July 29, 2019

Shoes from Sludge—Bloom's Mission to Turn Toxic Algae into Footwear

A lot of countries are struggling with epidemic levels of algae across the globe — which can prove toxic to people and ecosystems if left unchecked — one brand is looking to put the invasive organism to work by turning it into plastic that can be used in an array of products including footwear.

What are algal blooms?

Algae are organisms that are neither plant, animal or fungi. They can be single-celled (like phytoplankton) or multicellular (like giant kelp). Like land plants, they conduct photosynthesis to feed themselves, but lack a lot of their counterpart’s same structures and cell types.

Algae are naturally occurring, but under certain conditions, they can propagate to excessive levels in bodies of water called algal blooms that often discolor the water they take over. They end up leeching nutrients that kill other life in the surrounding waters, which subsequently decompose and feed the bloom again.

Some types of algae produce domoic acid and microsystin that can poison wildlife and humans. Accidentally swallowing, swimming or inhaling the algae causes vomiting and diarrhea while extended contact can lead to cancer and liver failure.

While Earth’s creeping temperature may be a factor to explain the sudden global epidemic of algal blooms, it is more likely a result of the increase in nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in these waters. These elements are found in fertilizer used in our lawns and farms which is subsequently introduced to larger bodies by rainwater.

Key players tacking algal bloom

  • AECOM: The multinational engineering firm specializes in massive infrastructures such as wind farms, bridges and NYC’s One World Trade Center. Its technology aims to filter water to recuperate the algae and then return clean water to the source. To do so, a coagulant is added to slimy water to make the algae gather into clumps. Air bubbles are then pumped in, which lift the algae clumps to the surface to be skimmed off.
  • Rob Falken: The surfer and inventor holds a background in materials development. He’s applied algae’s high protein content as a stand-in for petroleum-based plastics, such as the EVA used in yoga mats and shoe soles.
  • Algix: The company developed a small-scale method for vacuuming slime out of catfish farms. In 2014, they partnered with Falken by providing Rob Falken with algae that he then developed into a plant-based foam. The process involves pulverizing solar-dried algae, turning the powder into pellets, mixing it with EVA and molding it into usable sheets of bioplastic.

Early adopters

Bloom was borne out of Algix’s partnership with Falken in 2015. Their small-scale production initially attracted boutique brands for niche products. However, in order to attract and supply bigger brands, Bloom partnered with AECOM to greatly increase its algae-harvesting capacity in 2016. Two years later, AECOM began its first large-scale removal projects in parts of Florida, where the algal bloom problem is especially bad. Over 15 brands have since caught on, including:

  • Bogs: put Bloom footbeds into its shoes and boots
  • Altra: built Bloom into its new line of casual sneakers
  • Saola: Bloom insoles and outsoles
  • Lane Eight: Soon to release a new line of training shoes using Bloom
  • adidas: currently testing Bloom foam for use in future products.

Hurdles and hope

Despite its promise, Bloom might not catch on right away.

  • Non-recyclable: just like EVA, it can’t be melted and reprocessed into new material.
  • Cost: The raw material costs nothing, but it’s still not cheap enough to deter most mainstream brands within the $20-40 USD per pair range from switching to it
  • Price point: The brands that adopt Bloom are the ones that want to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by pricing their goods in the $80-100 USD range.

That said, even if Bloom doesn’t become a hit overnight, every part of the process that the company created—not just the final product—shows promise for tackling multiple issues at once. For one, AECOM’s algae filtration system could prove to be a far more cost effective way to clean waterways than dredging, while using Bloom in place of EVA means less dependence on petroleum products.

It remains to be seen as to what we’ll eventually do about the root cause of the algal blooms (agricultural use of fertilizers). For now, the bioplastic offers a solution, no matter how imperfect.

Image Credit: Maggie Chiang

June 13, 2019

Do we really need any more "sustainable" fashion brands?

As the discussion around the climate crisis continues to gain attention and with it, serious consideration on how to actually solve it, multiple industries will have to face the question of whether more consumerism is the answer.

Movers in the space

  • Maxine Bédat: Founded the widely anticipated ethical fashion brand Zady before ending it to launch the New Standard Institute, a non-profit data hub that supports research and publishes findings on best practices to “right misinformation wrongs” in the ethical fashion space.
  • Orsola de Castro: started her own upcycle label before co-founding ethical fashion advocacy group Fashion Revolution.
  • Céline Semaan: used to ethically manufacture accessories and garments before starting Study Hall, a UN-backed series of sustainability-centric conferences.
  • Rachel Kibbe: ran a multi-brand ethical fashion e-tailer before turning her company Helpsy into the largest used clothing collector in the Northeast.
  • Shannon Lohr: Founded Factory45, an ethical brand accelerator program.

Of all the above interviewed, not a single one answered that the key to advancing the sustainable fashion movement was more brands, which suggests an uncomfortable cultural truth we will have to face: more is still more.

Vicious cycles

Current culture reveres if not deifies entrepreneurship to the point that it is now a social marker to be a founder of something, including brands that innovate to produce something new. Even within entrepreneur culture, a business is framed as the ultimate means of “doing good,” which attracts even more people to the space to fulfill that ideal.

And that space is already saturated and still dominated by big companies. Sustainability conference Copenhagen Fashion Summit is partly funded by H&M, Nike, Kering, and Target, showing that top players are clinging to a leading role in driving sustainability—even if they’re ill-equipped to do so as brands. This could be compared to the coal industry’s fight to remain in business and relevant to the clean energy movement even though its ideals are incompatible with the goals.

“Humanitarianism and entrepreneurship are actually distinct things.”

In his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, reporter Anand Giridharadas writes: “Often, when people set out to do the thing they are already doing and love to do … and they promise grand civilizational benefits as a spillover effect, the solution is oriented around the solver’s needs more than the world’s — the win-wins, purporting to be about others, are really about you.”

The unfortunate reality we are in now is one where we’re actually forced to evaluate and weigh our tangible individual freedom against an abstract greater good far off elsewhere in the world and in the future. Concerns about the environment have lead to people giving up plastic straws, later meat and eventually fossil fuels. These are all in line with how much of our comforts we are willing to give up for the planet.

But comforts are not life purposes, and things are getting to the point where we might have to consider changing those too. With overpopulation a concern, people are considering not having children, not only a traditionally major part of our life cycles but also a source of meaning in a conflicted world. This is not meant to equate having children with founding a fashion label, but because both are sources of meanings and well within the vast realm of possibilities we enjoy in the first world, should we change our life goals to suit the planet or exercise our freedom to stay the course—accomplish what we want, how we want it and when we want it?

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