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An essay written by Andrea Paulson, Director of Product Engineering
Illustration by Danni Fuentes
At Saucony, we have some big goals when it comes
to sustainability—namely, moving away from the use of virgin plastic in our
products. In order to get there, our team has been experimenting with all
forms of sustainable design and manufacturing, discovering innovative
approaches while also tapping into some classic ones too. I'm Andrea Paulson,
head of Product Engineering at Saucony, and this is a peek behind the curtain
of how we made the 100% natural Jazz Court RFG.
When we were tasked with making our first shoe using ZERO plastic, picking the
upper materials was not the tough part. Natural materials are plentiful.
Plant-based fabrics like cotton, jute, hemp, bamboo, even lyocell (cellulose
fibers made from wood pulp) are commodity materials these days. Animal-based
natural fibers such as silk and wool have been used in garments since an
estimated 3000 BCE. It is relatively easy to spec a modern foot covering
that uses a majority of non-petroleum derived materials. This approach is
So why was it difficult? The hardest part of building natural or eco-friendly
footwear is the bottom unit—the part under your foot, not around it. The
materials that cushion and protect your body from the concrete and hardwood
jungles we now live in are typically far from nature's bounty. They mostly
consist of chemically bonded polymers and copolymers, thermoplastics,
elastomers, and urethanes. And these synthetics are made from petroleum
byproducts—meaning they are plastics. These materials are astounding and
have created endless breakthroughs and innovations in both the running
industry and the world. Without them, Saucony would not have PWRRUN PB
or most other performance technologies we are known for.
But the truth is that not all of our footwear is meant for running or the
high-impact nature of it. Not all product needs to use these plastics. And
where plastic isn't needed, shouldn't we find something better?
Sometimes to innovate,
you have to revist the past.
Sometimes to innovate, you have to revisit the past. We solved our bottom
unit's "plastic problem" using a material known to ancient Mayans—hevea
brasiliensis. The hevea plant, or rubber tree, can be tapped for its milk,
also known as latex. 2,000 years ago, the Mayans would dip their feet into
latex sap to create a protective layer for their soles.. Fast forward to
present day, and while the process to make the Jazz Court RFG outsoles is
slower than modern synthetic rubber molding, it does not require the curing
agents nor the chemical additives of the latter. So while the durable
"rubber sole" on your favorite shoe is a blend of TPUs and styrene and
must be vulcanized, that's not the case with the Jazz Court RFG. It is
one material only: 100% natural rubber. It might not last thousands of
years like its synthetic competitor, but that is exactly why we picked it!
Also underfoot is the sock insert. These are often made of EVA or PU and
usually cloth-covered for comfort. We countered our normal EVA with a plush
undyed wool felt. Naturally renewable, breathable, odor-resistant, and
thermo-reactive, so you stay warm when it's cold and cool when it's hot.
So, we solved for the bottom unit. We had nearly succeeded at making a
completely natural shoe. The remaining sprint to the finish occurred on
the manufacturing floor. Despite very few people asking for this stringent
examination of the assembly process, we felt these minutiae were almost
paramount to all else. Additionally, a layperson might not know the
extents and nuances involved in footwear production, so it was of vital
importance for us to take these strides to align the manufacturing and
construction with the rest of the bill of materials.
As a brand, we sense the urgency
to make changes to improve these
processes and deliver products
that consider and respect the Earth
and our future on her.
Let me start by saying that footwear manufacturing is fairly archaic. It
requires many different machines, and oftentimes many humans to organize
all the materials, assemble, and finish product. And it's still hard to
automate most processes. This all means that the average shoe feeds heavily
on natural resources, the power grid, and manhours. As a brand, we sense
the urgency to make changes to improve these processes and deliver products
that consider and respect the Earth and our future on her. So we decided to
further rewind the tape on footwear manufacturing. To revisit and relearn
some of the traditional cobbling methods unadulterated by the industrial era.
For example, Indigenous People of North America made footwear using minimal
resources and no plastic (moccasins), so while not directly correlated, we
already had historical proof of concept.
Before assembling flat material parts into anything that looks like a foot
covering, the materials must be cut. On a modern factory cutting line, bolts
of fabric arrive and are then silkscreened with guidelines of where the pattern
parts should be cut and stitched. These patterns are for the metal cutting dies
to be aligned and then stamped for flat parts. The screen-print is usually a UV
paint that can be seen under a blacklight. Believing we could do better than paint,
we used a trick from baking and swapped in a paste of flour and water to outline
our cutting and stitching locations. Once stitching and assembly is complete, the
water evaporates, and the dried flour dusts off to reveal a paint-free product.
Adhesives and glues are commonplace in performance running sneakers. They are an
easy and effective way to hold materials together, especially soft ones. However,
glues can be messy and even the best water-based, natural-polymer adhesives contain
levels of ammonia and emulsifying stabilizers. Instead, we used a true sidewall stitch
to attach the upper to the latex sole. A cotton thread is sewn through the side of the
bottom unit into the upper to hold the parts together. That's it. We had become obsessed.
We had become obsessed.
We had become obsessed.
Before the sidewall stitch is used to affix the bottom, an inking process to mark the
upper for alignment usually happens, True to form, even that ink wasn't natural enough
for this project, so we took a page from haberdashery and used tailors chalk instead.
We kept going, analyzing each step of the manufacturing process and adapting it to
reduce energy and avoid chemical use. We turned back the clocks to a time before
machines and manpower were thrown at the industry. We had to be simple and precise, start
to finish. We removed parts and procedures, the workers needed to do them, and the
energy and heat needed to complete. No hot tunnels—the long rows of ovens and conveyor
belts that activate primers and cements for attaching soles. These shoes are "cool"
processed to save energy. No hard-plastic counters or box toes. No embossing, no
molding, no cementing, no back-part shaping. No welding, no fusing. No unnatural
dyes or paints. No metals. No EVA sock inserts. No polyfoam collar padding. We built
the shoe one step at a time and cut out anything that wasn't absolutely necessary.
We turned back the clocks to a time before machines and manpower were thrown at the industry.
And we didn't just stop at the shoe itself either. We designed a new and more sustainable
shippable shoebox for this style using 100% recycled cardboard and no ink whatsoever.
During production, we combined the cardstock layering process with an emboss pressing,
again saving steps. The box is topped off with a label made of kraft paper and soy-based
ink. All told, we're proud of the subtle branding on this project because, as I'm sure
you've figured out by now, the Jazz Court RFG is all about how less truly can be more.
The Jazz Court RFG
is all about how less
truly can be more.
The Jazz Court RFG
is all about how less
truly can be more.
Our hope is that sneaker fans appreciate the level of detail that went into this shoe as
much as we appreciate the things we took out. This project ended up being about more than
just producing a plastic-free, all-natural shoe. It became an emotional journey through
craftsmanship and bygone artistry, to create a bespoke shoe for people who give a damn.
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The original running brand
1898 is where it all began. Since then, Saucony has rightfully taken its place as one of the world's leading running companies. Built on a legacy of performance, Saucony continues to offer best-in-class running shoes, running apparel, and timeless retro footwear that has helped shape who we are today. The next great innovation has always been right at our fingertips—from speed shoes to trail running shoes and walking shoes to casual classics. Get exclusive access to new arrivals, top sellers, sales, extended sizes, and online-only offers.