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Andrew Thompson on... are "Agricultural Sneakers" niche or are they what you’ve been waiting for?

Andrew Thompson
17 September 2021

Personally from an early age I have increasingly grown to appreciate that human-centred design is a prerequisite to creating outstanding design. There is a rise of conscious brands due to fashion's saliency in impacting the environment. Where as the most sensible thing would be not to buy as much and embrace degrowth or descaling habits in regards to consumption.

The most notable trending movement is creating cool sneakers that consider short-termism and move more towards a circular model using agricultural waste. Sounds idyllic, whats not to like? Could this ease my internal conflict being a sustainable conscious sneaker aficionado or could this restore some reciprocity alongside the resale market in combating the ever increasing pace of sneaker hype?

To begin to unpack this topic it would be pertinent to look at traditionally termed “vegan sneakers” using synthetic materials such as polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane (PU). These both have an environmental impact because they are manufactured with fossil fuels and aren’t biodegradable.

Where as materials being made from agricultural waste are regenerative and have less impact on the environment. These materials are also becoming a serious business in presenting themselves as a credible leather alternative.

Pangaea's grape leather sneakers

Most mentionable petrochemical-free and agricultural waste sneaker is London-based material science company Pangaea. They launched their first zero waste sneaker in 2020. The minimal sneaker not only uses plant-based leather but the outsole boasts a 100% recycled rubber from industrial waste, natural cotton lace, 100% recycled plastic ends and bio based water glue. The grape leather was developed reclaiming and repurposed waste called pomace from the Italian winemaking industry.

Another example of a responsible brand leading their feet to a different agricultural path is Kickstarter brand MoEa (Mother Earth). They use five leather alternatives apple, pineapple, corn, cactus and grape. The cactus and corn leathers both derive from the discarded skins, while the pineapple leather comes from the leaves. The apple and grape varieties are both made with juice industry waste. These recycled plant materials are combined with either organic cotton, bio-PU, or recycled plastic, depending on the type of plant.

With the potential positive benefits of using these materials there are some notable things to consider. It’s been known that plant-derived leathers can use polyurethane backing to improve the physical properties of the material. However, this has been widely addressed as it isn’t environmentally friendly and stops the material from biodegrading, also making the materials more complicated to be recycled.

Food crop agriculture can create a lot of waste from the parts of the plants that aren’t consumed or utilised, for example leaves, barks, fruit skins etc. According to Textile Value Chain more than a billion tonnes of banana tree stems are thrown away each year, as banana plants only fruit once in their lifetime before they die. Research shows it takes 37 kgs of stems to produce a kilo of banana fibres. The decomposition of crop /waste can often be left to rot or is burned which could then be the conduit to contributing  to greenhouse gasses which can then turn contribute to climate change.

Nike

MoEa's plant leather sneakers

Bigger Sports brands such as Nike and Adidas are also showcasing regenerative design blending the use of agricultural waste with function and performance.

Mushrooms definitely seem to be the crop of the moment, as Adidas released its mycelium sneakers in April 2021. Reframing the conversation by constructing eco- friendly Stan Smith using Mylo mushroom leather. Nike has also collaborated with Ananas Anam using pineapple leathers across some of its most iconic styles, Air Max 90’s, Air Force 1’s etc.

Although from a personal standpoint I love the concept of sneakers moving toward more regenerative systems and sustainable materials, this would have to align with varying business models to facilitate the scaling of new technologies and materials.

It poses a single question with the aim of provoking debate and opening up the thought to whether there is an appetite for these kinds of products and how desirable they are to the status quo.

My final words are at least this is creating a responsible choice, and, without that, there cannot be change. There are so many complexities to this subject as even recycling materials causes harm, albeit less harm. In addition, practically it's hard to stop making new things when the whole world is programmed into consumerism. I guess as long as brands are willing to put their money where their morals lie, there maybe progress and the conversation continues.

Andrew Thompson is a thought leader with over twenty years’ experience as a footwear Trend Forecaster and Design Director having worked with brands such as Vans USA, Kurt Geiger, Topman, Nicole Fahri and Clarks International to name a few. His is also founder of global consultancy Fablefootworks.

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