The Truth About Corn: Ethical and Sustainable Sourcing

by | Jul 14, 2023 | Sustainability

Supporting Farmers as They Move Toward Regenerative, Carbon-Friendly Practices

Ethical and sustainable sourcing sounds wonderful. It’s the perfect combination of responsibility and eco- consciousness that properly satisfies a market driven by being better stewards of the planet.

Most companies either have a sustainability focus or are working toward one, but in either case there are actually two scenarios consistently happening that are bringing companies’ feet to the fire:

  1. Consumers, understandably, have high expectations for a company’s sustainability commitment and can quickly identify “greenwashing” – it’s not enough to claim to care about sustainability; you must have verifiable sustainable practices to back up that claim.
  2. Consumers are smart and understand that sustainable practices start at the source. If your sustainable, plant-based product is made using energy-guzzling manufacturing practices that are contributing to global warming, your sustainability claim is worthless.

This post is going to focus on that second point because it’s an important one. It’s easy to manufacture a product made with sustainable materials in a highly unsustainable way, and many companies do so while continuing their sustainability claims. It’s cheaper, faster, and requires no major overhaul to current equipment or processes.

But as consumer demands increase, it’s becoming clearer that the companies who can prove sustainability at the source and through to the finished product will win business while others fall behind.

Ethical and sustainable sourcing practices demonstrate that a company is willing to go the extra mile to truly make an environmental difference. However, even within this level of commitment there remains consumer misconception about what sustainably-sourced materials actually are.

What’s Up With Corn? Sweet Corn (Food) vs. Dent Corn (Ingredient)

For this post, we’re going to use corn as the example of an oft-misunderstood ingredient that is sourced for a multitude of consumer goods.

And here’s a key point we can’t stress enough – we are NOT talking about the bright yellow, plump and sweet corn you bite off the cob at your backyard bar-b-que.

We are talking about field corn, often called dent corn, and aptly named for its hard, dented kernels that give it a significantly less appetizing appearance than that butter-slathered corn on the cob.

Dent corn is grown and harvested specifically for purposes other than direct consumption. We all love our grilled corn on the cob, but corn is useful in so many other ways, and dent corn fills those needs without cutting into a legitimate food supply.

About 99% of land in the US is used to grow dent corn, while less than 1% is used for sweet corn. Out of the 38% of land available for agriculture in the world, only 2% is used for material crops like dent corn.

After harvesting, dent corn must be put through a mill and ground up into a coarse grain. In this form, a small percentage is used as an ingredient in tortilla chips, corn syrup, and other mass-produced food products but is primarily used as feed for livestock, as a source of renewable fuel like ethanol, and to be shipped around the world for use in plant-based biomaterials and consumer goods – like INSITE insoles.

Dent corn vs dinner corn

Ethical and Sustainable Sourcing Empowers Regenerative Farming

Our insole foams are made with plant-based materials (like dent corn) sourced through regenerative farming practices.

What is regenerative farming? Also called regenerative agriculture, it essentially promotes soil health and coverage, which ultimately captures more carbon and water, reducing carbon emissions and water waste.

Regenerative practices accomplish these goals through the diversification of plant life to support pollinators and wildlife; keeping living roots in the soil to rain water, reduce runoff, and stabilize the soil; and involving animals in the farm to contribute valuable nutrients to the soil.

Some primary farming techniques of regenerative practices include:

  • Frequent crop rotation, which reduces insect reproduction, consequently minimizing a need for pest control, and adds to the microbial health of the soil.
  • Multi-species cover crops, which improves soil health and quality, and reduces erosion and weed growth.
  • Reduced or eliminated tilling, which increases the water retention, nutrient cycling, and topsoil health of the soil by minimizing soil disturbance.
  • Soil management, which gives farmers a pulse on the chemical, physical, and biological makeup of the soil regularly.
  • Livestock rotation, which spreads out manure deposits for soil fertility, reduces feed costs, and prevents soil erosion.

At this point in this post, we want to give a big shout out to the farmers who have made the bold switch to regenerative farming. It’s no small feat – like any industry that switches to more sustainable practices, it requires a major shift from decades of the same behavior to something completely new. In addition to the financial investment, there is the education and training component, as well as behavior changes, and an acceptance of a potential short-term lower yield before the sustainable shift begins to pay off.

Recently, our team attended an event in Nebraska sponsored by our materials sourcing partner, Susterra. The event gave us hands-on insight into the experiences of farmers who have adopted regenerative farming practices – not just how it works, but the courage and foresight they exhibit by moving in this more sustainable direction.

For family farms that have been around for generations, switching to regenerative farming requires a leap of faith and a lot of support. Susterra’s supplying farmers participate in a program called Truterra, which was designed to not only help farmers get over the initial hump through access to meaningful resources and a support network, but to provide measurements and data to track the impact of regenerative farming..

Carbon Emissions and Responsible Materials Sourcing

So, by now you know that we use dent corn, which is grown specifically for uses other than as a food source, and we source it from farms that employ regenerative farming practices, which is making a positive contribution to the environment.

We want to make one more important point about regenerative farming and our materials sourcing practices, and it has to do with carbon emissions.

    As we mentioned, one of the best things about regenerative agriculture is that it helps reduce carbon emissions by implementing farming practices that aim to keep carbon in the soil.

    Truterra has tracked the outcome of regenerative practices at farms with which it has partnered, and to date has reported:

    • A 10% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, equal to removing 1,254 cars from the road
    • A 38% increase in nitrogen efficiency
    • A 6% reduction in topsoil erosion, equal to 1,058 trucks full of topsoil never having to make a delivery
    • A 4% improvement in the soil conditioning index, which measures soil quality and its ability to retain carbon

    Our commitment to lowering carbon emissions starts with our Susterra partnership to enable ethical and sustainable sourcing, and continues with our manufacturing practices.

    Using dent corn to make the bio-propanediol we need for our insole production has resulted in a 48% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 46% reduction in non-renewable energy usage when compared to petrol-based BDO.

    Additionally, by using solution-dyed textiles instead of a dye bath, our DuraDye™ textiles reduce water waste by 99% over traditional dyeing methods.

      Do Your Sustainability Homework

      As we mentioned up top, consumers are savvy (we’re looking at you!)

      And that’s a great thing, especially when it comes to assessing the legitimacy of a company’s sustainability claims. It’s still very easy to make talk about being sustainable without backing it up by real data, or being sustainable from cradle-to-gate.

      Ultimately, it’s up to consumers how much to demand of companies, but we’re also seeing companies take it upon themselves to validate their sustainability efforts and tell a more compelling story. Our partnership with Susterra, a company truly dedicated to helping brands improve their sustainability practices, has led us down an environmentally-friendly path we’re proud of.

        Whether you’re a footwear brand looking to partner with a sustainably-minded company for your insoles, or you’re a consumer evaluating the quality of the materials in your footwear, we’re happy to talk more about our commitment to true sustainability.

          Learn more about our planet-positive manufacturing and insole production processes.

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