Uncork & ReCORK: The SOLE Solution!

Meet Paul Maughan-Brown

Content manager for Canadian supportive footwear brand SOLE and our natural wine cork recycling program ReCORK. Paul grew up in South Africa, moved to Canada in 2018, and was delighted to find work with a company that exists to make a truly positive impact on both people and the planet.

Since its launch in 2001, SOLE has helped millions of happy customers live life to the fullest, with pain-free feet. SOLE launched ReCORK in 2008 to extend the useful life of a naturally sustainable material as a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based synthetics. Now ReCORK is on the brink of releasing ReCORK Recycled Cork, a revolutionary material that they believe will change the way people think about sustainability in the footwear industry.

Every year, over 31 billion bottles of wine are consumed worldwide (and I definitely play my part in that!) But instead of letting all of that cork go to waste, SOLE and ReCORK stepped in. And with the help of their recycling partners, ReCORK has collected over 110 million natural corks and counting – and stands as North America’s largest natural wine cork recycling program.

Today you’ll hear from Paul Maughan-Brown – the Content manager for the Canadian supportive footwear brand SOLE and their natural wine cork recycling program ReCORK. We chat about the holistic approach to sustainability at SOLE and ReCORK, their new ReCORK material, and C02 initiative, and Paul shares his perspective on how to look at cork and sustainability in a new way.


Getting started

SOLE started as a way to create affordable over-the-counter insoles that could function the same as a prescription orthotic at an affordable price. One day Mike Baker, CEO of SOLE and ReCORK, was visiting a friend’s lakehouse and realized that this beautiful cork floor he was standing on had been preserved for 60 years, that it felt great under his feet, and was a sustainable option – everything he had been looking for. So in 2008, ReCORK was born as a way for individuals and businesses to collect and recycle their natural wine corks across North America, and the recycled cork was put into SOLE.

Sustainable performance

SOLE wanted to create a shoe that had the same performance and function as any other performance footwear that was not made of plastic. Plastics made up most of the material in your typical running shoe or sneaker.

“One of the major ones is ethyl vinyl acetate, which is ethylene, which is manipulated in refineries to create this spongy, super high performance, material, but a material that is derived directly from fossil fuels as part of the fossil fuel industry….When we talk about the fossil fuel industry, people think about, you know, gasoline, and that’s the, your brain immediately goes through that, but it’s really so much more than that.”

Cork, on the other hand, Paul says it is nature’s performance material.

“It’s naturally moisture-wicking. It’s naturally buoyant. It’s naturally insulating. It’s great for temperature insulation, naturally antimicrobial. It’s hugely versatile.”

Cork as a sustainable material

This might amaze you as it did me, but cork actually just grows on trees! The cork as you know it is actually the bark of a Cork Oak Tree. Their unique outer layer can be easily separated and hand-harvested from the tree once every 9-12 years, like peeling fruit, and the tree immediately begins to regenerate its bark again.

What is so amazing about the cork oak tree is that it absorbs mass amounts of C02 from the air. It is estimated that every year cork oak forests in Portugal alone retain up to 14 million tons of CO2. When the bark is harvested, it jumpstarts the carbon absorption process – taking in even more. They grow for hundreds of years and harvesting can actually extend the Cork Oak Tree’s lifecycle. No trees are cut down in the harvesting of Cork Oak Trees.

“When you have a wine cork, that wine cork is worth 73 times its own weight in carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere.”

Why wine corks?

As I mentioned earlier, there are billions of bottles of wine consumed yearly, which means a lot of wine corks. Paul says, “Wine corks are the main product from the sort of top 30% of the quality of cork bark.”

To manufacture wine corks, the industry punches the wine corks out of the bark, then the remnants become post-industrial cork material that ReCORK gets into its stream to recycle. Wine corks can be easily captured before they go to a landfill. With partners across North America, ReCORK is able to save wine corks from the restaurant industry and individuals for reuse.

SOLE gets the ReCORK Recycled Cork and then uses it to create insoles and sandals. As a wine cork or cork may be brittle – you might think that it doesn’t work well as an insole – but you’d be wrong.

Paul runs and hikes in his SOLES regularly for years and they are still holding up strong. It’s all about refining their recork recycled material to make it better and better.

The New ReCORK Recycled Cork

One of the exciting developments of Paul shared with us is their new ReCORK recycled cork.

“Our new ReCORK recycled cork, which is super durable. We can control how soft it is how much cushioning it has, it’s incredibly light.”

And they are debuting it in a beautiful midsole shoe made in collaboration with United By Blue. They didn’t want to just stop at the soles – they wanted to make a shoe that was sustainable from tongue to tread.

“It’s merino wool, recycled PT laces, merino wool upper, the insole is going to be made out of a green EVA, sugarcane-based green EVA which is actually carbon negative as well from the carbon trappings the sugarcane. The outsole is made with natural rubber.”

In fact, United By Blue won an innovation award for their use of BisonShield, a byproduct of the ranching industry, to insulate these shoes.

“It’s sort of a holistic approach…Each decision that gets made gets made from a perspective of looking at the overall impact -looking at function, sustainability, efficiency, whatever it might be.”

Co2 Negative Initiative – SOLE and ReCORK

SOLE and ReCORK have also launched their C02 Negative Initiative – an initiative to promote and facilitate accurate climate impact labeling on consumer products and certify carbon-negative products.

“The most important measure today and in the face of the climate crisis is what does this product do in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. So co2 negative is an initiative to promote and provide branding for, or labeling rather, for a product’s carbon impact. It’s a certification that people can get but not just a certification, it’s really trying to drive a movement to say – we believe all products should be labeled with the impacts. We believe you should be able to just like you pick up a chocolate bar or a can of whatever in the grocery store, and there’s a list on there that tells you how many calories and it tells you what’s the impact on your body of this thing that I’m about to consume – what’s the impact on the planet of this item that I’m going to buy? And so co2 negative, we say that all products should be labeled with their carbon impact.”

In case you were wondering, SOLE received its C02 Negative Certification through third-party lifecycle analysis! Their goal is to empower consumers with this initiative and hold corporations responsible. They want to make sure consumers are empowered to make informed decisions, and they can do that if their clothes, food, and everything else are labeled with its impact on our planet.

How can you get involved with ReCORK and SOLE?

The first thing you can do to get involved is to start recycling your natural wine corks! You can tell by the feel that it is a natural cork. It is not waxy and doesn’t have a sheen. To find wines that have natural corks, you can visit the open-source website CORKWatch. Find a wine that has a natural cork? Add it to the website!

You can also go to your local favorite bar or restaurants and request that they become a partner (or you can become one yourself!)

Support the cork industry by purchasing cork materials – like SOLE footbeds or sandals.

“Cork exists for as long as human beings have a financial incentive for planting and caring for cork forests. So the biggest threat to cork is a collapse in the demand for cork.”

Spread the word about cork and help spread the message by following along with ReCORK and SOLE on Instagram!

Did you love this episode? Let us know in the comments below!

Keywords: ReCORK, Cork, Wine Cork, Sustainable, SOLE, Cork Oak Tree, Recycled, Carbon Impact, Carbon Negative, C02

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