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Reebok Cotton And Corn 2
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How Reebok Unleashed the Beast and Made Vegan Sneakers

Date: December 11 2018

By: Sebastian Bugeja-Drinkell

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The world is becoming more woke than ever before. Socially conscious people are on the rise and, for the first time in history, we are completely aware of how our consumerist actions affect our beloved planet earth.

When we got wind that Reebok dropped a 100 per cent vegan and sustainable sneaker, we linked up with Bill McInnis, Head of the Reebok Future program, to discuss topics ranging from veganism to environmentally friendly practices. Back in August, Reebok released the NPC UK Cotton and Corn, which saw them create a sneaker from ‘things that grow’. Recently, they have dropped an updated version, which as well as being environmentally friendly is 100 per cent vegan.

How is this release different from the pair released in August?
This latest release of the NPC UK Cotton and Corn is 100 per cent vegan. The original NPC UK Cotton and Corn that launched in August featured a piece of vegetable-tanned leather, which has since been replaced with a vegan-friendly material. The finished shoe is still a bio-based product as well. It’s made from things that grow vs. petroleum (oil) products like most footwear.

What inspired the design and the patterns/colours used? Can you colour vegan materials the same as others? 
We specifically chose the NPC silhouette because we know there’s a market for that look already. It’s a classic Reebok profile that we already know our consumer likes. What’s new is what it’s made of — so you get the look people expect from Reebok, but the materials (the cotton mesh upper and the corn-based bottom) are all new.

The vegan materials will take conventional colour dyes, but we’re actively exploring using vegetable-based dyes. The current shoe is un-dyed. That’s the natural colour of cotton mesh/canvas. Our next launch will add three new colours using dyes that are free of animal products or byproducts.

How long have you been working on this project?
We have been working on creating a variety of sustainable solutions for the last five years or so. It’s been a variety of paths though, from bio-based solutions like Cotton and Corn, fully compostable solutions, and recycling. This is just the first piece to come to market.

Can you speak about an unexpected challenge in making the shoe, and how your team handled it?
When you’re working in the sustainable space, most of the materials and processes are new. And ‘new’ is typically more expensive; sometimes a lot more expensive. The biggest challenge was delivering a sustainable solution that was reasonably affordable. In the past you had a standard response to sustainable products which was ‘everyone wants them, but no one wants to pay for them’. We’re starting to see a new consumer in millennials where that is no longer quite true.  

Who was this sneaker produced for? Did you have an ideal consumer in mind when making it?
This is for our young, engaged Reebok Classics consumer. The silhouette was specifically chosen with them in mind. The how and where of storytelling around the shoe was also developed with them in mind.

Say someone wears these out and chucks them in the compost — are they going to break down?
Cotton + Corn is a bio-based solution first (i.e. made from things that grow). The ultimate goal and what we’re working on right now is a fully compostable shoe. The current version of the shoe features an upper made of 100 per cent cotton, and a corn-based sole containing 75 per cent USDA certified bio-based content, which no other footwear in the market can claim. We can’t make claims around compostability yet though.

Why do you think it’s taken so long for vegan sneakers to penetrate the market?
The simple answer is that the demand hasn’t really been there for it until now. Recently we are seeing consumers, particularly younger consumers, willing to pay more for vegan and sustainable products.

Can this technology extend to performance wear? If not, what are the barriers?
That’s certainly one of our target goals; to replicate all the materials currently used in performance products with sustainable alternatives. One of the barriers near term is creating sustainable foam. We’ve successfully created a substitute for synthetic rubber, but getting a foam alternative has been more of an ongoing challenge. We’re working on it though.

What is Reebok’s mission with vegan and environmentally conscious sneakers?
The ultimate goal is to make everything we make more sustainable. It certainly won’t happen all at once, but each and every step we take in a more sustainable direction is a step in the right direction.

When will this mission extend to other sneaker models?
We’re working on future models right now. I can’t provide release dates yet unfortunately.

The sole contains 75 per cent USDA certified bio-based content. Is 100 per cent the goal?
Yes, we’re in a relatively new space here. So you take things as far as you can while maintaining the integrity of the product. The idea is we’re about continually improving and expanding on the palette of sustainable materials that we can use throughout our range. We’re not waiting for one perfect solution — we’re building to it.

What’s next from the revolutionary sustainability program?
With regard to this program, it’s broadening the material palette as I mentioned, and digging deeper into compostability and all that entails. It’s important to consider that sustainability in this industry is not only happening in areas apparent to the consumer like Cotton + Corn. There are much larger programs across our entire organisation, such as the Better Cotton Initiative and water-based dyes and adhesives. As a brand, Reebok is working on sustainability projects. There’s really no time in the conceivable future that we would ever consider our sustainability work done.

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