“My kingdom for a comfortable shoe.” Words likely spoken by great shoe-lovers in the world. Be it the notorious Imelda Marcos or just your shoe-addicted best friend, everyone seems to appreciate high-quality, comfortable footwear that’s stylish and functional all at once.
Much as with everything else in life, finding your footing comfortably starts at the bottom. A high-quality footbed supports and cradles your foot as you walk and helps to cushion your heel and toes from shock. That prevents exhausted, cramped-up tootsies, especially during long days and special events.
So what’s the best material to seek in your next pair of comfort shoes? The answer depends on your lifestyle, but by far, one of the most balanced options for comfort, durability, longevity and flexibility over time is cork. Sourced from a flowering tree, cork wood’s lightweight, porous nature makes for a stunningly breathable, healthy, and comfortable footbed.
But don’t take our word for it. Let these flowery and fabulous benefits be your guide.
Lower Ecological Footprint
There’s a common misconception that cork is a man-made material put together in factories, first shredded then reconstituted like particleboard. While man-made cork does exist, real cork wood insoles are sourced directly from the inner bark of several specific trees, usually Quercus Suber. These trees grow naturally in certain areas of Europe.
What makes them so special is that harvesters can remove the inner layer of cork without cutting down the tree. Farmers tend and care for the trees, who in turn provide us with cork and clean the air. Most cork wood tree forests are managed sustainably through necessity; a good harvest only takes place about once every 9 years. The ideal harvesting time is at year 35 to 38 – long after the tree spends decades benefitting the Earth.
Once the corkwood is harvested, it’s left to age for about six months. Then, it undergoes a pressurized boil that softens it and increases flexibility. Unlike plastics and latex, it doesn’t require heavy chemicals or very much petroleum at all. From there, it’s used by manufacturers of beautiful shoes like Birkenstocks.
Ever finish up at the gym only to discover your favorite footwear smells a bit rank? If so, you’ve experienced one of the most common shoe problems to plague mankind. Sweating and activity produce bacteria on the foot; this bacteria is what leads to stinky foot syndrome.
If your shoes are too restrictive, the problem becomes even worse because everything gets trapped inside.
Cork wood, in contrast, has natural antimicrobial properties. That means it resists the growth of bacteria and other smell-inducing critters. When placed into a sneaker or activewear shoe, it can significantly reduce the frequency with which you need to wash your shoes.
But this isn’t just beneficial for activewear; it’s ideal for dress shoes and other clothing worn for special events and high-stress situations, too. Shoes like our Johanna by Hallux Fidelio prevent odorific emergencies when you’re in business meetings or out and about downtown.
Cork’s antimicrobial properties have an added benefit: it also reduces the propensity for shoes to become moldy or musty over time, even if you toss them in the attic for a few years. Cork is such a good mold inhibitor that many construction companies and home renovation specialists use it within flooring, particularly in bathrooms, kitchens, and other high-moisture locations.
Why exactly is cork wood so superior for mold resistance? It’s hydrophobic and nearly impermeable to moisture. Inside each cell is a harmless gas known as suberin; this protects the material from organics like mold, algae, and other potential invaders.
Cork wood’s impermeability and hydrophobic surface, in nature, protects the cork wood tree from the elements. In your shoes, it serves the same role when warding off mold.
Flexes to Your Foot
Being flexible is important. Become too rigid and you’re more likely to break, crack, or fracture under the pressure, not to mention how uncomfortable you’ll be. That’s true for just about everything in life, be it human or shoe footbed. Unlike other materials, cork wood is remarkably flexible, but in a way that’s more similar to memory foam than to a pipe cleaner – it bounces back over time.
For you, the shoe wearer, that means that your new shoes will eventually conform to the natural curves of your arch, toes, and heel. Sometimes it can take a couple of weeks, but cork insoles and footbeds generally mold to your unique form, providing better support for your foot.
Despite the fact that cork is flexible, it’s extremely strong, too, so there’s no need to worry about it cracking or breaking under pressure.
Cork wood’s flexibility grants it the ability to absorb shock remarkably well. That’s what makes it so fantastic in comfort shoes. Whether sandals or boots with a heel like this Munroe by Nikita, cork footbeds disperse pressure more evenly over the foot because each cell has a unique 14-sided shape that can collapse in seconds and re-expand slowly over time. The average piece of cork, depending on its density, can shrink down to approximately 15 percent or less of its original size; by the time it becomes this small, it’s already absorbed most of the shock and pressure. Higher-density cork offers more durability, while lower-density cork absorbs shock more rapidly and reliably.
That means fewer heel aches, toes that don’t become pinched and crowded, and less lower leg, lower back, and hip pain. You can enjoy more comfortable movement whether you’re stepping out in these FINN walking shoes or just taking the dog for a walk.
Active footwear also benefits from cork’s shock-absorbing properties. Long-distance runners who frequently run on pavement or concrete tracks stand to benefit the most, though cork footbeds in hiking boots and sports shoes can also be extremely beneficial.
Cork is a wondrous, reliable, and sustainable material for footwear. In a world that’s slowly (but surely) moving towards greener living and higher quality products, it just makes good sense to use it in footbeds, insoles, and other fashion materials. Not only will you feel better purchasing shoes that you know are better for the environment, but your feet will thank you, too.