Shoes Made out of Corn? First-ever Plant-based Shoe by Reebok A Great Case in Innovation at Work!

Reebok is an American-inspired global brand with a deep fitness heritage and the mission to design and create the best gear and experiences for the sport of fitness and for fitness athletes around the globe. Reebok strives to inspire people everywhere to be their absolute best – physically, mentally and socially.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Andrews, Reebok’s Development Footwear Project Leader has always been committed to finding new materials to produce superior performance shoes for Reebok’s demanding customers.  Starting at Reebok 22 years ago, he began working in 3D Printing, but moved into a product development role, and later to the Project Leader for Reebok’s Advanced Development for the Future program.  Projects in this initiative have a 3 to 5 year planning horizon, and operates somewhat as a “skunkworks” within Reebok to explore innovative new technologies.  Mike notes that “Development suits me because it involves knowing a little about everything!”

“About 4 years ago I was approached by my boss, the Vice President of our group, who gave me a general project challenge to work on a “sustainable shoe”.  At the time, I was fairly confident and thought I knew a fair amount about the bioplastics industry, as well as sustainability initiatives that were going on at municipal and commercial levels.  I quickly learned how little I knew!  I had to start by understand the terminology, including the real meaning for recycled, biobased, biodegradable, and compostable products.”

Andrews began doing more research on materials that could go into a “sustainable shoe”, and was given another challenge by his boss:  To describe something new he had learned each day summarized in an email.  This led to an on-going effort to research new materials that could be used in Reebok’s shoes, that would meet emerging goals for sustainable supply.

Mike shared the approach he took over time.  “My initial goal was to aim high, to develop a fully compostable, fully biobased performance running shoe.  I wanted to develop a shoe that when someone went into a store, the shoe would look the same as any other shoe, and have all of the same performance capabilities, aesthetics, and cost as any other shoe on the market.  The only difference was that the shoe would also happen to be biobased, compostable, or both.  So I went to a lot of plastics trade shows, and hung around the people in the biobased corner of the shows.  I started to experiment with some of their materials to see what might work.  It was interesting that a lot of the big manufacturers weren’t doing much in the space, as they didn’t see the profit potential and the volume.  So I started working with a lot of the smaller companies, who were motivated by a vision for what they wanted the industry to be, and who were willing to nurse the biobased market along at its early stage of development.”

“As I got more into the research, it was important that the shoe have the same properties and be functionally equivalent (or better performing) than our existing shoes that are made of EVA, rubber and polyester.  We sought to find materials that would provide the same level of performance and aesthetics that were derived from sustainable material sources, which would also have the ability to degrade (compost) at the end of their useful life.”

“Although I was a bit naïve going into this project with a great idea (kind of like a concept car that has multiple goals), I quickly began to understand that the bioplastics industry is at a nascent stage of development, much like the LED lightbulb industry used to be.  Ten years ago an LED lightbulb cost $50 compared to a $1 incandescent lightbulb.  But as more people recognized the benefits of LED, they started to buy more of them, the factories began to invest in tooling to produce them in larger quantities, and today the LED is only marginally more expensive than the incandescent lightbulb, but has a longer useful life and lower total cost.”

“Likewise, the plastics industry is nowhere near this level of maturity, as the overall volume of biobased resin sold isn’t high enough to cover the production cost investments required. But as more companies start to switch over to biobased resins, as they experiment with alternative materials that they may never have considered in the past, the volumes of products using these resins will grow.  Look at what is happening in the area of disposable packaging such as forks, cups, and spoons (see the other case study in the report).  As the volumes increase, manufacturers will be able to lower the cost of the resin.  And that will be a great thing for farmers and everyone else in the supply chain!”