A family operation that started in Georgia 35 years ago is now making headway in sustainability with the help of soybean farmers across the country. Okabashi Shoes, based in Buford, Ga., is producing flip-flops and sandals made with up to 45-percent biobased ingredients, including soybean oil.
“Only one percent of the shoes worn in America are made in America and we are proud to be part of that one percent,” says Kim Falkenhayn, president of Okabashi Shoes. “We were looking for ways to be more efficient. We quickly found that working with biobased and recycled materials served us a dual purpose for sustainability of our business and the environment.”
Initially looking for ways to cut costs, the soy-based products became a selling point for the organization.
“There are not a lot of options for apparel and shoes that are not made with ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA’s), which are non-recyclable with a limited lifespan,” Falkenhayn says. “Being able to reuse the materials from our shoes and make something that lasts just as long with the same performance standards is exactly what we wanted.”
Searching for a more eco-friendly alternative, it was also important for them to maintain or exceed their performance standards.
“The bio component of our compound is our plasticizer, which gives the material flexibility,” Falkenhayn says. “We found that the newer materials derived from soy oil will not break down and have the same performance as petroleum based shoes, but derived from a renewable resource.”
When the idea first sparked, biobased plasticizers were just coming into the market. With time of the essence, Okabashi dove feet first into this new opportunity.
“It usually takes years before this type of technology is commercialized and made readily available, but we work with one of the biggest compounders in the world and pushed them for the newest technology,” Falkenhayn says. “They were just getting into bio based plasticizers and needed some customers to bring this new technology to market and we wanted to be the first one to do that.”
At only the first stage of product testing, it seemed as if the shoe fit perfectly.
“There truly was no meaningful difference. We worked with our suppliers and came up with a formula that worked and was cost neutral,” Falkenhayn says. “It was truly an ‘aha’ moment when customers were getting excited that we were making shoes with soy and that became the selling point. It was an added benefit and created an even cooler story than we already had.”
Similar to a cake batter mix, soy oil is one component added to a mix that goes through a plasticizer. The plasticizer product is then mixed with the base and a blower acts like baking soda as a compound to melt them down.
“The shoes form little nitrogen bubbles inside which make the product lighter and softer, while also adding to the flexibility,” Falkenhayn says. “The foam of a used shoe can be melted down and molded into the shape of a new shoe. Once it cools down, the shoe is complete, unless there are other components that needs to be added for special requests.”
Available across the United States, Okabashi Shoes are going anywhere from CVS and Walgreens seasonal aisles to spas and resorts because of the sustainability message. Recently, the company also landed a major deal by partnering with Target stores nationwide.
“Our USDA Bio-preferred Certification proves that a third of our product is derived from soy oil, a bio based product,” Falkenhayn says. “The practical reasons our customers love the shoes is because of the sustainability, performance and durability the shoe provides.”
With help from soybean checkoff investments, Okabashi has sold more than 1.5 million shoes while continuing to search for new ways to use soy oil.
“If we can find more ways to use the oil, then we are being more efficient on using all portions of the bean. This is a great way to use it gallon for gallon and displace harmful petroleum products,” Falkenhayn says. “The soybean checkoff has provided us knowledge and expertise through research and development and networking with other like-minded individuals. It has been awesome to see everyone embracing this biobased shoe.”
Products have been shipped across the country in an effort to display the positive impact one pair of shoes can have on the environment.
“We have had emails come in from soybean farmers telling us what it means to them knowing companies are trying to build demand for their soy,” says Falkenhayn. “Without the farming industry, we wouldn’t have this product and we would be stuck to using fossil fuels. If we can grow demand for soy, we are not only bolstering the farmers, but also the thousands of rural communities across the country.”