Sustainability is the retail industry’s undeniable buzzword du jour, and footwear brands and their factory partners are increasingly looking to make changes to their supply chains and the material profiles of their products.
At the Materials Show in Portland last week, footwear component manufacturers showed up in full force to showcase innovations in insole, midsole and outsole technology to increasingly ecologically-conscious brands and their suppliers.
Foam-based soles are widely recognized as some of the most environmentally harmful elements in modern footwear, made almost exclusively with non-renewable, polymer-based ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) and polyurethane (PU) compounds.
While the move away from these materials is slow-going, the industry has begun to reduce its dependence on them. Manufacturers are also looking for ways to promote recycling, circularity and waste-reduction, knowing that the move away from plastic-based foams could be years in the making.
Jones & Vining waste-free insoles
Seeking to eliminate factory floor waste, Jones & Vining’s line of foam-based insoles utilizes cutting room scraps in the creation of new product.
“Any waste that you produce can become a part of the new insole in the future. There’s no pre-consumer waste,” explained Luka Odak, the company’s VP of sales. The copious scraps that a facility creates can be re-ground and introduced back into the foam mix, he added, effectively leaving nothing behind.
Footwear manufacturers are attracted to the product not just for its environmental benefits, but because they’re seeking vertical integration in their manufacturing processes, Odak said. Reducing waste boosts efficiency, and utilizing scrap material saves money, too.
“Using more renewable sources is another part of the equation,” Odak added. The company’s PU mix is formulated from two different compounds, he explained. “We’re replacing one of them with bio-based materials, cutting down on the use of petrol oil.”
According to Maria Osborne, Jones & Vining’s account manager, the company isn’t just thinking about optimizing manufacturing processes as it moves toward a more sustainable future.
“We’re thinking about the consumer, who’s very much environmentally conscious,” she said. “We came up with our new campaign, ‘Rethink, Reform, Reboot,’ as a way to reset ourselves and think about how people are using our products and how we can be more efficient. We want to give consumers the environmental story that they’re looking for right now.”
NeuMat Innogrit 3D-printed midsoles
Although 3D printing is a process often reserved for product prototyping, NeuMat’s director, Sean Yu, said that the additive process actually lends itself to mass production, and could be especially relevant in the world of footwear midsoles.
“By definition, you don’t have any scraps or waste. All the material you’ve purchased will go into your product,” Yu explained. “The other thing we’re focused on is using thermoplastics, which are recyclable,” he added.
The company’s Innogrit midsoles are designed with varying lattice structures, marking a point of difference from traditional solid units. The makeup and design of the midsoles “saves weight and provides different options for performance,” Yu said, as well as conserving material.
Innogrit’s insoles can also be personalized to serve a wearer’s specific gait, he explained. Because they’re 3D-printed, different areas can be made more or less dense based on the support and resilience that a wearer needs. Brands can also buy pre-customized versions, which are generally tailored to different applications and activities, like running and walking.
Rogers Corp. Kushon sponge rubber insoles
The latest innovation from Rogers Corp. is only six months old, but it’s already attracted the attention of industry MVPs.
Kushon is an open-cell rubber compound made from a “100 percent renewable” resource, according to Alex Cox, the company’s sales engineer. Extracted from rubber trees in Southeast Asia, the highly-breathable material is designed to keep feet cool and dry while providing cushioning.
The manufacturing process limits waste as well, according to Cox, who said that 15 percent of the finished product is made from re-ground factory waste. “It’s a natural, fully sustainable rubber that’s being used in the footwear industry as well as yoga mats,” he added.
“There are a variety of different applications. It has some cushion, and it’s load-bearing so you have some motion control. It could be used in an orthotic application as well,” he said.
The product’s customers include makers of athletic and casual footwear, Cox said, adding that direct-to-consumer power player AllBirds is currently testing the product for its insoles.
FinProject Extralight sustainable soles
FinProject’s midsole and outsole compounds are used by casual and outdoor footwear manufacturers alike. Now, the company is touting a more sustainable option, made from industrial production waste and recycled molded products.
The process of blending the inhomogeneous components leaves the feel and function of the product unchanged from the original, according to the brand’s website. It also saves usable materials from lingering in landfills for decades, refusing to decompose.
So far, Extralight’s sustainable soles have been used by Clarks UK and Timberland, as well as other casual brands, according to Scott McNally, the company’s U.S. sales agent.
Bloom Algae foam soles
Mississippi-based midsole foam maker Bloom has found a way to harness the benefits of one of earth’s most renewable and pollution-capturing resources: algae.
The company’s performance compounds contain varying amounts of algae biomass, which are then combined with traditional foam ingredients like EVA. During that blending process, the algae’s properties change, causing it to act as a natural polymer substance would.
In fact, the company claims, hybridized foam compounds made with Bloom algae actually display comparable or superior performance to standard closed-cell foams.
“The response we’ve gotten from the market has been very encouraging,” said Ryan Hunt, co-founder of Algix, which owns Bloom. “Our customer brands are really interested in a story that provides a level of upcycling that is unique in the industry. So by using algae as a mechanism for cleaning the environment, we can actually directly upcycle pollution into a product,” he said.
Like trees and other vegetation, algae absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. Algae actually thrives in areas where CO2 emissions are high, so it’s grown to offset some of the carbon emissions around power plants and other industrial facilities.
“We have many brands who are supporting our mission to utilize Bloom to accelerate the adoption of more renewable and circular technologies,” Hunt told Sourcing Journal, pointing to partnerships with Vivobarefoot, Merrell, Adidas and more.