Typically made of animal-based materials such as leather or single-use plastics, shoes represent a product ripe for a sustainable makeover. Many brands have taken up the challenge. Rothy’s uses plastic water bottles to make threaded flats, Allbirds uses renewable material such as trees, merino wool, and recycled cardboard, and even Everlane makes sure to get its shoe leather from energy-saving tanneries.
Canadian shoe company Native Shoes, meanwhile, is now reimagining its shoe-making process from the ground up—or rather, the liquid gel bath up. The brand’s cofounder, Thomas Claypool, says they’re always looking for “cutting edge and futuristic methods of manufacture.” It’s already released fully biodegradable sneakers made of pineapple husks and corn. But now Native Shoes has partnered with MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design to come up with a patented method of 3D printing two of its most popular designs, so they can be made to order every time someone wants to buy a new pair.
Called Liquid Printed Natives, the Vancouver-based company’s newest type of shoe (not yet for sale) seems to magically emerge from the depths of a clear gel bath. Inky black and shiny, they appear slick like wet rain boots even when dry. First, the shoes are designed on a computer, then printed directly into a container carrying a reusable, water-based gel formula. Like the gel bath, the shoe material itself is liquid and viscous, but its most important element is that it can be printed without the use of any excess material.
“The typical kinds of 3D printing that exist now require some kind of support material to provide structure for areas of the design that have overhang that would otherwise collapse,” Claypool says.
Meanwhile, the 3D printing aspect allows for easily customizable shoes. Native is working on technology to let people take 3D scans of their feet, either in stores on through an app. Native can then directly input those data points into its liquid printing program. This kind of on-demand ordering could reduce the amount of inventory Native has to hold onto, leaving the company with less excess product sitting in warehouses.
The material used to make the liquid-printed shoes is partially made of recycled EVA, or ethylene vinyl acetate, a flexible, rubbery material also used in the making of Native’s injection-molded shoes. With the liquid printing process, however, the shoes can be made from 50% recycled EVA, a much higher percentage than the injection-molding method allows. The 3D-printed shoes take a bit longer to make than the injection-molded variety (two hours per pair versus about 40 minutes), but Claypool says “speed to market” is much faster for the former.
Liquid Printed Natives have so far only been created in two of the brand’s most popular styles, the Audrey (flats) and the Jefferson, which look like a cross between sneakers and Crocs. There’s no release date or price tag for the shoes just yet, as they’re still in the internal testing phase. Claypool is one of the testers. He says they’re “comfortable,” but “it’s a little more grip-y than the traditional EVA.”
“I like the material,” he adds hesitantly, “but I think we can make some improvements to it still.”