There’s an instant familiarity to cork. Yet its presence in our lives as the go-to material for notice boards, drinks coasters and, of course, wine bottle stoppers, means it’s often overlooked and undervalued. Incredibly lightweight, highly durable, antimicrobial and impermeable to liquids, were it manufactured it would be hailed as a wonder product.
None of cork’s natural properties were lost to Mike Baker, the founder of SOLE, says Karla Peckett, creative director of the Canadian footwear brand that’s been utilising this raw material since its inception. The company began its journey as a maker of custom orthotics for athletes, using cork to create insoles that repositioned the foot to promote pain-free running, skiing and mountaineering. As the product gained momentum, a need to diversify and grow the company collided with the desire to minimise its environmental impact, leaving the sustainability-focused founder with a conundrum.
I think that it is safe to say that most people feel that cork doesn’t belong in the garbage
It was a stay at a friend’s summer cottage that provided the eureka moment, says Peckett. “Mike was taken aback by its amazing cork floor. Although more than six decades old the floor still looked incredible, felt great underfoot and provided thermal and acoustic insulation. Mike was convinced cork was the right natural material to replace petroleum-based foams in our footwear.”
The insight was one thing, the ability to make cork a viable natural alternative to plastics was quite another. It would require a complex set-up that could operate at scale, but Baker was undeterred. The vision was in place: to pioneer a closed-loop manufacturing process by reusing a natural, sustainable and renewable resource. That resource - used natural wine corks. It was this conviction that saw the creation of ReCORK, a project that has become North America’s largest natural cork repurposing and recycling programme.
The success of the operation comes down to collaboration, says Peckett. “I think that it is safe to say that most people feel that cork doesn’t belong in the garbage, which made signing up vineyards and other partners who already supported cork in their business an obvious solution.” The network now numbers over 3000 cork collection partners, resulting in over 100 million wine corks redirected for recycling and repurposing. In order to ensure the health of cork forests, ReCORK has also planted over 8000 cork trees.
Unsurprisingly, the rescued material found its way back into the product, staying true to a central tenet of the circular economy: utilising waste as a resource. In 2018 SOLE launched its first beach sandal range created using 100 percent recycled cork. While in March of this year a Kickstarter collaboration with sustainable outdoor apparel company United By Blue saw the creation of the Jasper Wool Eco Chukka, a shoe comprised of sustainable materials, including cork, Merino wool, Bison fibre and natural rice rubber.
Cork oak trees are, in many ways, an agricultural dream
While it all sounds effortless, it remains vital to communicate cork’s benefits to consumers, says Peckett, both to promote its credentials as a material and to ensure it continues to contribute to a healthy planetary ecosystem.
“Cork oak trees are, in many ways, an agricultural dream. They’re hardy plants that can grow in relatively low-rainfall environments and can withstand a broad range of temperature fluctuations. They can be sustainably harvested for more than 250 years, and they produce a versatile material for which there is a steadily growing market. Cork oak forests are also remarkably resistant to fire, a threat that’s becoming ever-more persistent and pressing as climate change makes long-standing agricultural strongholds increasingly hot and dry.
“Cork oak forests are home to hundreds of animal species. Every time you choose
wines sealed with natural cork, you help conserve the homes of many rare and
endangered species like the Iberian lynx, the Iberian imperial eagle, the black vulture,
the black stork and the Barbary stag.”
Indeed the harvesting of cork, a necessarily careful procedure, has been credited with maintaining rural economies in the countries where it naturally thrives - Portugal, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, amongst others. The call to use more cork could seem like PR spin had the issue not already played out across the global wine industry. Between 2000 and 2009 when alternative wine stoppers such as plastic and screwtops became popular, it looked liked cork’s days were numbered. A huge communications push and investment in the cork industry has pulled it back from the brink.
Part of SOLE and ReCORK’s mission, says Peckett, is to continue to myth-bust on the subject. “There is no shortage of cork, and cork oak trees are not cut down to make cork. In reality, the biggest threat to cork is a reduction in global demand of natural cork stoppers. The use of alternative stoppers threatens this environmentally and economically sustainable industry and risks leaving cork forests unprotected. If you stop buying cork, then cork forests really will disappear!”
Find wines that use natural cork here: recork.com/CORKwatch