Planet Soles: How Shoe & Footwear Design Are Giving Back

You can’t deny it. From the stream of documentaries such as the Inconvenient Sequel and Before the Flood (The one by Leonardo Dicaprio) to the UN. Framework Convention on Climate Change. (UNFCCC) adopting the Paris Agreement, the planet is in trouble. And while there are people dismissing climate change altogether (read Trump), it’s encouraging to see that there are parts of the fashion industry that have taken up the green cause. Not just for PR purposes (green-washing brands we see you), but to legitimately reduce their brand’s footprint on the earth, as well as their customers’. Here at TDS, we’ve previously covered eco-friendly shoes such as Adidas Biosteel Trainers but it’s always exciting to see the different ways people are approaching greener footwear. Here are some of the concepts that have caught our eye:

[Images: Allbirds, MODS, Ki ecobe and OATS]

Mods Shoe Design

Have you noticed most of the shoes produced today have a shelf life of months? And if they should be called upon to battle the elements such as torrential downpour, you can cut that time down in half. So, this Idea by a Virginia Tech student was music to our ears. Quam Pham, the winner of the Best Student Project at the 2016 Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge, came up with the concept of Mods Shoes to prolong a shoe’s lifespan.  The modular eco-conscious design is made up of five modular units that is uses minimal material and is easy to disassemble. Consequently, the wearer could remove worn parts from the shoe, reviving it with new parts. It also means that you can give your shoes a thorough clean!

[Image: Inhabitat]

The shoe is made up of three homogeneous materials which make up the recyclable components. These are wool and bamboo textiles that make up the moisture-wicking sock lining and toe cap respectively. The sole and heel counter is made from recycled polyester that is 3d printed from plastic bottle filament.

[Image: Inhabitat]

Ki ecobe

This shoe idea also looks at shoe assembly, but with a different core purpose in mind. This modular footwear can be self-assembled under five minutes by any consumer, because it doesn’t use any glue. In the 90s, designer Gyudeog Kim  had the experience of working in a shoe production plant in South Korea. This is where he encountered the harshness of chemicals that go into the production process. Chemicals such as methyl ethyl ketone and toluene can be  found in industrial strength glue and exposure to them often causes illness, as well as, death. By eliminating glue, Kim was looking to eradicating what he considers the foulest part of the shoe manufacturing process: for the industry workers and the environment.



While factory workers sew together the inner part of the shoe, it’s up to the consumer to put together the jigsaw-puzzle like shoe. Of course, having moving parts means that the recyclable outsole can be replaced once its worn down. With 15 colours each for the Ki rubber strap, shoe laces and inboot, as well as three colours for the outsole, the customer is given customization control. But what is a real treat is the discount initiative to get customers to recycle by bringing back their worn-out shoes. That way, Kim and his team can create a closed-loop system that sees them reuse as much material as possible. Ki ecobe is already a recipient of the iF Design Award, Red Dot Design Award and Green Good Design Award.

[Image: Ki ecobe]

[Image: Ki ecobe]


OAT Shoes

These shoes don’t just decompose, they bloom as well. Founder, Christian Maats, developed the concept in 2008 that “in everything that ends lie the seeds of new beginnings.” OAT, an Amsterdam-based initiative,  introduced its first collection at the Amsterdam International Fashion Week in 2011 and walked away with the second prize in the Green Fashion Competition. The show was based on the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve saving the Tree of Life.

[Image: OAT shoes]

Rest assured, these shoes are built to last a long, long time. But once they’ve done their final lap, you can easily bury them in your back-yard garden. The non-toxic, 100% biodegradable shoes have lower seeds embedded to help draw people back into the natural cycle of life. Doesn’t hurt that you get flowers out of the deal too, does it? They followed their virgin collection with the Skin Collection. These are biodegradable sneakers made from leather from the Royal Hulshof Tanneries. Hey also made baby shoes called OATies for the Tre of Life series and shopping bags with sunflower seeds waiting to bloom.

[Image: OAT shoes]

[Image: OAT shoes]


Footprintless Shoes

10xBeta, an American-based project that brings together a team of international multidisciplinary designers and industrial thinkers, decided to make a shoe out of thin air. CO2 gas has been one of the culprits in causing the current global climate change situation. However, these engineers decided to capture these gases that are often released into the atmosphere by the energy industry and decided to make shoes. It was their entry into the Carbon XPrize global competition to show that there are possibilities when it comes to tackling CO2 emissions.


While they had considered making an Avant Garde shoe, they settled on a white sneaker design to show that it could easily fit into today’s fashion culture. And CO2 potential doesn’t end at footwear, it can be blended with other elements to make things like concrete, construction materials, fertilizers and even fuels. While they made it to excite the imagination of the masses, they dropped the bombshell that it won’t be in a store near you just yet. It’s too costly to make on a massive scale at the moment, and they’d need more polymer research before it can go commercial.

[Image: Design Indaba]


How do you make the most of the material you readily have available? Native New Zealander Tim Brown turned to the country’s trademark material, wool, to build his sneaker brand. Working with renewable materials expert Joey Zwillinger, they create the wool-based Allbirds Runner that uses wool as its chief material. Most brands opt to use synthetic materials instead. With mindful materials high on their agenda, they use ZQ Certified Merino wool whose production meets stringent standards of sustainable farming and animal welfare. AKA no sheep were hurt in the Allbirds production process. They substituted the rubber or plastic often used as the polyurethane in insoles with castor bean oil which is a natural alternative.

[Image: Business Insider]

The design is intentional. Opting for a utilitarian approach instead of loud colours, huge logos and synthetic materials to keep the shoe as mindful as possible with a small carbon footprint. The Wool Runner, Allbirds’ debut sneaker, has been touted as the  world’s most comfortable shoe by multiple reviews. The use of merino wool not only makes it an odour repellent shoe, it allows the wearer to go sockless if they so wish. Plus, it’s 100% machine-washable making it even more hassle-free. The San Francisco based brand does hope to branch into more styles and versions of the shoe soon.

[Image: Allbirds]

NIKE Shoebox

If you’re going to put all the effort into making an eco-friendly shoe, you might as well make the packaging green as well. Nike and Taiwanese architect and engineer Arthur Huang teamed up to make “sustainable and responsible” Air Max packaging. the brand’s annual Air Max Day honours the 1980’s Air Max innovation by turning pollution into a solution. This multi-functional, lightweight shoe box are made from leftover milk containers and lids and uses no additional chemicals.

[Image: NIKE]

If you don’t want to use the box to store your sneakers, customers can give the box a second life thanks to the interlocking structure system. By simply hooking a rope, it turns into a backpack. Made specifically for the Air Max Royal 01 – which is also made from recycled material –  the packaging makes this purchase twice the treat.


[Image: NIKE]

Bonus Shout Out: The Recycled PET Bunch

It’s not a new concept but we felt we still need to commend the ongoing effort to deal with the plastic bottles issue. First up is Rothy’s, the San Francisco based footwear start up uses recycled certified polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to make a filament fibre that makes sustainable shoes via 3D seamless knitting. By using the 3D machine, the brand not only has a carbon-free process, it also cuts down on waste during the production process such as defects and excess fabric disposal. In addition, it indicates that wear and tear can easily be replaced. The customers can send the shoes that need repair to their recycling partner PLUSfoam and it’s as good as new. Rothy’s lightweight shoes may only be available in two styles but there are 17 colour combinations to choose from.

[Image: Rothy’s]

Timberland also got on the plastic bottle train by teaming up with sustainable fabric manufacturer, Thread. The Timberland x Thread collaboration decided to source plastic bottles from Haiti to not only help with the ecological plight, but also create job opportunities and cleaner neighbourhoods. The fibre made from the recycled PET goes to make t-shirts, bags and five styles of men’s shoes and boots.

[Image: Timberland]

Whether you’re taking on an old concept or approaching eco-friendly design with new ideas and innovation, there’s more than enough room for fashion with a conscious. So how do you plan to make your brand greener today?


%d bloggers like this: