Seafood is making waves in the footwear sector, with oysters, seaweed, lionfish and carp leather being used in new sneakers. ER Souliers and P448 are among the brands using these new materials to create more sustainable shoes.
Castor oil soles are another component, used in Circle Sportswear’s new bio-based running shoe.
Oyster shells and marine waste reimagined
ER Souliers designer Eugène Riconneaus was inspired to develop his new oyster shell-based sneaker sole during days spent in La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic coast.
Don’t call it a pandemic project — Riconneaus used recycled rubber and leftover leather to create sustainable sneakers back in 2012. But the time spent back in his hometown caused him to look at the water in a different way and focus on incorporating marine waste into his newest design.
It resulted in a rebirth of the ER Souliers line. “I decided that it will be the mission of ER and the right time for me to relaunch ER and try to use as much marine litter I can, or anything I can find in the ocean around France.”
As a result, the sneakers also incorporate algae and locally recovered ghost fishing nets, which kill dolphins, turtles and other marine life. While he notes that other brands use reclaimed nets, they often come from across the globe, and his commitment is to keep things local.
He’d been using ground up oyster shells to create his own pigments for art and painting and turned his creative workshop into a makeshift lab while he experimented. “Sorry if that doesn’t sound crazy in terms of innovation, but if someone wants to try a little, bit-by-bit to do something, it’s quite easy.” A lab later took over the research and production process. “But initially, it was like cooking crepes at home,” he joked.
Other components of the shoe are made of leather off cuts, natural cord and recycled rubber.
Riconneaus has perfected the process and put suppliers and partners in place to scale up production of the material. With roughly 20 tons of oyster shell waste each season just in the La Rochelle region, there’s plenty of raw material supply. It could also be used in sunglasses or furniture, he noted.
Riconneaus said he’s already been approached by “huge” brands that are interested in the new material, but they are often looking for a ready-made, quick solution to achieve sustainability credentials.
“This is not your solution. My idea is more to reduce consumption and to valorize what I can find in my native region,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing so many brands say they will change the world with some crazy innovation, to me it’s more about the cultural approach than the technical approach,” he said. He wants ER Souliers to be a community rather than a bunch of consumers.
Nor is he eager to seek certifications or B Corp status just yet, or even to call it a “sustainable” brand. “It’s a brand with a purpose,” he said. The unisex shoe comes in sizes of 35 to 48, and will debut at his men’s fashion week presentation Thursday through Jan. 26. Orders can be customized in his Paris atelier.
P448’s “Karp” sneaker made from invasive carp fish
At P448, the luxury Italian sneaker brand launched by former Stuart Weitzman chief executive officer Wayne Kulkin, the company is developing new leathers sourced from invasive species.
Kulkin’s lionfish shoe launched last June, and he is set to bring out a new version made from carp leather in April. Both fish are non-native species with no natural predators; lionfish destroy coral reefs, and Asian carp have decimated North American lakes and rivers, including the Mississippi.
Kulkin launched his company six years ago to find more sustainable solutions after decades in the shoe industry. He settled on alternative leathers as part of an effort to find natural materials that can be beneficial to nature in more than one way — and fish fit the bill.
“Six years ago people were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Now there’s this heightened awareness because of all the severe weather.”
One of those proponents is Mark Wahlberg, who cited the brand’s sustainability focus and Kulkin’s passion for innovation when he made a “significant” minority investment in the company last March.
While the small size of lionfish created a design challenge, the larger Asian carp can create enough material to cover a whole shoe or a handbag and is a much more durable material, he said. It’s cured in a method similar to traditional leather, and the shoes are trimmed with other eco-friendly materials like recycled, chrome-free suede, recycled outsoles or recycled footbeds.
Research took over a year, with months just figuring out what parts of the skin would work for leather and solving durability problems without resorting to plastic coating. The brand also eschews the typical two pounds of paper and plastic packaging.
“It just takes takes curiosity, it takes time, it takes patience,” Kulkin said of the research and development process. He’s looking to work with brands and companies that are seeking new materials and can benefit from their R&D.
“I’m seeing now that bigger people are interested, but they need to be led. Everybody is waiting for some big group to come in and say like, ‘OK, now you can use this problem is solved, now you can use this,’” he said. “They have multibillion-dollar businesses, and they have the resources, but you have to open their eyes.
“We want to [educate] people, we want to involve science, we want to involve fashion, and we want to involve the agricultural industry,” he said.
To that goal, Kulkin continues work with small materials innovators in Europe, which are researching methods to repurpose orange peels, coffee grinds and rice husk. He’s also looking at working with python as well, an invasive species in Florida that has nearly wiped out much of the native animal populations in Everglades National Park. That project is still in the development stage.
Kulkin said a big part of sustainability is creating value from new materials, and rethinking what we think of as luxury. Bombarding the consumer with facts and figures isn’t as effective as education.
“People love the story,” he said.
The brand promotes its partnerships with with deep-sea divers, for example. Last season, they had shoes of similar design in both traditional leather and lionfish. When customers learned about the sea creature’s environmental impact “they all went for the one made out of lionfish, which I thought was interesting [and] kind of proved the desire.”
A bio-based, recyclable running shoe
If the name doesn’t give it away, Circle Sportswear launched its bio-based SuperNatural Runner — designed with circularity in mind.
The French sportswear brand partnered with The Woolmark Company, Tencel and Arkema to create the shoes for easy disassembly and made with the shoe’s entire life cycle in mind.
The upper part of the shoe is made of 65 percent certified merino wool, chosen because it doesn’t shed micro-plastics like plastic-based synthetics, is biodegradable and maintains moisture management and breathability. Wood-based Tencel makes up 35 percent of the shoe, while the midsole is made up of Arkema’s castor oil material and the outsole is made from biodegradable rubber Lactae Hevea. The sole can be fully recyled without losing its technical properties.
“The SuperNatural Runner project started from a blank sheet with the mission to launch a new era of sustainable running shoes. Made for disassembly, bio-based, recyclable and made in Europe, Supernatural Runner brings the best of ecological and performance worlds,” said CEO Romain Trebuil.
Trebuil launched the company in 2019 after a career in oil and tech to create new, more ecological materials solutions for yoga and running apparel.
“They are innovating the way we wear wool by bringing the fiber’s innate performance and eco-credentials to the sports industry. Our textile engineering teams worked collaboratively on the development of the upper and pushed through the innovative nature of merino wool to the technicality required for running,” said John Roberts, managing director at The Woolmark Company.
All of the materials are sourced in Europe, with the production, development and assembly of the different parts were carried out in Italy, France, Germany and Portugal, ensuring a lower carbon footprint and reduced emissions.
The sole is recycled directly by Circle.
Customers can return the shoes to Circle, which has created a material-to-material process that allows the soles to be recycled through polymerization, so that they can make new soles without losing material properties. The business works with Arkema to recycle the soles, and Woolmark on the shoe upper, and the company is working on new collection and recovery methods by 2025.
Trebuil has also set out to create a community and will open the doors of its workshops to add visibility to its sustainability. To avoid overproduction, the shoes are available on order and come in three colorways of traditional black, white and a bright grass shade. It’s not just the eco-credentials that are green.