Although the sneaker industry has taken important steps towards sustainability, unfortunately the projects currently underway are still far from including a genuine circular economy.

The critical factors remain those of a complicated production and a use of different materials (rubber, textiles, various plastics, etc.), which make it almost impossible to disassemble and recycle a pair of trainers at the end of their lifecycle. Accordingly, too many pairs of shoes end up in landfills and it can take even up to 1000 years for them to decompose. An incalculable damage for the environment, especially when you think of how this type of footwear represents an important percentage in production of around 23 billion pairs produced a year globally.

Aware of this need to implement a strategy for a responsible use of our planet’s resources, German designer Emilie Burfeind tackled this issue in a revolutionary way through her Diploma project at the Offenbach University of Art and Design am Main, giving life to a new kind of sneaker: Sneature.

The name is a crasis of “sneaker” and “nature”. A 3D knitted sock sneaker, Sneature is designed to be sustainable in its processes and materials and is completely recyclable at the end of its lifecycle. Without having to sacrifice a striking design and performance.

Starting from the materials. For each one of the three functional and structural areas of the shoe – the upper, transition, and sole – Emilie Burfeind used three different bio-based materials. The 3D knitted upper uses Chiengora, yarn spun from recycled dog hair with excellent natural properties including water absorption and release, and antistatic properties. The transition area from the membrane to the sole is formed by dipping it into liquid natural rubber derived from the sap of the hevea brasiliensis tree, to create a water-repellent, protective, and flexible mudguard. The sole is instead made of a mycelium filament fungi structure mixed with a cellulose substrate made of hemp and other agricultural waste products grown in a mould. The three elements of the sole, positioned underneath the heel, the metatarsal, and the toes, help to stabilize the shoe.

The design concept. It allows for infinite variations on the theme to be created using digital, three-dimensional patterns: the knit can be manipulated to obtain softer, more resistant, more breathable, or more elastic areas in accordance with the performance required; the sole can take on different qualities or features in accordance with the expected performance/look. All of this without having to introduce additional or different materials, with the design of the initial materials simply adapted and modified. Additionally, it is seamless, and the raw materials selected do not create waste.

The production. Since Sneature uses bio-based and waste materials, the quantity of energy required for their production and to process them is very low compared to petroleum-based raw materials. According to Burfeind, the manufacturing process is faster, with smaller production facilities and less energy than a conventional trainer. Plus, 3D knitting technology allows for manufacturing on demand, preventing overproduction while allowing for the customisation of the size, colours, patterns, and materials of the shoe.

End of life. The designer estimates a lifecycle of around two years for Sneature: after this period of time, its components can be disassembled and recycled. The pulverised mycelium can be reused to generate other soles, while the upper can be carded to create new yarns. In alternative to recycling, the materials of the shoe can be  can be broken down in an industrial composter, where after four weeks, their nutrients can be reintroduced into the ecological material cycle.

With the Sneature project, Emilie Burfeind has shown how the concept of sustainability can concretely be applied to the world of sneakers, thanks to a design that has bio-based materials and the circularity of the product at its heart.