Material Matters: Plant-Based Sneaker Uppers
There is an increasing number of sneakerheads attempting to combine their personal beliefs with their sneaker addiction. One such crossover is more sustainable consumption by way of opting to buy vegan or plant-based sneakers. But the industry is still grappling with the pros and cons of going down that alternative route. These are some of the plant-based materials being used to make sneaker uppers today, and the challenges the industry faces as a whole in regards to the big S.
The underground root system of mushrooms, known as mycelium, is a renewable source of material that biological engineering company Bolt Threads have harnessed to create Mylo, a leather-like alternative textile. The mycelium is lab-grown and mixed with other natural materials like sawdust, forming a dense foam lattice, which is then formed into sheets of Mylo.
In late 2020, adidas, the Kering Group, lululemon, and Stella McCartney formed the Mylo Consortium in partnership with Bolt Threads. This significant investment has already seen the first imminent potential of Mylo in the sneaker industry, with the recent unveiling of the adidas Stan Smith Mylo. Potential high-end offerings from Kering brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga will only grow Mylo’s cachet.
At this stage, Bolt Threads’ main challenge is scaling up production and commercialisation of Mylo, which is still a few years away and requires continued investment by big brands to achieve mainstream acceptance.
However, adidas are far from the first footwear company to experiment with mushroom-based leather. In 2018, German companies nat-2 and Zvnder collaborated on a ‘Fungi Line’, creating a high-end sneaker with uppers made from tinder fungus turned into FUNGISKIN ‘leather’. Its 600 euro pricepoint is proof the material still has some way to go before it’s a viable alternative to more affordable (albeit less ecological) options.
Algae is a new frontier in plant-based materials being used to make sneaker uppers. Rather than being woven into a textile, particular varieties of algae can be used to create foam, which can then be injected or moulded to create one-piece sneakers and/or components. The most prominent example of this practice is the Yeezy Foam Runner, which Kanye West officially revealed last year.
As it turns out, the Yeezy Foam Runner is not completely made from algae foam; it’s still heavily composed of petroleum-based EVA foam, which isn’t exactly the most environmentally friendly material. However, once Yeezy figure out how to cultivate the supposed algae farm housed in Kanye’s 4000-acre Wyoming ranch, and thusly increase production, the ecological impact should be better felt. In the meantime, instant sell-out releases and limited quantities mean algae foam is a unique selling point rather than an industry changer. Smaller players like Vivobarefoot have also dabbled with algae foam, which does help remove the harmful growth from waterways, but the company’s relative smaller scale is yet to make a massive sweeping impact on the environmental front.
On the other hand, Reebok have made a number of ventures into using various plant sources to manufacture sneakers. In 2018, the Boston company ventured into making sneakers from ‘things that grow’ with the ‘Cotton & Corn’ NPC UK. This brief experiment was eventually superseded by the Forever Floatride GROW in 2020, which used a combination of castor beans, algae, eucalyptus trees, and natural rubber.
Pinatex is a proprietary leather alternative made by Ananas Anam using pineapples, which seems like an uncanny source! Okay, so it’s not made from the fruity flesh, but rather the plant’s leaves that are discarded during harvest. These leaves contain valuable fibre, which can be turned into a felt-like material, then is effectively compressible into leather-like sheets. Pinatex is yet to be embraced by the footwear industry, but smaller artisanal sneaker customisers like BespokeIND have begun experimenting with more alternative leathers. Like many artificial and synthetic leathers, a polyurethane resin is still required to bond Pinatex, meaning it’s not 100 per cent biodegradable.
Sneaker uppers using cork components have been a particular focus for Nike in 2021, with multiple models remade using the buoyant material. As part of the ‘Plant Cork Pack’, Nike have recovered thousands of used corks from the wine industry, and blended them into recycled materials. Sheets of pure cork have also been an increasingly popular material for fashionable items like handbags. That said, in some cases there is not complete transparency around the cultivation and production process of cork. For example, the Iberian lynx is an endangered cat species whose natural habitat is the cork tree-dense Iberian Peninsula spreading across Spain and Portugal. As this region also happens to provide up to 80 per cent of the world’s cork supply, there exists an ethical quandary about using the material.
Cultivating plant-based materials for sneaker uppers may be a potential avenue in ensuring the most sustainable and less impactful manufacturing practices, but it’s quite clear some options are still fraught with hidden harm. Some plant-based uppers may be literally just a surface level band-aid solution to an ongoing challenge. The real way to solve this complex issue is finding a material that not only lasts a long time, but will become a catalyst for long-term change. Importantly, many brands seem intent on making meaningful changes, which is a great sign for the future of our planet.
Care about where your shoes come from? Read up on more Material Matters here.