Last week Reebok announced the debut of its biodegradable Corn + Cotton shoe initiative, which is part of an effort to make shoe production more eco-friendly.
The shoe is a product of the Reebok Future team, who hope that shoes — often made from toxic petroleum derivatives and non-recycled fabrics — can have a greener lifecycle in the apparel world from start to finish. “I’ve been in this industry for more than 20 years now and I’ve traveled to Asia to see the front end of the process of production, and when you consider what people do with shoes when they’re done with them, the back end of the process isn’t clean either,” says Bill McInnis, head of Reebok Future. “We want to make the entire process of creating, owning, and disposing of shoes better for the wearer and the world.”
After dedicating five years to the project to find the perfect mix of materials and design, the Future team designed the Corn + Cotton shoes with a canvas upper, rounded toe box, and a thick sole. They look a lot like any other casual lifestyle shoe you would be sporting on a day out on the streets — which is exactly what McInnis and his team wanted. But they’re 100 percent compostable and will break down into plant matter (just like an apple core you throw on the ground) whenever you’re done with them and they’re properly disposed of. “No one wants to put up with less when they’re wearing a plant-based product,” he says. “Most of the time you get something that looks like a shoe, but the styling isn’t up to snuff or the fit is off or the durability isn’t there. We made sure we were ticking all the boxes that we would tick with any other Reebok shoe before we came out with the Corn + Cotton shoe.”
So while the soles of the sneakers are made from a pure, petroleum-free, non-toxic, USDA-certified bio-based product derived from field corn, and the upper is made from 100 percent recycled cotton, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you didn’t know. The shoes went through the same product tests as all other Reebok sneakers — passing wear tests, fit tests, and getting feedback from product testers. “The most common piece of feedback we got from testers was that they couldn’t tell the difference between this shoe and a normal, non-biodegradable shoe,” McInnis says.
So if you can’t tell the difference, then how will people know to do something different when disposing of their Corn + Cotton sneakers instead of just throwing them in the trash like any other sneaker? “It doesn’t make any sense to go to the effort of creating something biodegradable if it just ends up in the landfill with all the other shoes,” he says. “So to avoid that, the next big release we have is going to be the whole plan we have created that allows Corn + Cotton shoes to be processed in the right way. It’s a bio-compost initiative that will be coming soon.”
In other words, the biodegradable sneakers are just the beginning of a larger plan coming from Reebok to create an entire platform of more eco-friendly products and processes. McInnis hopes the same tech they are using now will be applicable to every shoe in Reebok’s repertoire, from lifestyle to performance running, as well as apparel. “What’s important to us is that people understand that a pair of biodegradable shoes is the starting point that is going to kick off a whole range,” he says. “There is more and more to follow.”