Lighten Your Footprint with Shoes Made from Recycled Cork

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Boots, ballet flats and sandals made from old wine corks are coming to a store near you in the future.

Manufactured by SOLE — a Vancouver, B.C.–based footwear company known for its orthopedic shoes and footbeds that conform to the wearer’s feet — the shoes feature eco-friendly leather and midsoles, fabric linings and footbeds made entirely from natural, recycled cork.

SOLE’s designers had been tinkering with ways to use cork in their products when they heard about ReCORK, a cork-recycling initiative sponsored by Amorim Cork, the world’s largest producer of cork bottle stoppers, in 2009.

At the time, ReCORK had been collecting thousands of used wine corks from wineries in Napa Valley, Calif., with no concrete recycling plan in mind. SOLE reached out with their ideas and product concepts; Amorim took the bait.

“They decided it would be a great story for the cork,” says Matt Hughes, the brand manager of ReCORK and former national account manager for SOLE.

As Mike Baker, founder and CEO of SOLE, pointed out in a recent press release, “natural cork is already one of the world’s most sustainable and environmentally friendly products.”

How Cork Shoes Have a Negative Carbon Footprint

What makes the shoes carbon negative?

ReCORK has projected that the first production of cork shoes, with sales generated online and through a development campaign, will produce approximately 0.74 tons of emissions, yet this is offset by the number of cork trees the initiative plants each year, resulting in a net carbon footprint of -59.26 tons. (See the full report, available as a PDF, here.)

New cork comes from cork oak trees’ bark, though it is harvested in much the same way as apples and oranges are plucked from their respective trees, meaning a cork tree will continue to live and reproduce more bark.

In fact, ridding the cork tree of its bark can actually prolong its life-span. “The average [cork] tree will live 50 to 75 years if it’s not harvested, but if it’s harvested properly, it can live up to 200 years,” Hughes explains.

Not only are SOLE’s creations the world’s first carbon-negative shoes, they’re also the first to incorporate recycled cork. “Cork has been used in footwear for many years, but never has recycled cork — certainly not on an industrial level — been used as a platform in footwear before,” Hughes says.

The Future of Cork

SOLE has since joined the ReCORK initiative and become a co-sponsor in the organization’s mission to recycle corks and plant cork-oak trees in Portugal, where it naturally thrives. With a collection network of 1,800 partners across North America, ReCORK is the continent’s largest wine-cork recycling program.

To date, ReCORK and its partners have saved more than 45 million wine corks from landfills and planted more than 8,000 trees.

Last October, ReCORK and SOLE launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to raise capital for the first production of cork shoes.

The pitch message for the fundraiser included photos and descriptions of two prototypes: Grace, a stylish yet functional ballet flat for women, featuring a deep heel cup, an elasticized collar for a snug fit and arch support, and Tour, a casual men’s shoe with eco-friendly suede, a cork fabric upper and elasticized laces for “an accommodative fit.”

The effort gained some momentum but ultimately failed. They didn’t reach their goal of $150,000. By Kickstarter’s rules, this means they won’t see a cent of the $21,633 their backers pledged before the deadline.

“It was obviously very disappointing not to reach the goal, but we don’t think it was the product or the concept,” Hughes says. “It was more likely the execution of the campaign itself. We realized right away that we should have started a press push many months in advance of the campaign itself [instead of launching it to coincide] with the Kickstarter campaign.”

As a result, production of the shoes, originally slated for early this year, has been delayed.

SOLE shoes are currently sold by 5,000 retailers throughout Canada and the U.S., including REI, Zappos and specialty running stores. Hughes says consumers can expect to see the line of cork footwear in select SOLE retail partners by the end of this year.

Baker is optimistic about providing consumers with a product that will lighten their carbon footprint.

He has said the “ability to turn used wine corks into durable and attractive footwear is an elegant way to extend the life cycle of this remarkable raw material.”

What else can cork make? Wine Cork Lampshade

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