The so-called “post-petroleum” shoe, Veja’s new sustainable running shoes, join the growing number of eco-friendly running trainers.
But wait, does that mean your current running shoes are made from petroleum? It’s highly likely the answer is yes.
In fact, sneakers have one of the heaviest carbon footprints of anything we wear. A study conducted by MIT found a typical pair of running shoes generates approximately 13.6 kilograms of CO2 emissions. “Unusually high,” comments Randolph Kirchain, one of the co-authors of the research, for a product that does not use electricity or require power-driving components. The bulk of emissions come from manufacturing, which is unsurprising considering the production processes and materials involved.
In fact, the footwear industry as a whole relies on petroleum as it’s essentially the source of plastic, with running shoes, in particular, dependent on the greasy, goopy stuff. In order for running shoes to do their job by stabilising the foot and soften the impact, the typical shoe ends up being made almost entirely from plastic and foam.
Although we know these materials are a calamity, the truth is that they are cheap and practical. Beyond the cool designs and endless colourways, running shoes have to have flexibility, strength, and memory; with plastic being the best and cheapest material to deliver on this.
“The typical running shoe is completely made of plastic,” Veja co-founder Sébastien Kopp explained to Vogue. “And what is plastic? Ninety-nine per cent petroleum.” Petroleum-derived plastics include polyester, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). “Our society’s dependence on plastic and oil is an ecological and social disaster,” he adds.
The difference here with Veja’s first ever performance running shoe, the Condor, is that it’s made from 53% natural or recycled materials including wild Amazonian rubber, jute, and banana oil. The sole is a combination of wild Amazonian rubber, rice waste and synthetic rubber, whereas the upper is made from a mesh created using plastic bottles picked up on the streets of Rio and Sao Paolo.
Whilst 53% of the shoe is made from natural and recycled materials, the remaining 47 percent is rubber and virgin plastic, specifically ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), much to the makers’ frustrations.
Image courtesy: Veja | Arthur Wollenweber
It’s a number that co-founder Sébastien Kopp says is an honest, if improvable, entry point for a running shoe made by an independent, self-funded company. Afterall, they are competing against the likes of Everlane and Allbirds, who have both received huge amounts of funding to develop trainers that are more fit for stylishly hitting the city pavements, while Adidas has been pumping millions into R&D projects around sustainable footwear.
Designed for long runs (but not serious marathons), the goal was to incorporate more bio-based ingredients while ensuring that the shoe could reliably pound the pavement for a couple of years without falling apart. They quickly realised that replacing virgin plastic was much easier in the shoe’s superficial components. A mesh upper made entirely from recycled plastic bottles comes in gray, white, neon yellow, and black. The brand’s signature V decal is constructed from 100 percent castor oil, while the lining on the inside of the shoe is made from organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles.
However, the main structure of the shoe was more difficult. The outsole, the inner sole and the midsole are all commonly made from plastic, and every company has its own tightly held recipe for its foam’s fit and feel.
Nevertheless, since the Condor is less performance-based than something like Adidas or Nike’s marathon-ready trainers, it meant Veja could experiment with some of the materials in its sole. According to Veja, their material scientists spent three years searching for a mix of ingredients that would create a strong outsole that wasn’t pure synthetic rubber. They landed on a mixture of 30 per cent wild rubber, 39 per cent synthetic rubber, and 31 per cent rice husk that makes the sole light but firm.
Image courtesy: Veja | Arthur Wollenweber
The midsole, too, is a combination of bio-based and synthetic materials. Fifty-five percent of the midsole is made from regular EVA—a modern, if environmentally destructive, marvel of material science known for its lightweight bounciness. For the other half, Veja created a bio-based foam made from banana oil (for flexibility), rice husk (for firmness), and sugarcane, the latter of which is quickly becoming a common replacement for petroleum-based materials like EVA. For the insole, Veja concocted a mixture of regular EVA, jute, wild rubber, recycled plastic bottles, and recycled EVA that comes from the scraps generated during production.
The end product is still a shoe made with plastic, but less so than before. This incremental approach is the most realistic—and honest—way to banish virgin plastic from the shoe production cycle, Kopp says. “The best way to prevent greenwashing is to talk about the present,” he says.
Thanks to Veja transparency, it’s possible to see areas like this where there are limitations in the availability of sustainable materials that perform well enough for these important pieces of sports equipment. Absorbing shock is vitally important in performance footwear and, whilst Veja have managed to reduce the quantity of EVA in their shoes it is still essential to their running optimisation.
EVA is not currently a commonly recyclable material.
While most winter parka jackets are made out of nylon, twill, or maybe waxed cotton, The North Face have come out with one made from synthetic spider silk.
The North Face Moon Parka, a prototype jacket created using a new material called Qmonos that promises to be stronger than steel, is a special edition coat from The North Face that’s currently on an exhibition tour of the company’s Japanese stores. With a very special, luminescent shell; the material is made from an ersatzspider silk developed by Japanese company Spiber, a biotechnology company engaged in the development of synthetic protein materials.
Image courtesy: Spiber
According to Spiber’s website, the company is still working to increase yield, which will be vital to bringing this and other synthetic silk products to market The advantages of Spiber’s material over existing fabrics have yet to be made public, aside from the obvious. At the same time, The North Face still hasn’t settled on a price point for the jacket. In other words: there’s still plenty to be worked out. Even if these gold coats make their way to market, don’t expect to see synthetic spider silk everywhere just yet.
Image courtesy: Polymers grown in the lab, using no fossil fuels or petroleum | Spiber
This jacket is more a proof of concept if you like. Spiber President Kazuhide Sekiyama launched the company in 2007 with a seemingly straightforward mission: to develop polymers with the near-magical properties of spider silk that can be produced sustainably, at scale.
And it’s not a new idea. Spider silk is renowned for its strength and resiliency; it’s tougher than Kevlar by weight but more elastic and responsive than fibres like cotton, making it a highly covetable material for manufacturers—especially those in the automobile, aeronautics, and military industries.
The thing is, farming silk from spiders isn’t as simple as harvesting wool from sheep, or milk from cows. It takes a lot of spiders a lot of time to produce not a lot of silk. What’s more, arachnids housed together in captivity have a nasty habit of eating one another. Consequently, researchers have been searching for a way to mass-produce synthetic spider silk for years. Usually, this involves inserting genes from spiders into other organisms—yeast, alfalfa, and even goats have been genetically modified to produce synthetic spider silk proteins.
To date, nobody has been able to manufacture synthetic silk on par with the real stuff. But companies like Spiber are getting closer.
Image courtesy: Spiber
Spiber, for its part, uses genetically modified bacteria to produce its synthetic silk proteins.Researchers feed the bacteria sugar, which they turn into synthetic silk proteins. Those proteins are spun into silk polymers through an extrusion nozzle with microscopic holes that are meant to mimic a spider’s silk-spinning organ. Spiber has over 650 types of polymers in its lab and it’s an entirely biological process. One that Spiber says requires no fossil fuels or petroleum.
Course, Spiber isn’t the first to this discovery. California based Bolt Threads announced last year that it had managed to make synthetic spider silk at scale.
Image courtesy: Spiber
Spiber and The North Face haven’t settled on a price yet but they are in the process of getting the Moon Parka ready for market. Plus, in the interest of Spiber’s ultimate goal, which is to “push humanity away from petroleum-based materials and toward a more sustainable future”, they hope to keep the cost as low as possible.
The epitome of circularity, Recover Yarn is one of those miracle materials that allows for a closed-loop and sustainable fashion industry.
Get this. In 1947 the Ferre family, in their native Banyeres de Mariola, a small town in Alicante, Spain, began recycling textile waste into cotton yarn and have been turning waste into resources ever since. Most proud of pioneering sustainable materials and processes, Ferre allows for a truly closed-loop fashion industry. In 2006, the company launched its unique system of textile waste collection and recycling, named Recover; a name that defines both the company’s process and purpose. Then in 2015, the Recover Upcycled Textile System was officially launched and today has led to the company becoming an authority in upcycled cotton yarn.
So, how does it work exactly?
Used clothes and old textile waste are deposited at collection bins for re-wear or recycling, and then recovered and sorted from all over the planet. Led by a team of experts in textiles, fashion and sustainability who work to propel the development of a closed-loop industry, the Recover Upcycled Textile System upcycles textile waste into new Recover fibre by cutting, shredding and spinning what was once considered “waste” into valuable new recover yarns. The Recover yarns are then knitted or woven into new textiles for virtually every product imaginable, from clothing, accessories, and home goods. And, once used and eventually worn-out, they can be returned to the Recover Upcycled Textile System where they close the loop and begin the journey of recovery once more.
Not only does Recover Upcycled Cotton Yarns score the best in the Higg MSI Index that measures and scores the environmental impact of materials used in creating textile products, but their materials are free of hazardous substances, and exceeds ZDHC and Reach Compliance (calculated through LCA work).
So, what are the materials helping to close-the-loop on fashion?
Recover R WOOL (natural)
This new yarn is an upcycled blend of post-industrial wool cutting scraps, recycled PET bottles, and Nylon 6.6, designed for maximum strength and softness.
Recover R EARTH (upcycled and natural)
This new yarn is a natural blend of Recover Upcycled Cotton and virgin organic cotton for comfort and durability.
Recover R Uno (upcycled cotton)
The first family of Recover Upcycled Cotton yarns blended with virgin fibres for specific performance, comfort and value.
Recover R Blue (100% upcycled blend)
A classic blend of Recover Upcycled Cotton and post-consumer RPET bottles, designed for comfort and all types of fashion.
Recover R Tech (Upcycled performance)
A high-performance yarn designed for technical applications; wicking, breathable and quick-dry blend of RPET bottles and Recover Upcycled Cotton.
Recover R3 (Upcycled Triblend)
A soft and sheer tri-blend of Recover Upcycled Cotton, RPET Bottles and Tencel®, for fashion garments specifically.
Recover R Jeans (Upcycled Denim Garments)
The state of the art in garments recycling, Recover R Jeans is made using a natural blend of Recover Upcycled Cotton from (pre-and-post-consumer) denim garments and organic cotton.
And there you have it. Certified by Global Recycled Standard, as well as OEKO-TEX Standard 100, Recover is trusted worldwide as one of the leading recycled cotton yarn systems, creating long-lasting, high-value, and importantly, lowest-impact products for many life-cycles to come.
For all their glittering appeal, sequins are pretty awful for the environment. Most are made from petroleum plastics and synthetic resin – materials that are not only damaging to natural ecosystems but also to the workers tasked with sewing them on to garments by hand. Given the amount of sequins it takes to make a single garment, it presents a big big problem.
Designer Elissa Brunato is hoping to change this by creating sustainable sequins that shimmer without the use of chemicals. Winner of the Creative Review Innovation Award – a new prize founded in partnership with the MullenLowe NOVA Awards to celebrate creative projects which solve a problem, she developed the Bio Iridescent Sequin, a shimmering bead made from natural cellulose that is more sustainable than regular plastic sequins.
Instead of using petroleum-based plastic, Central Saint Martins graduate Brunato has developed a way of making glittering disc-shaped beads from bioplastic based on cellulose extracted from trees. The cellulose’s crystalline form refracts light and makes the sequins naturally shimmery, without the need for chemical treatment.
With her bio sequins, Brunato is hoping to help tackle a major issue in fashion and textiles and prove that natural materials can be just as beautiful as manmade ones.
Image courtesy: Elissa Brunato
Brunato worked with material scientists at RISE Research Institutes in Sweden to develop sequins using cellulose derived from wood. These sequins are as lightweight as their plastic counterparts but are completely biodegradable and can be grown in moulds in as little as 24 hours.
“Cellulose is one of the most abundant polymers available on earth. It is one of the main ingredients plants are constructed from and you can extract it from any type of tree,” Brunato explained to Dezeen recently.
“As the material forms very strong bonds, the sequins are light and use very little cellulose per sequin,” explained Brunato.
Image courtesy: Elissa Brunato
“In the future, the cellulose could originate from anything from fruit peels, or algae to used denim and waste paper.”
Brunato developed the Bio Iridescent Sequin after talking to sequin suppliers and realising there was a growing demand for more sustainable materials from fashion brands such as Stella McCartney and the LVMH group, whose brands include Louis Vuitton and Fenty.
“For a tree, as in the case of the first sequins I’ve made, the cellulose takes about a hundred years to form sufficiently. This is remarkably short in comparison to crude oil, which takes thousands of years to form,” explained Brunato.
Image courtesy: Elissa Brunato
The sequins are currently at the development stage. The next steps include industrial testing for their biodegradable performance.
Dresses embroidered with sequins have seen a resurgence in popularity recently but experts fear that plastic sequins are disastrous for the environment.
As a result, designers are increasingly looking for ways to produce more sustainable materials for the fashion industry. Bolt Threads is a start-up in California that is experimenting with a type of silk made using yeast and sugar, which has been used to make a dress by Adidas x Stella McCartney. While Canadian footwear brand Native Shoes has developed the world’s 100% biodegradable trainer made from eucalyptus and pineapple husk.