Are Reebok’s Cotton-and-Corn Shoes Actually That Sustainable?

Jed Oelbaum

Last week Reebok released its “NPC UK Cotton + Corn” shoe, the first fruit of an initiative the company announced in 2017 to produce goods “made from things that grow,” rather than petroleum-based or other synthetic materials. The tops of the sneakers are made from organic cotton, the insoles from castor bean oil, and the soles from a corn-based rubber replacer.

Handsome and light, the Corn + Cottons are like a footwear version of an untucked linen shirt; they wouldn’t look out of place at a skatepark, in an office, or on a retirement home shuffleboard court. For now, the shoes only come in one color option, a blend of natural earth tones. “Feel good about what you’re wearing,” reads a Reebok ad, which calls the sneakers “a step in the right direction.”

Both the shoe’s $95 price point, and its use of the company’s classic NPC sneaker design were decisions the company made to make the product as accessible as possible to existing Reebok fans. “We weren’t trying to make a shoe version of a Prius,” writes Bill McInnes, head of Reebok Future, in an email. He says the Corn + Cotton shoes are aimed at “a conscientious millennial consumer that knows our brand. We felt the timing was really right for this product. Consumers are much more educated about sustainability issues today than they were even a few years ago.”

Media coverage has described the shoe as “sustainable” and as having “eco-friendly credentials.” An animated video about the project made by Reebok recounts the perils of shoe-related fossil fuel use, before we see a plant spread back its leaves and birth a Cotton + Corn sneaker, which falls directly onto an awaiting besocked foot. “It’s time to put some sustainability in your step,” says a blog post about the shoes on the Martha Stewart site.

Reading through Reebok’s releases about the sneakers though, the company almost conspicuously doesn’t call the product itself “sustainable,” or make specific environmental claims about the shoes. From marketing materials, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the new footwear means for the company, or for consumers. Reebok isn’t shy about marketing on the merits of its larger sustainability efforts. But telling consumers this is an item they can “feel good about” is confusing—is the message that the shoe is a step better for the environment than shoes made with plastics? Or is Cotton + Corn being celebrated as a less quantifiable first step on Reebok’s own corporate path to sustainable products? Or maybe both?

The mixed messaging speaks to a problem that a lot of companies are dealing with as corporate sustainability efforts ramp up. Most environmental issues, especially those regarding plastics and fossil fuels, don’t have short-term solutions and will involve a thousand little breakthroughs over decades. But a big part of the benefit of going green for companies lies in its marketing value and appeal to consumers right now. Millennials and other young shoppers are making their buying choices with values in mind, and are also increasingly savvy when it comes to sniffing out vague or misleading advertising.

So, companies want to leverage their long-term environmental commitments into marketing value, but it’s also hard to craft a consumer-facing message that won’t either overhype or undersell what is essentially a status update—even a positive one in the form of a cool shoe—on a goal that could take a decade or more. Companies like Reebok end up struggling to give nuanced explanations of complex subjects in the form of marketing copy that might not deliver the whole picture to consumers.

“Sustainability in product manufacturing is and should be scrutinized closely,” acknowledges McInnes. “Our first step is a bio-based shoe, but our goals reach out beyond that to compostability and additional materials that will allow us to make more and more of our products more sustainable.”

On the company’s site, a release from earlier this month sheds more light: There, McInnes gives a fairly detailed telling of the research his team has been doing with renewable, plant-based materials and compostable shoes.

“The idea was to create a product that was easy for consumers to dispose of when they were done using it. Something that would return to soil in some reasonable timeframe,” said McInnes in the Reebok post. Though that may be Reebok’s long-term goal, the blog post also makes clear that the Cotton + Corn shoes currently for sale are not compostable, or truly biodegradable. “We’re not there yet,” said McInnes.

According to the post, the Cotton + Corn project “does not save the planet. It is a first step toward saying there are other ways to make shoes.” But if the shoes don’t in some way “save the planet,” the marketing around them, like the animated video cited above, feels a bit pandering to the eco-conscious consumers it’s clearly targeting. One would imagine those shoppers wouldn’t be surprised that “there are other ways to make shoes.” The company’s caveats and language about “first steps” might be a well-intentioned attempt at transparency, but they also make it harder than it should be to parse exactly how sustainable the Cotton + Corn shoes are compared to most alternatives.

What could be unsustainable about a pair of shoes derived from wholesome, renewable heartland field crops? For one thing, even materials made from something as innocuous as corn are often so altered chemically that they no longer decompose like other organic material. (You probably want your corn-rubber sneakers to last longer than vegetables from the supermarket, after all.)

One problem Reebok cites involves the soles of the shoes, made from a corn-based product called Susterra propanediol. These kinds of biomaterials can be broken down responsibly, but not by throwing a pair of Cotton + Corn kicks into a hole in your backyard—you’d have to get them to a local industrial composting facility, which likely wouldn’t even know what to do with your old shoes. Which means most Cotton + Corn shoes will likely end up sitting in landfills, just like hundreds of millions of other pairs of shoes discarded every year. (Susterra propanediol is made in partnership between chemical giant DuPont and multinational food producer Tate & Lyle.)

The shoes may be a challenge to recycle or break down safely on the way out, but on the production side, Susterra propanediol has a lot going for it. The material “looks pretty good with carbon footprint, the greenhouse gas emissions, and for energy use,” says David Tyler, a plastics expert and University of Oregon professor, based on publicly available information on the product.

In the past, Tyler has been skeptical of some plant-based plastic and rubber replacements, sharing the concern voiced by other scientists that the water, fertilizer, and pesticides used to grow the necessary crops could negate the sustainability gains of dropping fossil fuels. But he says he’s been seeing better life cycle assessments—tests that measure the cradle-to-grave impact of a given product—for these substances and he is hopeful they can play a part in the future of sustainable materials.

Doug Smock, who offers plastics industry news and analysis at The Molding Blog and has covered DuPont’s biomaterials business, applauds Reebok’s sustainability efforts and choice of materials. “Susterra is not only renewable, it is a superior product to the chemical it replaces, offering better wear-and-tear properties.” But while it’s good that the shoes are primarily made from renewable resources, says Smock, the actual environmental benefit of doing so “needs to be proven with data.”

Tyler says there are of course, still a lot of big questions when it comes to growing plastic or biofuel—like whether doing so displaces food production. And even growing organic cotton can be resource-intensive. From a research-and-development standpoint though, he says the shoes could represent a legitimate step on the path to more sustainable products for Reebok.

Reebok is clearly investing in making more sustainable shoes and using cool, innovative materials, and the company wants to share that with its customers. But in a marketplace full of greenwashing and misleading packaging signifiers (like say, “natural” on food products), it’s incumbent on companies hawking eco-branded products to be upfront, and not to overload individual items with too much of the long-term sustainability dream.