We’ve heard a little bit about the “impossible shoe” from our interview with Alan Lugo, NFW’s Product Strategy Manager, but let’s take a closer look.
What does “impossible shoe” mean?
The “impossible shoe” refers to the concept of a shoe constructed entirely out of natural materials that can be recycled. Our idea of an “impossible shoe” is one that has no plastics and therefore no reliance on the petrochemical industry. When we do that, we have a shoe that can be ground up and returned to the earth in a way that will not cause harm or be toxic to people or the environment, even if it's not formally recycled.
What’s the current state of footwear?
Today, most shoes are made of at least three different materials. These materials are used for different parts of the shoe, like the sole, uppers, laces, or details. The way these materials are combined into one product makes it very hard to reclaim or recycle anything (synthetic or natural) from a shoe when it is no longer usable or is being discarded, even if the individual materials themselves could theoretically be reused or repurposed.
The difficulty of separating the individual materials aside, nowadays many of the materials used in footwear are made of or contain plastic, an inherently unsustainable material. Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are inherently unsustainable because even if they are recycled or reused, which the vast majority are not, at the end of the day, they are still just that — plastics, materials made of toxic petrochemicals that harm the environment. Things made from plastic, water bottles, straws, and especially complex products like handbags, furniture, and shoes, can only ever become polluting trash, whether that’s in a day, a week, a month, or two years. If what goes into a product is harmful at the start, it can never become something better. No matter how splashy or exciting “recycled plastic” seems, that plastic will become trash. It’s just a matter of time. This is why at NFW we only start with ingredients that are nutrients — natural plant materials that can never be detrimental to the environment.
Recycling the plastic we’ve already created is a good thing. It lengthens the life of the material and helps to not bring more plastic into the world. But it’s not our saving grace, and though plastic manufacturers have led us to believe plastic materials can be easily recycled, this isn’t the case for most goods, including shoes. This means most shoes produced today become trash. Many are either burned, emitting harmful chemicals into the air we breathe, or dumped in landfills, polluting groundwater and soil.
Read more about plastic recycling problems in: Five of the Biggest Problems with Plastics
The current rate of mass production of plastic consumer goods is staggering. According to Our World in Data, the industry produced 2 million metric tons in 1950, which has increased rapidly to 381 million tons in 2015. What’s worse, at our current rate, plastic production is estimated to double to almost quadruple by 2050. The way we currently produce footwear is not sustainable for the planet nor humans, and making shoes out of recycled plastic is not going to solve the underlying issue.
But what if we could do something different?
Enter the “impossible shoe.” This is a concept of a product that does no harm to the environment.
By our definition, an NFW “impossible shoe” would
- be made of all-natural materials — the inputs are nutrients to the earth, not pollutants.
- contain no plastic — in other words, it would not use material that is inherently unsustainable and harmful to the environment.
And therefore, it can be returned to the earth without causing damage because it is made from natural nutrients and contains no harmful pollutants.
The next question, of course:
Is the “impossible shoe” really that important?
If you’re reading this you’re likely a person that cares about sustainability, wants to do right by the earth, and create a future where all humans can thrive, not just survive. The plastic problem can seem overwhelming. After all, we currently make more than 350 million tons of plastic a year.
At NFW, we see opportunity in the challenge ahead of us and are energized by making the impossible possible. We don’t have to live with a system that generates trash and relies on materials that wind up in landfills, polluting the environment for decades. We can create something better from the abundance of nature.
Think of the “impossible shoe” in relation to the footwear industry as what a manned mission to Mars is to the space program. Tackling a seemingly impossible task will have ripple effects and countless benefits beyond just the problem at hand. If we can create a truly sustainable shoe, made of natural materials not pollutants, what else can we now make and what other industries can benefit from this progress? There’s an entire NASA website dedicated to showcasing how technology that started in a space program impacts our daily lives.
Pursuing a solution like the “impossible shoe” may yield many other solutions to problems that may not have been otherwise solved, or questions that haven’t been asked — in the same way that we might not have scratch-resistant lenses, cardiac pumps, or even memory foam without NASA’s discoveries and inventions.
The work that we’re doing at Natural Fiber Welding to create all natural materials that can be molded and shaped like plastic has limitless potential. By starting with abundant plant nutrients and harnessing the power of nature, we’re creating durable, tunable materials that eliminate the environmental and ecological ills of petroleum-based plastic.