Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Pretty Interview: Mike Baker of ReCork on Carbon Negative Footwear + Kickstarter

You may think of cork as what's between you and your wine, but Sole founder and CEO Mike Baker has another idea. His fascination with cork as a material to be harvested, recycled and now repurposed from his sister company, ReCork (a natural cork recycling program), has led him and Sole co-director Matt Hughes and creative director Ryan Lawrie to a Kickstarter campaign unveiling the first ever carbon negative footwear. I chatted with Mike about these unprecedented and stylish shoes, and learned about the fascinating properties of cork. It's unbelievable just how far things can come when knowledge, insight, creativity and passion get together. Read on and find out how you can invest in original cork eco-footwear and the compelling reasons to do so.

Mike Baker is the founder and CEO of Sole, a custom footbed company. In 2009, he launched ReCork along with partner Matt Hughes. This collaboration between both brands is a natural fit.
Mike took the time to chat with me about his new collab and Kickstarter campaign, which bridges both brands to create footwear with a carbon negative footprint. He happened to also gave me a quick lesson on the many values of cork as a renewable, hyper-useful resource.

The shoes look great, I particularly love the men's shoe, it's very stylish.
I've had a few females say that. I've been wearing a previous version of [The Tour], a boot version, for probably 18 months, and it's been killer. I've worn them all over the world, literally. It's basically the same colourway, with the actual cork fabric in it's raw coloured form, and personally, I love them too.

In terms of development, how long have you been working on these particular shoes?
Two years we've been working on refining them. We didn't have these shoes in mind when we started the cork collection program [ReCork]. We just knew that as a material, the cork trees themselves - I've been to Portugal, I've been to the cork forest - it's kind of cheesy to say, but it defines harmony. It's totally true in this case, it's a light management of the forest, such that they can continue to harvest them every nine years. Harvesting means just taking the bark off the tree, that's all you're doing. The trees stay standing, you peel the bark off and you have this cork material. The carbon sink of the tree remains. I don't think there is a bad thing you can say about cork. Having finished my investigation, and being saturated with cork, I knew that we wanted to collect this material and that we would be able to repurpose it into any variety of footwear that we were going to make.
The collection that we have on Kickstarter really represents designing from the ground up: Shoes that try to maximize the use of cork. We had pre-exisitng products, our sandals for example, existed prior to us embarking on our cork mission. The new collection, the Tour and the Grace models, represent our first attempt at building shoes from the ground up to maximize our inclusion of cork.

Do you know how long do they last?
We haven't really found the limits yet. [Sole] has grown up a little on the footwear side and we have partners that have bigger partners, so we can test the product against higher-end standards, like an Adidas or a Nike flex-test standard - will it withstand 50 000 flexes and what happens in terms of it's breakdown after [that]. The product meets all of those standards. The ones that I have, that I've been wearing for a while, we've modified. We've made changes to the platform that we have now, and the new ones I would say are objectively better. There's no wear on the cork fabric itself. The shape that we have, the understanding of biomechanics, it's more of an underfoot comfort place that [Sole] comes from, we haven't really talked about it much in this core collection, but it's in there. In short, I think they are incredibly comfortable, the cork itself is insulating, it's breathable, it's a phenomenal material and great underfoot.

Is the cork fabric (on the Tour model / men's shoe) mixed with something to make it more pliable and flat like a fabric?
It's about .4mm thin, so it's super thin, and it's on a backing. Basically, you take a block of cork and you shave it with really precise with machines and then you laminate it onto a material backing. You can put it on all sorts of different types of material backings, but that will dictate it's pliability, flexibility and stretch. We've been using it underfoot on our sandals for some time and it's been in and out of lakes and oceans and it's totally fine.

Once you do the first run of shoes, do you plan on expanding the line into other products made of cork?
Absolutely. We're committed to continuing to collect a lot of cork and footwear is a really good place to use cork because it's visible, so consumers can see it. You could make yoga blocks, but they are not extremely high value, and footwear generally is. There's a lot of work in footwear. So we want to put cork in high value, high visible consumer products where the value of the cork is going to be seen and appreciated. So picking our spots on the product categories is key. Having solved a lot of technical challenges in making the footwear, we'd like to see a lot of footwear partners. We've built this concept with footwear now, and we'd like to leverage that to some other footwear companies that could use more volume than we can on our own. That's probably step one. Cork fabrics themselves are also pretty fascinating. I've got an old cut out of a newspaper clip from the 20s of this lady wearing a full cork one piece swimming suit. It's so cool. I think they got banned because they create buoyancy.
In Portugal, people make everything out of cork. You can't de-link cork from Portugal. Once you get into cork fabrics, the sky is the limit in terms of diverse applications. The first step will be expanding the footwear line that we have and then bringing in other partners in the footwear business that can do bigger volumes and then we'll keep lifting our eyes from there into other categories.

Is it a the myth that there is not enough cork in the world?
As much as I sound like I'm a cork insider, I'm not in the wine business and I'm not, strictly speaking, in the cork business, at least at this point, so I'm a little bit more objective. The guys that are on the inside, the cork producers, they faced a really big battle around 2000, where alternative stoppers and closures took a big chunk of market share away from cork. There are a lot of misinformation campaigns by alternative closures, screwtops and the plastic guys who are making products cheaper but whose footprint and effect on the planet is ultimately, I would say, more expensive. The problem is we just don't account for those things the right way. Cork is seeing a bit of a comeback, but they are still struggling with that misperception. It's such a unique market because if you think about a peach tree or something, if you're a farmer you need to take your peach to market and you've basically got the peaches ripe and it's done, you've got to sell it when it's ripe. So there is one point in time when you can sell it. If you're a cork tree farmer, if you don't want to harvest the tree, no problem. You can just wait another year. And if you don't like the price next year, no big rush, you can just wait another year. The product does not expire, per say. The cork farmers can be very selective of when they choose to harvest, and that's based on price, largely. So there's no shortage of supply, there are a lot of cork oaks throughout the Mediterranean basin. We can always grow more. If we want more cork, if there were a shortage, we could grow more trees. The only thread of truth is that cork trees do take a long time to get to their first harvest. So if you want more cork trees, it's going to take 30 years to get there. You're not going to see the change to the supply chain overnight.

When you plant cork trees and they grow, they last a really long time?
Some say 200 years to be conservative, 250 years. They last a long time.

Anything to add?
I want people to know that this is an option. There are eco alternatives that don't require us to sacrifice anything. It's just making better choices, and it's about, how do you get people to know which choices are the better choices? I think this is one where we went to a lot of lengths, I don't think there are a lot of shoe companies that have built their own recycling stream. It's a bit of a groundbreaking initiative, and I want people to know it exists. Cork itself is another takeaway, I hope people come to understand more about the value of cork. The understanding is more about supply chains. It's maybe not a super sexy topic, but it's becoming something people are increasingly aware of, where their stuff is being made, how it's being made, what are the components, and what are the consequences of building the components, and cork is one of those [materials] that if you can elect to have a product made by cork vs something else, cork is the right choice. Bottom line. The world is a better place by the continued existence of the cork forests and I have a mission of ensuring that they continue to exist.

Thank you, I did not know how fascinating cork could be!
I know! It is fascinating and having been there, I mean, it's a cool model and it works well for anti-desertification and [cork trees] don't need a ton of water, they are long lasting and high value. The Egyptians used it to line boats travelling up and down the nile. It's been around and been in use forever and it's one of those things that I think will have another renaissance and rediscovery as people recognize the truth about cork.

Contribute to the Kickstarter campaign here. For less than $100 you can be involved and order a pair of the Grace (ladies ballet flats) or Tour (men's lace ups). Styles start shipping next spring, as long as the Kickstarter goal is reached by November 28th. So no rush, but hurry! (Perhaps an early holiday gift is in order for the eco-lover on your list).

*ShopPretty tip: Ladies, if you wear a size 9, you can order the men's version.

Learn more about ReCork here, and more about Sole here.
Send your saved corks to ReCork. Here's how.

Images via ReCork

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