The shoe that turns into an apple tree: Toronto designer eliminating plastics, one step at a time

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“I was working for a fashion company and I would just see us pump out tons and tons of shoes and a lot of those just ended up in landfills,” said Toronto designer, Luc Houle.

For him, shoes aren’t just made for walking, but for protecting the environment, too.

“So I was thinking to myself, what can we do to improve this?” he continued, speaking with Global News one morning, “and, you know, make a little bit more of an impact on the environment that we’re not making right now.”

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His big idea? Creating sustainable footwear — sneakers — that are fully biodegradable, from the beeswax-coated, water-resistant uppers right down to the soles.

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“It’s completely organic uppers,” Houle demonstrated for Global News, holding the white, Keds-type looking sneaker he designed.

“There’s a cork insole that moulds to your feet over time, then the midsole and outsole are made of a specific compound that biodegrades in about three years.”

But that’s not all. The soles of these shoes house a sweet secret.

“I was like, if you’re going to plant your shoes in the ground in order for them to decompose, why don’t we put a tree seed inside of it and then have it grow into a big beautiful apple tree?” Houle said.

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Houle is referring to an apple seed, hidden in the sole under the arch of the foot, in a natural fertilizer casing — where it remains dormant and sealed away from moisture, until the shoes are planted in the ground.

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It took three years of development and going through several designs, before the 33-year-old settled on this prototype and a name, ‘Johnny’, after the American folk hero figure, ‘Johnny Appleseed’ (John Chapman).

“I was like, I have to do a nod to John Chapman,” said Houle. “He’s kind of a colloquial figure that went across all northeastern USA and Canada and he planted apple trees everywhere.”

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A breakdown of ‘Johnny’ footwear, showing where the apple tree seed is housed. The seed is released into the earth, once the shoe is planted and begins the biodegradation process.

Luc Houle/ Johnny Footwear

But why the special focus on shoes as a way to protect the environment?

Houle said the soles of shoes are usually made out of plastic that takes about 1,000 years to decompose. Multiply that by 300 million pairs —roughly the amount of shoes that end up in landfills each year — and the waste growth is exponential.

“Plastic is such a huge problem right now,” said Houle. “It’s invading our landfills, it’s flooding our oceans. To me, it’s really important that even though as consumers, like, individually, we’re doing our part and trying as hard as we can, that the industry needs to change too.”

But will ‘Johnny’ shoes biodegrade while they’re on the feet of those who wear them?

“That’s a good question,” said Houle. “It’s not.”

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The shoes’ compound needs a combination of moisture, pressure and naturally-occurring microbes to activate the process, Houle says.

“You could definitely go running in them. It’s fine. You could sweat from your feet as much as you need, it won’t affect it at all until it’s underground.”

Manufactured in ethical factories in China with fair trade-sourced materials, it’s the shoe that keeps on giving, literally.

“Whenever somebody buys a pair of shoes, we’re going to plant a tree on your behalf as well,” said Houle. “[We realize] that we don’t all have access to a backyard to plant our shoes.

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“Some people, especially-city dwellers, they’re going to have to throw them in the landfill and they’re going to biodegrade there…so we want to do our part and then also plant a tree for you so that no matter what, we’re kind of offsetting your carbon footprint.”

For $109, shipping included, Houle says Canadians can pick up a pair of of these kicks in black or white on Kickstarter, which they’ll receive by next August if the campaign goes well.

“We think everybody should be able to do their part and contribute towards building a better world,” said Houle.


Johnny Footwear shoes come in two colours: black and white and retails for $109 on Kickstarter.

Luc Houle/Johnny Footwear


Johnny Footwear shoes come in two colours: black and white and retails for $109 on Kickstarter.

Luc Houle/Johnny Footwear


Johnny Footwear shoes come in two colours: black and white and retails for $109 on Kickstarter.

Luc Houle/Johnny Footwear


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