Shoes with Soy

Imagine the pile of shoes just inside the garage, home of scuffed workboots and nearly outgrown sneakers. Those muck boots have squelched through their fair share of swampy fields, and they’re not the only workhorses in this pile.

One pair in particular has earned its spot many times over; worn by every member of the family at some point, this pair of flip-flops is strictly for emergencies. Like going down to grab the mail. Or reminding your youngest (again) that running barefoot on a farm isn’t the best idea. Those are shoes you need to work every time. Thanks to a company called Okabashi, those shoes are now made with soy.

We talked to company president Kim Falkenhayn about what makes Okabashi and soy go together like rain boots and puddles.

What’s special about Okabashi shoes?

We’re one of the remaining 2 percent of shoe manufacturers still operating domestically. We make shoes in Buford, Georgia, where people have been making shoes for generations — first out of leather scraps, and now using renewable materials, including soybean oil.

Okabashi shoes are well known for our Comfort Footbed. Lots of arch support and contours allow people who thought they couldn’t wear flip-flops to love them. Runners who need more support, people recovering from surgery and those with issues such as plantar fasciitis are able to wear our shoes comfortably.

Sustainability is a big part of your brand. How did you become interested in being sustainable?

In the late 80s and early 90s, we were watching factory after factory leave the U.S., and we didn’t want to be next. We had to become even leaner, and our production had to be even more efficient to compete with inexpensive labor overseas. So we adopted new materials and processes that allowed us to recycle all of the scrap produced in the manufacturing process, eventually starting a shoe recycling program for our customers as well.

Part of our efficiency efforts is watching for new materials that would not just make our products better, but more sustainable. When new developments in bioplastics engineering made soy-derived plasticizers commercially viable, we jumped on the opportunity to replace that 45% of the compound we use in our shoes with a bio- rather than petroleum-derived material.

Sustainability for Okabashi is similar to what it is for many farmers — caring for the environment and business considerations are both important. How does sustainability fit into your business model?

It must be more than just a marketing feature for your customers. A lot like farmers, sustainability is ingrained in our DNA. It must work holistically with all of our processes to make it work in the end. It’s so much a part of what we do and how we think about design. In fact, there are several product ideas we have shelved for years because we haven’t found the right solution yet. If we can’t make them sustainably in the U.S., we don’t feel like it fits us.

What makes soybean oil a good fit for Okabashi?

There are a couple of things that make soybean oil a good fit for our plasticizer. For one, the addition of soybean oil helped the product meet all of our specifications — from softness to strength. On top of that, soy is grown on a large scale in the U.S. It’s available anytime we need it at any quantity we require. Those two things allowed us to switch from a petroleum-based product to a bio-based product that fits our brand better.

Where can farmers buy Okabashi shoes?

You’ll find the Okabashi brand in Walgreens and CVS, where we’ve had partnerships for decades. We’re really excited about new doors that could open up in the near future. We also have our boutique brands: Oka-B at resort shops and spas and Third Oak, flip-flops and sandals designed for outdoor adventures.

So when those Old Navy flip-flops wear a hole in them (again), consider replacing them with Okabashi shoes that are supportive for feet and for U.S. soybean farmers. They may not be snow-day friendly, but they sure fit in a stocking or two.

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