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Entrepreneur creates compostable shoe to combat a major industry issue: 'I couldn't help feeling a responsibility to do better'

Developing a durable, biodegradable shoe wasn't an easy task.

Developing a durable, biodegradable shoe wasn’t an easy task.

Photo Credit: PURIFIED

By looking to the past, PURIFIED founder Will Verona is poised to usher in a new era of sustainable, stylish, and comfortable footwear to help heal the connection between humanity and nature. 

Prior to the footwear brand's launch on April 22, the London-based designer and entrepreneur spoke with The Cool Down about his journey of making the ABACA, a plastic-free, toxin-free shoe that can safely return to the Earth at the end of its life. 

While Verona said sustainability was on his mind when he was a shoemaking student in Italy, his experiences working as a designer in Sri Lanka nearly a decade ago deeply impacted his path forward.

"On my first trip, I remember driving from the hotel to the factory. And we went through this town, and it was a relatively flat area. But there was just this massive mound," he told TCD. "My brain literally couldn't even fathom that it was a landfill."

The mound, known as "Trash Mountain," collapsed several years later, killing multiple people. 

"I couldn't help feeling a responsibility to do better," he shared. "When we think of landfill crisis, we often think of microplastics and products leaching into water. But this was a direct — a landslide. … And it is not just domestic waste. It was quite common that a country like the U.K. would export their waste to countries like Sri Lanka. So it was likely the U.K.'s waste was part of the problem. And I just didn't want to contribute towards that as a designer any longer."

Developing a durable, biodegradable shoe wasn't an easy task, and Verona embarked on a four-year journey of exploration. 

"Someone in Portugal explained it to me quite well, which was, 'You can use new materials with existing constructions. You can use existing materials with new sorts of ways of making shoes. But to combine the two makes it very difficult and very challenging,'" Verona told TCD. 

Ultimately, for the upper part of the shoe, Verona landed on Bananatex, which is made from Abacá, a type of banana tree that is native to the Philippines and doesn't require chemical treatments.

Developing a durable, biodegradable shoe wasn't an easy task.
Photo Credit: PURIFIED

According to the Philippines' Department of Agriculture, farmers often use waste from this self-sufficient, nutrient-rich plant as organic fertilizer. Abacá also supports the country's economy, can aid reforestation initiatives, and protects against flooding and landslides.  

"The moment we saw Bananatex, it was the first material I saw that I was like, 'Yeah, this is going to work.' It was just an improvement on any other canvas. The feel of it, how durable it is. We just knew we had to use it," Verona told TCD, adding that the ABACA uses an uncoated version of Bananatex. 

That doesn't mean wearers should worry about soggy feet, though.

"It has water resistance. If I put drops of water on the top of the shoe, they'll just sit there," Verona explained. 

Meanwhile, ABACA's sole is made with PLIANT from Natural Fiber Welding, a U.S.-based company that Verona says is collaboratively aligned with PURIFIED's aims and provided support and scientific wisdom.

Whereas plastic in most shoes is made from petroleum — a highly polluting fuel — the company said the latex in the ABACA is extracted from the Hevea tree using ancient techniques that support the growth of the tree, as well as forest biodiversity.

Verona says that the fully latex sole, inspired by energy patterns of ocean waves, is one of his favorite parts of the ABACA.

"When I started, I got really into biomimicry," he told TCD. "… So, what I knew about latex was that it has a very high energy return. … With every step — you're almost getting some energy back. It's like a benefit. It just makes it a really comfy and really responsive sole."

Developing a durable, biodegradable shoe wasn't an easy task.
Photo Credit: PURIFIED

As for the craftsmanship, you'll find no dirty energy–based, toxic glues holding the ABACA together — something that is typical in the shoe industry, according to Verona. Instead, the upper and outsole are connected by a proprietary "binding method" using natural threads. 

"We found a factory [in Portugal] that fell in love with the project, and they were just happy to be on board for the journey. And they were saying, 'You know, we don't know if this project is possible, but we're going to explore every single avenue with you and see where we get,'" he told TCD. 

In the short term, Verona hopes that PURIFIED can serve as an "incubator" as it embraces new materials and ideas, working toward a zero-plastic world and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a truly circular brand

"The space of biomaterials is in its relative infancy," Verona said. "So you've got to embrace them, work with them, try and be part of the solution, help them improve. And that's what I would love to see — the industry kind of adopting that mindset more."

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