The Story Behind the World's First Biodegradable Footwear: In Their Own Words

Stephen Mayfield is a distinguished professor of Biology at UC San Diego. Tom Cooke came with decades of experience in product development. Together, they created at Bluewear Footwear the world's first biodegradable pair of shoes made from plant-based fabrics and oils that decompose fully. A riveting interview with texfash.com.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • The Blueview Pacific sneakers are made from plant-based materials—sustainable materials made from plant-based oils instead of harmful synthetics that lead to plastic-littered beaches.
  • Mayfield and his team spent six years and over $15 million in government grant awards. Then they hired Tom and his footwear team, and raised money to develop and sell the shoe.
When two surfers with a passion for the planet met in a beachside coffee shop in Cardiff, they had no idea the kind of eco-innovation that would emerge from their unlikely run-in. But when footwear industry expertise meets the most impressive advancement in biotechnology to date, the only choice is to use that fusion for meaningful change: to create the world’s first fully biodegradable* sneaker.
The Green Bundle When two surfers with a passion for the planet met in a beachside coffee shop in Cardiff, they had no idea the kind of eco-innovation that would emerge from their unlikely run-in. But when footwear industry expertise meets the most impressive advancement in biotechnology to date, the only choice is to use that fusion for meaningful change: to create the world’s first fully biodegradable* sneaker. Blueview Footwear

The Blueview project seems to be a meeting point of ideas. Stephen, you are a molecular biologist. Tom, you have been in the footwear industry for decades. How did you gentlemen meet? How did the idea come about? Over a beer? Over a coffee? Over years?
Steve: Funny enough... over coffee. Algenesis (Blueview's parent company) had been in discussions with Reef where Tom worked, about using our polymers in their flip-flops. One day the negotiations were going especially slow, and I said to Tom and one of his co-workers: hey, if we can't get to a reasonable place with existing brands what do you guys think about joining Algenesis, and we make our own shoe? Tom was very intrigued by that idea.
Tom: Ultimately, we made the Reef deal happen. But the idea to launch our own footwear brand kind of stuck in Steve's and my heads. We liked the idea of being able to control our own destiny and take the technology to its highest and best use on a timeline that suited us. Ultimately Steve made me an offer I couldn’t refuse! I’m honoured to help lead the transition to renewable and biodegradable materials in the footwear industry. We are leading by example and intend to share the technology.

The Blueview Pacific emphasises on the technology, comfort and durability. But what was it that you started the idea with? That it should be biodegradable, and that comfort+durability would be the additional binding factors?
Steve: We started with the material, that it needed to come from plants, and that it needed to be biodegradable. Then we developed polyurethane foams that meet specification for high performance footwear, then we (Tom) designed a shoe that was stylish and *very* comfortable.

Tom: Yeah you’ve got it right. We understand why people buy shoes, so things like styling, comfort, fit, and quality are table stakes. We also understand that customers are demanding a lot more effort from companies on the ESG side. People fall in love with brands for the good they do in the world, whatever form that might take. Combining these two ideas is powerful, we call it the green bundle. Our unique contribution is next generation bio-based and biodegradable material technologies that are high quality and durable. The materials Steve and his team invented allowed us to create the world’s first biodegradable and durable sneakers with Blueview. For every pair we sell, that is one less toxic forever plastic shoe that is sold.

How did you go about setting up the business? How did you raise funds, and where did all the research work take place? Was it at the Mayfield Lab itself, or did you work at your own setup? Most important: from concept to product... how long did it take?
Steve: We spent six years and over $15 million dollars in government grant awards to get the materials right (we are still funded by the DOE), that work took place at our labs at UCSD (University of California San Diego) in La Jolla. Then we hired Tom and his footwear team, and then we raised money to develop and sell the shoe.
Tom: Yup, from initial concept to actual market launch took over six years. Commercialising the Soleic polyurethane technology at the factory had to happen virtually over Zoom during a global pandemic…which was one of the most difficult projects of our entire careers. We always joke and say that accomplishment needs to go right at the top of our resumes in bold cap letters! I’m still amazed we were able to pull it off without being in the factory.

With Soleic as the foundation of the Blueview shoes, the company believes it is on a path to true sustainability. This revolutionary plant-based polyurethane is the world’s first foam that is simultaneously biodegradable, renewable, and still seriously durable for high-quality footwear that looks good, feels good, and does good.
Wash Out the Greenwash With Soleic as the foundation of the Blueview shoes, the company believes it is on a path to true sustainability. This revolutionary plant-based polyurethane is the world’s first foam that is simultaneously biodegradable, renewable, and still seriously durable for high-quality footwear that looks good, feels good, and does good. Blueview Footwear

Question for Stephen here: you have worked on algae for a long time. Your list of papers indicate that you have worked on Chlamydomonas reinhardtii from the beginning almost. Is that the algae that we find in Blueview Pacific?
Steve: I have worked on algae for almost 40 years, much of that on Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, but that is not the algae in our products. We are not commercial algae growers; we take algae oil from the market, and we also take non-food plant oils, we need to be flexible in our feedstock to make sure we have the supply to scale up. As we buy more algae oil, the algae producers grow more algae; so it's a bit of chicken or egg for us right now. Hence, our use of non-food plant oils when we need to.

Question for Tom here: You had been in footwear for a while. What was it that struck you so much that you felt the need for a new type of product altogether? Is it that: be it this brand or that, most footwear are all more or less the same? Do you think the footwear industry had been either lethargic or disinterested in reinventing the wheel?
Tom: I don’t believe that footwear companies are going far enough to address the environmental pollution caused by the product creation process itself, both at the beginning and end of life. There is far too much greenwashing going on and we have to fight it. I’ve been in product creation for the majority of my career and so I wanted to lead by example and be the change. The reason Steve and I wound up in that coffee shop is because we had been searching for better materials while I was at REEF. I remember a series of sustainability meetings where we saidL “we can clean up beaches till we are blue in the face but we have to acknowledge that we’re making millions of slabs of non-degradable plastic foam that wind up on those very same beaches as forever trash”. As a surfer you see this cr*p every day; it’s disgusting. So, we started searching for an ocean biodegradable foam to put into the product. And within a month or so I met Steve who was working on that exact material technology right in our backyard. Of course, that meeting led to us partnering on a deeper level.

What made it easier for me to take the leap was my belief in Steve and his world class material science team—they are so inspiring. I understood the ultimate vision they communicated around bio-circularity—it’s the holy grail for our industry. I’m motivated by my passions and the belief that we can and must do better. There were lots of past cultural moments that lead me to this point as well, little nudges to go for it. Al Gore’ An Inconvenient Truth was a wake-up call. I was fortunate to be able to meet inspiring leaders like Capt Charles Moore who discovered the plastic gyres, Cyrill Gutsch from Parley, Dr Sylvia Earl, and learning of Greta Thunberg and her movement was a big call to action. And most importantly I thought about my young nieces and nephew. Like what kind of world are they gonna to grow up in and what can I do to make it a little better? All those things were huge motivators for challenging myself and our teams to drive game-changing innovation.

Blueview's plant-based materials stand up to the same high-quality standards as traditional footwear. The main difference? Blueview's don’t end up as floating trash in the ocean or give off harmful micro-plastics like the rest. Sourced from plant-based oils, Soleic was designed at a molecular level to handle the strains and stresses of your everyday adventures before readily breaking down in compost, soil, and is starting to break down in sea water.
Soleicism Blueview's plant-based materials stand up to the same high-quality standards as traditional footwear. The main difference? Blueview's don’t end up as floating trash in the ocean or give off harmful micro-plastics like the rest. Sourced from plant-based oils, Soleic was designed at a molecular level to handle the strains and stresses of your everyday adventures before readily breaking down in compost, soil, and is starting to break down in sea water. Blueview Footwear

Your website very clearly details everything about the product: from upper to insole to cupsole. But a lot of it is very technical. How would you explain this to an ordinary person: that the shoes are biodegradable under ASTM D5338 conditions?
Steve: I would say that our shoes are as durable as any polyurethane shoe on the market (think Nike, Adidas, etc, way more durable than EVA shoes BTW) and yet will decompose in your home compost pile and turn into mulch in less than six months ... rather than the 300 hundred years it takes a pair of sneakers to decompose, making microplastics as they go BTW.

It is interesting that this aspect is clearly mentioned. After all, biodegradability in itself doesn't mean anything. Something is biodegradable under certain conditions. Many manufacturers don't mention this or specify it at all. Your reactions, please.
Steve: Yes, there is an educational aspect to what we are doing. There is also a huge amount of green washing and just plain lies on the environmental benefits of products. All scientists know that plant based biodegradable materials are THE only true sustainable solution, the planet has been doing that for over a billion years, this will become clear to people as they learn more about our products.

Here is a hypothetical question. Is algae a finite resource?
Steve: Nope, algae are 3 billion years old and going strong!

Durability is, however, a different matter altogether. How do you ascertain that a certain entity will last 'n' years under lab conditions or in field settings? Please elaborate.
Steve: There are machines that take 100,000 steps in your shoe and from that extrapolate how long they will last .. ours outlasted the industry average durability rating for sneakers.
Tom: Yeah, we used an old friend of mine Dr Geoff Alan Gray of Heeluxe Labs up in Santa Barbara to test fit and durability. He’s the man and his “time machine” robotic foot mechanism is one of the best tools we have to simulate one year of wear on a sneaker. A lot of the major brands in the industry test durability and fit with him.

The name. Brandview Pacific. Did the name come naturally, since San Diego is by the Pacific? Or did you have to brainstorm a lot?
Tom: We brainstormed on the brand name quite a lot due to IP issues which is pretty standard—it’s just hard to get a name and trademark past legal hurdles. The brand name always involved *Blue* because we were inspired by the planet Earth which is a blue planet. So, we had a list of *Blue* oriented names to start. To get to Blueview I needed just one more point of inspiration and it came from watching a Darren Aronofsky documentary called One Strange Rock. Episode 1 of that show described the transcendent experience of the astronauts viewing Earth from orbit for the first time. They all talked about how they wish everyone could see our planet from that perspective. Only then do you see that we are a spaceship hurtling through the universe and the life support system is that thin blue layer of atmosphere. That’s what inspired the brand name Blueview—when you finally understand how important it is to save our biosphere…then you have experienced the Blueview. My dear and unfortunately departed friend, Peter Moore (of Nike/Jordan fame) who designed our brand logo came up with the Pacific idea for the shoe style name. He used to tell me that he felt that being inside the tube of a big wave was the Blueview and since he knew we loved the surfing and the oceans he wanted to pick up on that theme for the product. Peter was a huge inspiration to us all, he was a legendary creative icon in our industry.

There is an educational aspect to what we are doing. . There is also a huge amount of green washing and just plain lies on the environmental benefits of products. All scientists know that plant based biodegradable materials are THE only true sustainable solution, the planet has been doing that for over a billion years, this will become clear to people as they learn more about our products.

Stephen Mayfield
Stephen Mayfield / Chief Executive Officer / Blueview Footwear

How long does it take a batch to be manufactured? Can production be scaled to infinity? Or is it that Only 'x' number of units can be produced at a particular facility over a given timeframe?
Tom: Overall, production time depends on the complexity of the product. From design concept to finished goods in a warehouse typically takes 12-18 months for a standard shoe. Due to inventing new materials this process took six years for our Blueview Pacific shoe. Assuming all the raw materials are commercialised and the prototype design is confirmed it typically takes about 4-6 months to actually produce the shoes in the factory. This is a combination of sourcing the raw materials for production, manufacturing the product itself at the factory, and then having it shipped to the warehouse. Production factory capacities and how quickly they can scale vary depending on size of the facility and the amount of production lines inside. Average monthly capacity for a standard single production line is about 40,000-50,000 pairs per month. An average factory might have about 10 of those production lines in each factory building. Most factories are part of a group that own multiple factory buildings. Major production hubs like Southeast Asia or areas of Europe are quite adept at scaling footwear brands up—it’s the classic “good problem to have”. If you have the demand, factories will find the capacity for you! Regarding raw materials, as Steve said one of the reasons we wound up with non-food plant oils in our first biodegradable foam material is due to price and the ability to scale up. There aren’t any immediate supply constraints on our feedstocks now. Algae feedstocks will come online in much greater quantities over the next few years as demand for that technology increases.

At $135 for a pair, the Blueview Pacific is not frightfully expensive. What has been the response so far? Are you planning a new range? Or maybe expanding? How many retail stores are these available at?
Tom: Correct, that retail price is right in line with leading sustainable footwear brands. The response to the product has been great so far! We have a 4.78 out of 5 review rating on our website. Building a new brand takes time and we believe it’s an important driver for belief that our technology is real. You can’t imagine the difference between explaining what you’re doing to the feeling of wearing the Blueviews and understanding what we’ve actually achieved. We’ve literally seen the light bulb go off for folks at our retail pop-ups and it’s exciting. We’ve also seen more brands approach since the launch of Blueview asking to adopt the technology. People fall in love with the product and the brand quickly. Now, the goal is to get the word out to much wider audience. And we hope that we’ll get some viral word of mouth going at some point in the future. We are planning new products for next year, for a spring/summer release. A product at a more affordable retail price level is coming next. For now our product is just available on our e-comm store. We are in the midst of expanding to omnichannel distribution. We are opening some other online marketplace accounts soon and are working to sell our product to independent retail stores that match our ethos. Exciting things to come!

People fall in love with brands for the good they do in the world, whatever form that might take. Combining these two ideas is powerful, we call it the green bundle. Our unique contribution is next generation bio-based and biodegradable material technologies that are high quality and durable. The materials Steve and his team invented allowed us to create the world’s first biodegradable and durable sneakers with Blueview.

Tom Cooke
Tom Cooke / President / Blueview Footwear
 
 
  • Dated posted: August 22, 2022
  • Last modified: August 24, 2022