Nov 28, 2023
by Karl Smith
The Future of Footwear Is… Farming?
by Karl Smith
Nov 28, 2023

First things first: this isn’t about leather. When we say “farming,” that just isn’t the kind of farming that we’re talking about here.

But, while we’re not going to waste too much time talking about the evils of traditional leather footwear – especially when most materials science companies, even those with a hardcore vegan ethos at the core, aren’t focusing their energies on ways to replace animal-derived leather anymore – perhaps it’s still worth starting this by explaining why.

It’s not because these companies have had a sudden change of heart or ethics, but rather because – from their insider’s perspective – there are so clearly bigger, more pressing issues at play. According to Alan Lugo, Product Manager for Footwear at Natural Fiber Welding, “In 2010 footwear classified as ‘leather upper’ imported into the USA was about 53% of total footwear imports. In 2021 it only represented 39%, and the number of pairs went down in the leather upper classification while the overall number of shoes imported went up by 30% over that time.”

These are numbers which very clearly show a decline in animal-derived leather as a favored material choice for brands and manufacturers. And, once again, it’s not because they’ve had a change of heart or a change of ethics either – far from it. Instead, it points to a penchant for cheaper ways of producing. And, rather than to a positive sea change, it points to a more insidious shift. Because, where leather is being replaced at such an impressive rate, it isn’t – in general, as yet – being switched out for next-gen alternatives.

In reality, less leather means more plastics. And plastics, more than anything else, are the problem we need to be focused on.

So, when we say that the future of footwear is farming – or, at least, when we tentatively ask if that might be the case – we’re not talking about animals; we’re not talking about agriculture; we’re not waging war on an ailing and flailing part of the industry already eating itself for profit. That being said, we are talking about living things and their potential to replace the fossil.

All sounds good in theory. But what does that mean in practice?

Well, let’s start with a hot topic. Much has been made lately of the magic of mushrooms, with a real push toward a future for footwear and fashion based on fungi. And some of the results have been pretty spectacular: the properties of mycelium do appear to put the biomaterial squarely in the “possible solution” category.

The recent use by adidas of Bolt Threads’ MYLO material as the base for a reworked Gazelle sneaker, for example, gave us the first real taste of a major brand that produces at major scale using mycelium in a core product.

But, of course, there are caveats: first, the Gazelle – a collaboration with the plant-based designer Sean Wotherspoon – was limited to only 200 pairs. Second, while adidas may have scooped up a few rolls, MYLO is no longer in development and Bolt Threads has lost a significant part of its value as a result. Neither point looks great for commercial viability at a meaningful scale.

In fact, recent developments have pointed to more general problems with mycelium – problems which, without wishing to sound overly conspiratorial, there has been some sleight of hand to have consumers, investors, and manufacturers ignore.

“As we navigate the landscape of these materials, such as biodegradable polymers and sustainable fabrics, all of which are promising alternatives to traditional leather, the design philosophy becomes a driving force in ensuring a clear circular impact.” – Pavel Vergun, Head of Marketing at Balena

In a recent conversation with a well-placed industry insider, FUTUREVVORLD was made aware of some interesting data: where the typical performance requirement for a casual shoe’s entry into the market is the ability to hold up under the stress of 100,000 bally flex cycles, mycelium has yet to deliver on anything close to those numbers.

According to this same insider, the materials science company Bolt Threads never deigned to publish this data at all for MYLO, its once-heralded and now-defunct mycellium leather; a move, or lack of movement, which suggests either that it never intended to enter the market at serious scale or that it was so far away from doing so that the information was borderline immaterial and potentially damaging, only likely to deter further investment.

Other mycellium-focused outfits, however, have made this data public. MycoWorks, for example, publicly states that its Reishi material can tough it out for roughly 5,000 rounds with the bally flexometer. Impressive numbers for a fledgling material innovation, but not even close to making it a candidate for regular usage in footwear.

On this topic, Natural Fiber Welding co-founder and CEO Luke Haverhals notes: “The only future that makes sense is the one where performance and true sustainability are accomplished with production that is at a global scale and optimized cost. Supply chain has been reporting that there are severe issues with performance, scale, and cost of biotech and mushroom materials. NFW has been built on the premise that ultimate performance and ultimate sustainability must be matched with ultimate scale & cost. Without serving all these factors simultaneously, there cannot be scaled use by footwear brands. Without scaled use, there is no impact.”

Just as pressingly as structural integrity, however, there’s also a question of mycellium’s integrity as a natural biomaterial. Evidence suggests that in order to strengthen mycelium to an even mildly usable degree, it has been mixed with exactly the kinds of petro-plastics it’s supposed to be replacing.

Of course, as with fruit or with cactus or with any other of the partially-plant-derived leather alternatives, it’s a start. It does mean something. But, right now at least, all of these materials are questions rather than answers. And it’s starting to seem like mycellium might also be more interrogative than imperative.

But, then again, are we thinking too small?

We’re not naysayers at FUTUREVVORLD and we never have been – we’re not here to talk down potential innovation or to cut it off at the knees before it’s even had a chance to try and show us it can crawl, let alone walk.

So, with that in mind, let’s reframe the conversation a little. After all, a change of materials is only small piece of a very large puzzle and if mycellium doesn’t fit within the current systems of mass production and consumption, perhaps there are pieces missing. Or, perhaps, we’re trying to solve the wrong puzzle.

“The process is as important as the material itself,” says Pavel Vergun, Head of Marketing at biomaterials startup and BioCir creator Balena, asked about the changes we need to see in footwear. “The sustainability of footwear production depends not only on the choice of materials but also on the methods used to manufacture and distribute the footwear.”

The processes, then, may turn out to be just as important as the product itself.

“The future of footwear not only hinges on the exploration of sustainable materials but also on a paradigm shift in the design process,” Vergun suggests, “It lies in recognizing that the very essence of circularity must be woven into the fabric of product creation, extending seamlessly from the selection of materials to the end of the product’s lifecycle.”

And perhaps this is the more holistic way of approaching the problem that the industry needs – not just treating next-generation materials as a bandaid for the cracks in processes that are no longer fit for purpose, but as just one part of a whole new way of working.

“As we navigate the landscape of these materials, such as biodegradable polymers and sustainable fabrics, all of which are promising alternatives to traditional leather, the design philosophy becomes a driving force in ensuring a clear circular impact,” Vergun adds, noting the complexity of the issue and pointing out that it goes far beyond a need to simply find new material options.

“The choice between these materials may depend on factors like availability, cost, environmental impact, and desired properties,” Vergun concludes, alluding to a role for brands, manufactures, material engineers, and – perhaps pivotally – consumers in terms of bringing about the necessary changes. “The future may see a combination of these and other next-gen circular materials (like bioplastics) used in footwear to meet rising consumer demand for sustainable product options and ambitious global climate goals.”

And he isn’t the only one imagining such a seismic, multi-level shift.

A researcher and designer of the “Growing Sneakers” – a conceptual, data-driven, and AI-generated model of biomaterial footwear possibilities – Nicholas Rapagnani is waiting for (and expecting) a similar change: “Taking into account the research and development of our present time, I feel the near future is pretty much related to technological innovations and eco-friendly materials. Brands are relying on 3D-knitting and printing technologies more and more, in order to avoid useless production processes which stretch out the overall footwear’s manufacturing phase,” says Rapagnani. “A clear example is what Zellerfeld is doing, conceiving fully 3D printed shoes produced locally on demand, which can be entirely recycled and reutilised to reprint other shoes.”

And, amongst this, there’s a key phrase that links where we are now and where we need to be: “produced locally.”

Driven by an understandable desire and a pressing need to entirely replaced petro-plastics and toxic processes, focus often falls on scale: questions of how the next-gen materials industry can manufacture enough product to satisfy huge corporations currently producing at astounding volume on a daily basis. If, after years of development and production, a once-feted materials science unicorn like Bolt Threads could only create enough MYLO for a few bag collaborations and for 200 pairs of shoes, how can innovators really hope to satisfy the production appetites of a company like Nike?

Well, first off, Bolt Threads isn’t the barometer here – outfits like Natural Fiber Welding are currently producing at ever more meaningful scale and cutting deals with manufacturers across the world to bring products like MIRUM, PLIANT, and CLARUS into wider circulation. Second, though, perhaps scale isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

When it comes to working with plants or with mycelium or with any other living bio-matter, might it no be effective to keep the loop small and self-contained? It seems strange, after all, to take cues for the future from the kind of industrialization that brought us to this critical moment in the first place.

“Everything will start to be scaled down locally to adapt to raw materials scarcity and changes in consumer mindset,” Rapagnani believes, pointing to a more conscious culture of what he calls, “having less and taking more care.”

In this model, scale would be less of an issue – resources would be developed and produced, grown and farmed locally; there would be enough to serve, if not so much localized brands per se, at least the local outposts of bigger brands. But, in an ideal world, there’d be no middle man at all – just a process of scanning for personal measurements and applying those proportions to a base model. It’s a little utopian, admittedly, but there’s no point shooting for anything if you’re not going big – at least as an end point.

“Revolutionizing sustainability in footwear requires a paradigm shift, making the end-of-life phase a fundamental part of the design and user experience,” agrees Vergun, clearly unafraid of aiming high. “This entails the integration of waste management, including composting and recycling. Embracing such a holistic approach ensures a full circle required for a more sustainable future.”

But, of course, we’re not there yet. And the reason we’re not getting as close as we should be is pretty clear.

“How can brands that are currently operating on a model where they have to grow revenue each year reduce overall output and consumption and still grow revenue?” – Alan Lugo, Product Manager for Footwear at Natural Fiber Welding

“How can brands that are currently operating on a model where they have to grow revenue each year – and the only way they can grow is to sell more shoes, or shirts, or jackets, etc. – reduce overall output and consumption and still grow revenue?” Lugo offers rhetorically. “I don’t believe there is any solution that really ‘solves’ the issues we discuss if in 5 years we are pumping out 25/27/30+ billion pairs of shoes.”

At the end of day, materials aren’t the be-all or end-all, but they’re still a key part of the puzzle. And, with this in mind, Lugo continues: “The ability for established industries to make changes to the materials they use is a very difficult task, and without full alignment within companies, from sourcing, to design, to finance, marketing to the CEO, not much will happen. Look at the footwear industry now, or let’s make it a goal to track what happens in 2024 – it’s not like there are massive shifts toward using any materials that make a meaningful dent in reducing carbon footprint, toxicity, etc.

“The biggest thing the footwear industry can hang its hat on the last five years in terms of trying to address climate impact is the use of RPET, maybe “ocean bound” RPET, being used in shoes – but there are many science-based studies now that show that likely didn’t help at all, in fact may have created MORE impact than virgin poly would have.”

So, perhaps, it’s not as much a question of scale – in terms of production – as much as it is scale of interest; scale of willingness to change in a way that would surely benefit the planet but which might not be a profit first strategy. Of uptake.

“I could mention 5-6 materials that, while they may not check the boxes that NFW does in terms of being a sustainable/circular material, are better than the incumbent materials on some metrics if we wanted to cherry-pick, agrees Lugo, “And some of them are not much of a cost increase.” Yet, he says, “Those materials are barely getting adopted either. Maybe something like 0.05% of the industry has adopted these new materials at best? And I’m sure more new projects are coming this year – but maybe I’m pessimistic. Increase that rate by 10x, and maybe its 0.5% adoption. But, again, it won’t even be a drop in the bucket compared to the impact from growth of the commodity/incumbent materials.”

Asked about biomaterials like mycelium or even bacteria as a possible substitute for leather, Alan Lugo is optimistic – although it’s an optimism tempered by the realism and pragmatism of working at the innovation grindstone.

“The future certainly lies in materials made from natural and renewable inputs that are non-toxic and have end of life taken into consideration,” he says, adding, “Things like cotton or lyocell, wool, hemp, silk, etc. are already proven materials at scale, but of course… work is needed. The other materials you’ve mentioned I would classify as ‘Hope’ materials. It would be unwise to flat out say they are not part of future solutions in my opinion, but it’s important to note that many of those ideas are so far away from being proven at any meaningful metric.”

But, at the end of the day, people are working on materials – there’s constant innovation, near-daily updates in materials science spaces looking to reinvent the wheel and take plastics out of the equation forever. But, as Lugo notes, it’s commitment to change from the industry itself that poses the biggest challenge – convincing those making the biggest profits that progress is worth taking a hit in that department.

“I look at this situation more like airbags in cars than a movement to stop using fur in fashion – in the sense that nobody was having marches in the street to make sure airbags were put into cars – yet it needed to be done and the industry was forced to change. I worry (or hope?) that’s what it’s going to take for the footwear industry to make meaningful change.”

So, if the future of footwear is farming – and it very well could be – it’s a future very different to the present; a future in which big corporations no longer hold a monopoly on production and in which localized efforts lead not only to lower impact but a higher level of respect and understanding for the product itself. This kind of change doesn’t just happen, though, it’s made – by innovators, by consumers, and by people on the inside with influence and right intentions.

All images courtesy Nicholas Rapagnani.