“The two are very different things, one solving a huge problem and the other eradicating the need for it to be solved,” says Richard Rusling, cofounder of Zen Running Club, which is making a new running shoe from materials like sugarcane and eucalyptus. “Recycling is, of course, great for the environment. However, we can’t start a new company today using yesterday’s technology—we have focused on looking forward and working in a different way.” Once plastic is made into a shoe, he says, it can’t easily be recycled again. (Some companies, however, like Adidas, are working on ways to make a truly circular shoe.) Rusling also argues that recycling lengthens our dependence on plastic overall: “If there weren’t ways to reuse . . . plastic, then there would be a stronger case to legislate against it.”
The startup chose to use renewable materials, carefully vetting all of its sources. “As our major materials are made from managed sustainable sources, our ecosystem includes planting trees to specifically harvest and replant. This process can offset and even surpass the carbon footprint of transportation and the production of our materials,” Rusling says.
The midsole is made from a mix of sugarcane and algae bloom, and the outsole is made of natural rubber. “The sugarcane is from a managed source, the algae bloom is part of a program that cleans up water sources in the developing world, and the natural rubber is free of additives or petrochemicals that would diminish its ability to degrade,” Rusling explains. At the end of its life, the whole shoe can safely degrade. The factory also runs primarily on renewable energy.
Like other sneakers that are knit together—the manufacturing process pioneered by Nike for the first Flyknit sneakers—the technique helps limit waste in the factory. (It also ensures a snug, breathable fit.) “Knitting an upper allows you to specifically build a product to spec versus cutting it out of a piece of fabric, in essence leaving you with zero waste,” Rusling says.
The company is scaling up for production now and taking preorders on Kickstarter as it tests final prototypes with athletes; it expects to begin delivering the first shoes in January.