United By Blue, the Philadelphia-based B Corp, partnered with Sole, a Canadian brand, to make a shoe out of bison fiber and algae foam. Individually, all the pieces of this shoe are made out of natural materials.
United By Blue has become well-known for their environmental activism; each year, the brand holds clean-ups and even sends out “clean up kits” to volunteers around the country to collect trash from public parks and beaches. Each purchase equates to a certain amount of trash that will be removed through volunteer-led initiatives.
In the process, the brand has also been thinking more deeply about the materials it uses: organic cotton, hemp, bison fibers, and recycled polyesters. It’s most famous for its unique bison fiber supply chain, one that Ethan Peck of United By Blue says “was a challenging supply chain to develop.”
UBB is not alone in wanting to bring back bison to America. Patagonia has supported bison ranching and sells bison jerky in its food lineup. “Bison are able to survive the harshest Texan summers and the coldest Alaskan winters,” says Brian Linton, founder and CEO of United By Blue. “When we learned that the bison industry was growing, but the fiber was being wasted, we wanted to insert ourselves in that supply chain.”
This spring UBB has launched a shoe made of their patent-pending bison fiber. Previously, they had stuck to socks and jackets. But it made sense, Peck explains, to use it as insulation for a shoe. Globally, an estimated 25 billion shoes are manufactured, largely of the synthetic variety. When those go to landfills, they’re not going to break down. That was the impetus for UBB to partner with Sole, a company that’s become iconic for their cork soles.
This shoe, which United By Blue refers to as the “World’s Most Eco-Friendly Shoe,” debuted on Kickstarter this week. The goal was to raise $30,000. The current collection is in excess of $150,000 and growing. The initial campaign goal was complete in 84 minutes, Peck notes.
So is this the most eco-friendly shoe? Well, in parts. Each component of the shoe is made of natural materials, which compared to petroleum-based rubbers and synthetic fibers in most sneakers, is certainly more eco-friendly.
The uppers are made with merino and bison fibers primarily; the base, made by Sole, relies on their signature cork material, bamboo and algae foam — a newer material that’s becoming increasingly popular in the footwear industry. Vivobarefoot, a UK-based brand, for instance, debuted an algae-based shoe for water activities over a year ago.
The Jasper Wool Eco Chukka, as it’s named, is designed for the outdoors lifestyle. It’s lightweight, and easy to carry on expeditions. Given the use of natural fibers, it allows for air flow, and wool fibers control the smell that can come from sweat.
The cork, or the reCork, midsole comes from wine corks. Sole collected wine corks from recycling facilities to create a new material that can substitute EVA, or petroleum materials.
“Billions of these just enter the waste stream. We collected 100 million cork toppers, and after years of research, turned it into a material that’s incredibly flexible, cushioned, and it’s very very lightweight,” says Zachary Osness, Vice President of Global Sales and Merchandise at Sole.
The process though took a decade; Sole began collecting cork toppers in 2008. Since UBB’s specialty has not been footwear, the company decided to partner with Sole, who had been trying to solve this problem for years and looking for a partner who could provide a renewable material for the uppers.
While the shoe is certainly made of natural materials in parts, the question that still remains is its end of life: will it break down in a municipal compost unit or does it need to be divided into parts before it’s disposed? This is not an issue specific to United By Blue’s shoe but to others in the industry as well that are made of similar materials.