to influence leather as well. Ecco presented Apparition, a translucent leather that can be used as uppers or overlays, and Lenticular, a striped embossed leather. The tannery is also playing with leathers imagined with engineered mesh to great a hologram effect.

Ecco’s Dyneema bonded leather continues to gain traction. The tannery is working with an exclusive range of brands from multiple categories to further develop the collection.

Still, Norton said there’s a hunger for the classics. “People want to see innovation. Innovation gets them here, but classic looks speak the most to people,” he said.

In a stronger economy, Norton said high prices come down, allowing people to make traditional looks at affordable prices. “It’s not like 2014 when people were looking for alternatives,” he added.

The demand for heritage is giving waxed cotton a boost. Thomas Weinbender, the U.S. West sales agent for waxed cotton manufacturer Weinbender Textiles, said more footwear brands are turning to waxed cotton to add a traditional yet durable look to their collections.

Waxed cotton’s roots are in the outdoor and hunting markets. However, with casual footwear brands like OluKai releasing shoes with waxed cotton uppers, Weinbender expects to see it become more mainstream in street style.

The company is also seeing an uptick in waxed wool as consumers warm up to textile footwear—a shift in consumer perception lead by the popularity of Nike’s FlyKnit sneakers and Allbirds’ wool athleisure collection.

Sustainability Drives Innovation The Materials Show
Weinbender Textiles

Suppliers aim to keep textures and finishes interesting. Release paper manufacturer Sappi introduced new holographic structures and nano textures that refract light. The release papers turn ordinary leather into party-friendly footwear.

That same festival vibe was carried into a range of TPU materials from Huachang. The company presented a roster of novelty materials spanning glitter, sparkle and holographic embossed croc, to color shifting microfiber and pearlized marble TPU.

Sustainability Drives Innovation The Materials Show

Huachang’s most interactive materials—heat sensitive and water sensitive TPUs—change appearance when either in the sunlight or wet.

Both Huachang and Ding Shuenn Enterprises touted reflective hologram materials. The materials glow under flashes of light. Manny Lin, a sales rep for Ding Shuenn, said the PU material has been popular for trims in the running category.

Running footwear is driven by material innovation. Jones & Vining captured the category’s attention with PerfX, a patent pending breathable polyurethane formulation that provides superior comfort without breaking down.

Jones & Vining
Jones & Vining

Thomas Iredale, Jones & Vining senior vice president of sales and marketing, said the material is 30 to 35 percent lighter than conventional polyurethane and outperforms all other lightweight footbed options.

While EVA can lose 50 percent of its geometry over time, Iredale said PerfX sees a reduction of just 15 percent. Brands conducting internal testing report the same results after 200 or 300 miles, he added.

PerfX was designed with running in mind, but Iredale said its breathability makes it a good proposition for the work footwear category as well.

“This product is good for anyone that wants to make a better environment for the foot,” he said.