Most runners have simple needs when picking a pair of shoes. Speed. Comfort. Injury prevention.
But an increasing number of shoe companies hope consumers will think about something a bit more complex: their environmental footprints.
Just check out the shoes that Reebok unveiled Tuesday. Nearly all materials in Reebok’s typical running shoes are petroleum-based. Not these kicks: They come from plants.
The foam midsole is made out of castor bean oil, the outsole from the natural latex found in rubber trees. The sock liner features foam made from algae, and the upper will be made from eucalyptus fibers.
These shoes, christened the Forever Floatride Grow, should be available next fall.
Roughly half of Reebok’s R&D resources, led by Bill McInnis, are focused on sustainability measures. In 2017, Reebok announced its “Cotton + Corn” initiative, for casual footwear. The first shoes in that line had uppers made of organic cotton and a base made from corn. Though not entirely made of plant materials, those shoes come close at roughly 75 percent.
It proved to be tougher to come up with a running shoe, with its added performance demands, in that mold. Particularly tricky was crafting a midsole cushion made from plant materials. The result needed to be at least as good as a comparable petroleum-based shoe. Reebok’s R&D squad, nicknamed the Future team, kept at it, over several years. Researchers at the Boston company eventually came up with the Forever Floatride Grow, an 8-ounce shoe that will be mass-produced, like other Reeboks, by a contract manufacturer in Vietnam. The expected price? $120 a pair.
Keeping the weight and the price down was challenging, though an 8-ounce shoe is on the lighter side and the $120 price tag is comparable to what many other higher-end running shoes cost.
Reebok president Matt O’Toole said his company is the first to design a plant-based “performance shoe.” He anticipates that consumer demand will be high, judging in part from the interest in the Cotton + Corn shoes. Sustainable production is becoming increasingly important, he says, particularly among younger buyers.
These shoes are not 100 percent made of plants, at least not yet. For example, the adhesives are not plant-based, and some petroleum is used in the processing. The shoe won’t be commercially compostable. But Reebok says the ultimate goal is to remove as much petroleum from the manufacturing as possible, and to sell shoes that are completely biodegradable.
Other shoe companies are racing against Reebok.
For example, Boston-based New Balance recently introduced a shoe made of surplus materials, such as factory scraps, that sells for $180. (No two shoes are the same.) And in October, New Balance began selling eco-friendly versions of several sneakers that featured recycled polyester in the linings and algae in the shoe inserts (from Bloom, the same algae supplier for Reebok).
Reebok is cagey about comparing the environmental footprints of its plant-based shoes with its traditional ones. A spokesman said the company doesn’t have statistics that illustrate the differences. The environmental impact is obviously smaller with a plant-based shoe, he said, but Reebok hasn’t quantified how much smaller.
Not everyone is sold on the environmental benefits.
David Tyler, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in plastics, says he’s inherently skeptical: Materials are not automatically better for the environment because they’re made out of plants.
To know for sure, Tyler says, the Reebok shoes would need to undergo a life-cycle assessment that factors in variables such as farming and transportation impacts.
(Reebok said such third-party reviews can take up to a year, and the exact makeup of the Forever Floatride Grow needs to be finalized before it can be submitted for assessment.)
For now, at least, Reebok can reap some marketing benefits that come with being viewed as an eco-friendly shoe brand.
It’s a noble goal, helping to save the planet. Reebok’s stated plan: to do it one step at a time.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.