Bio-Shoes: 5 Questions With Reebok Future Head Bill McInnis

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Reebok Cotton + Corn sustainable corn bio shoe

Adidas-owned Reebok is adding soul to its soles and literally stimulating by introducing bio-based materials to its footwear. Grown from corn, the sustainable plant-based shoes can be composted after use.

The Cotton + Corn initiative, developed by the Reebok Future team, is described as the first shoe “made from things that grow.” The first-generation shoe (priced at under $100) was revealed this week, and features an upper made with organic cotton and a base derived from industrial grown corn (a non-food source).

“Reebok’s philosophy is to ‘Be More Human,’ and sustainability is a core part of that belief,” stated Reebok President Matt O’Toole. “As human beings, we have a responsibility to leave this planet as we found it for future generations. Unfortunately, the fact is most shoes just end up in landfills, which is something we are trying to change. As a brand, we will be focusing on sustainability with the Cotton + Corn program as well as other initiatives we have in the works.”

In ditching petroleum products, Reebok partnered with DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products, a lead manufacturer of high-performance bio-based solutions, on the project. (The specifics: DuPont Tate & Lyle has developed Susterra® propanediol, a pure, petroleum-free, non-toxic, 100 percent USDA certified bio-based product, derived from field corn. Susterra® propanediol is used to create the sole of the Cotton + Corn shoes.)

Reebok Cotton + Corn bio shoe

“This is really just the first step for us,” said Bill McInnis, Head of Reebok Future. “With Cotton + Corn we’re focused on all three phases of the product lifecycle. First, with product development we’re using materials that grow and can be replenished, rather than the petroleum-based materials commonly used today. Second, when the product hits the market we know our consumers don’t want to sacrifice on how sneakers look and perform. Finally, we care about what happens to the shoes when people are done with them. So we’ve focused on plant-based materials such as corn and cotton at the beginning, and compostability in the end.”

For the second phase, we’re bringing our decades of expertise to the design and wear-ability of the shoe. “Consumers really don’t want to sacrifice style and comfort for sustainability—and they don’t have to,” McInnis added. “The beauty of the Susterra material from DuPont Tate and Lyle is it allows us to create great-looking shoes that feel great too.”

“This is just the beginning for Reebok,” he noted. “We now have the formula to replicate this across a range of sneakers. This is the blueprint for a lot of shoes to come.”

For more insights we spoke with McInnis, who’s also a former NASA engineer, about how Cotton + Corn aligns with Reebok’s sustainability commitment and goals.

brandchannel: Bill, what can you tell us about how you sourced these materials for the Cotton + Corn initiative?

Bill McInnis - Reebok Future innovationBill McInnis (right): The two primary ingredients in the shoe are right there in the name – the uppers are made from organic cotton and the bottom is based on corn. We use a material called Susterra from Dupont, Tate & Lyle. Susterra is based on field corn.

BC: What were the design considerations?

McInnis: The first generation will be pretty straightforward: Cotton uppers and corn-based bottoms with design styling based on some of our Reebok Classic silhouettes.

bc: Has Reebok conducted any consumer research to gauge awareness and demand for this?

McInnis: Yes, we’ve done a few rounds of consumer testing on the concept over the last two years and there are probably two types of our consumers out there: one group who understand this concept intuitively without explanation and a second group that needs a little education first on how shoes are made currently. There’s a very high conversion rate once they understand. The research has been very positive.

bc: How does this advance Reebok’s overall sustainability commitment and goals?

McInnis: Our sustainability approach is multi-faceted, touching everything from where and how we work to what we make. One of the key areas in this regard is our commitment to innovate when it comes to materials and processes. Our goal is to create the best products for athletes, but while minimizing our environmental impact. As a result, we are committed to steadily increasing the use of more sustainable materials in our production, products and stores. Cotton + Corn is a great example of this commitment.

BC: What other sustainability-inspired innovations has your team produced that people may not be aware of?

McInnis: Most recently would be our Liquid Factory concept – a brand new way of creating shoes without molds or excess material waste. (It uses state-of-the-art software and robotics to draw shoes in three dimensions using 3D Drawing.) We also just released a new running shoe, Reebok Floatride, which features Floatride Foam, an innovative consistent cell structure that delivers the seamless integration of cushioning and responsiveness.


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