As an industrial design engineering student at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Christiaan Maats became fascinated with the way that products can carry meaning, how they can “embody memories, cultural significance, social status and even a vision for a better future.” Maats, the designer and founder behind OAT Shoes, the world’s first biodegradable shoes that bloom, understands the importance of building a brand around sustainability and the power of storytelling.

While Maats’ interests have always been more inclined towards the psychological – understanding human behaviours and patterns, his academic research at the University of New South Wales (Australia) turned him onto the subject of environmental sustainability. From there, he became deeply drawn to the natural world’s constant ability to regenerate, renew and reinvent itself and saw the potential in exploring the intersections of design, business and nature.

His journey to found OAT Shoes began as part of a graduation project that revolved around technical footwear innovation. In researching footwear design in the late 2000s, he realized that “sustainability was something that had to be part of any new brand or company.” Wanting to provide consumers with the ease of throwing out their shoes, while feeling good about it, Christiaan designed the world’s first biodegradable shoe that blooms. From purchase to disposal, OAT Shoes involves the wearer as part the natural cycle of life: “by planting your shoes, you create new life in the form of flowers.”

Professionally, Christiaan strives to facilitate awareness and action on both environmental and personal well-being, which is also reflected in the OAT Shoes logo. Translating visually to a circle, triangle and plus sign, the logo embodies the brand’s core values: to unite, create and inspire. Christiaan also notes that OAT is an acronym for Of All Times, which means the cycle of life at all times.

In building OAT Shoes, Maats refused to compromise on the biodegradability of the shoe. He also wanted the flower seeds to remain inside the shoe. These choices, he notes, limited OAT’s market and made it harder to create a commercially viable product. The brand also sourced all of its materials and production within Europe, which was a source of pride as well as a challenge that became too great to overcome. Innovating a product, Maats notes, “really means having to innovate a whole supply chain and that takes time, money and a lot of energy.”

Indeed, an immense amount of energy goes into designing successful, sustainable products. But as sustainability becomes increasingly popular as both a label and lifestyle, so has the practice of greenwashing. In order to help designers and consumers recognize and support the right products, Christiaan talks about adhering to a specific set of criteria, namely transparency, limited materials, responsible behaviour, well-being and fairness. Good products are often accompanied by good communication, identifiable materials and made under ethical and moral conditions. They last longer, are repairable and promote consumer well-being and encourage slow living, the antithesis of the work hard, play harder hustle of this millennium.

For Maats, sustainability means not only finding ways to sustain humankind on this planet, but also recognizing the interconnectivity of all our experiences. Finding a way “to live lives in which we feel connected, to ourselves, our friends, family, society and natural environment” is what matters most. In the end, as both a designer and a human being, Maats knows that the only system that will work going forwards is one that puts human and environmental well-being at the centre.

Sadly, after about 5 years of business, and 7 years since the brand’s inception, OAT Shoes hit major production issues, resulting in a leadership shakeup and a redesign, which included the birth of OATies baby shoes. And while the reorganization did prove successful for a short while, eventually financial strain forced the company to shut down for good in 2015. Now in talks to restart the brand, Maats recognizes that while there are definitely things he would have done differently from a business perspective, he never stopped believing in the story and message of OAT.

Christiaan Maats studied Industrial Design Engineering at Technical University in Delft. His keen interest in the psychology behind product and brand experience took him to Sydney, Australia where he conducted a case study titled “Storytelling through Product Design”. His creation of OAT Shoes, the world’s first biodegradable shoes that bloom, reflects his philosophy that good product design is good storytelling.

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