If there is one type of shoe that most of us wear until it literally falls apart, it’s the sneaker. Have you ever thought about what happens to that sneaker once it’s come to the end of its useful life? Like most things made from a mix of materials, they are hard to recycle and most often end up in landfills. OAT Shoes, a company based in Amsterdam, has created a new type of sneaker that is not only biodegradable but also grows pretty flowers when it’s “planted” into the ground.
Unlike some earlier experiments with biodegradable sneakers, these kicks look like they belong in one of those stylish streetwear shops where people pay hundreds of dollars for various types of “collectible” footwear. And that’s a good thing, because that means they have the potential power to reach a new group of consumers and educate them about the lifecycle of the things they wear on their feet every day. Because the reality is that most people still choose what they wear based on how it looks, and that’s fine, but does put an interesting responsibility in the hands of shoe companies. The silhouette of OAT Shoes is very relevant to the urban public, the color scheme is neutral, but with a subtle twist and the price point is reasonable.
I heard OAT Shoes founder, Christiaan Maats, give a great presentation at the Sustainable Brands conference a few weeks back, about the challenge he faced when deciding to start a company around this seemingly crazy idea of shoes that bloom. Maats’ vision was to create shoes that make the wearer feel like they are becoming part of nature, and tell that story by experience. He spent almost three years researching materials all around Europe and was told by almost everyone he encountered that it was a great idea, but impossible to do. Still, he did not give up.
The biggest problem when it comes to making biodegradable shoes is the glue, which is needed to merge the different materials of the shoe together. After years of searching and experimenting, Maats was finally able to find a type of glue that was non-toxic and biodegradable. The rest of the shoe is made from a mix of soft, biodegradable plastic, herringbone hemp, cotton laces and biopolymers.
The next challenge was to find someone who actually understood his visions and could create a prototype based on his vision. “The first sample,” he said, “looked like a hobbit shoe. It was really bad.” Finally, he connected with an artisan in Italy who had been making shoes for 35 years and was able to successfully translate that vision into an actual sample.
OAT Shoes’ Virgin Collection consists of four classic sneakers, in neutral off-white with color accents on the soles. When they launched the collection in Amsterdam, the company actually buried one of the shoes in the shop window so people could watch it degrade. “There are not many shoe company owners that are proud to show you a rotten, decaying shoe,” said Maats. “But we are really proud of that face, and we can make everything bloom now.”
The hemp and cotton will degrade within a couple of months in regular soil, and the bioplastic has been tested to break down within 6 months in an ideal environment, but this varies with the type of soil, the temperature and humidity they’re buried in. They will not start biodegrading while you wear them, no matter if you walk in a lot of rain and dirt. The seeds are embedded in a little pocket in the tongue of the shoe and is a mix of wildflowers, mostly red ones. (You can find the complete list here.) The shoes also come with instructions for planting.
OAT Shoes are available in select retail stores in the Netherlands and Belgium, and also through the webshop (so far, in the EU only). They are not yet available in the U.S., since the USDA will not allow for anything with seeds to be imported. You can, however, buy them without the seeds through Jardins Florian. The post-wear bloom is a great thing, but what’s really great about these shoes is the innovative use of biodegradable materials. So, even without embedded seeds, they’re a big step forward for the sustainable sneaker movement (if there is such a thing).
The company’s logo is made up of a circle, a triangle and a plus sign, representing their core values—unite, create and inspire. This seems like an appropriate representation of the determination, drive and passion it took to get these shoes created. It’s not really about the bloom, but about making ideas bloom. Be inspired.