Sustainable footwear is a hotbed of innovation right now for many apparel and lifestyle brands, who are looking to blend ever-smarter manufacturing efficiencies with material optimization techniques. But one enterprising startup is looking to take this to the next level — calling itself a “disruptive digital manufacturing revolution,” Lyf Shoes is looking to capture a slice of the market by handing the creative process back to the consumer.
The company is working up a customized 3D-printing service for shoemaking whereby customers can build their own shoes, from the design and look to the actual fit, which can be optimized using data tracking. The business model aspires to cradle-to-cradle philosophies and will incentivize customers from the start to close the loop.
You claim traditional shoemaking is a ‘dirty’ business. What do you mean by this?
Typical shoemaking is reliant on toxic adhesives, big labor, massive shipping distances of inefficiently packaged goods, and eventually ends up in the landfill. For a long time, we may not have known better, but that time has passed.
What inspired you to set up a digitally customized footwear business?
Modern footwear fit has grown worse. When I was growing up, widths of shoes were a regular part of fitting — now shoe widths are almost gone. Shoe construction methods have also changed due to manufacturing efficiencies. When I talk to people about their shoes, they are generally unhappy with the fit, so I saw the possibility of fusing a custom fit with custom fashion. By adding a digital tracker in the shoe, customers will be able to see how they walk over time so we can work on making their next pair of shoes even better. This unfolds a strategic advantage over the generic shoe market.
How does your business model work in practice?
The real sea change is that we have eliminated the centralized shoe factory — our back-of-house space requirements are a third of conventional shoe stores’. Customers choose their fashion design and fit, and watch the shoes come together before their eyes within the hour. The shoes are registered with sewn-in QR codes that hold information about the footwear such as the design artist, size and material composition. After the shoe’s use period is over, we take them back for a 15 percent discount and they are disassembled with most component parts upcycled by the suppliers who made them. What can’t be upcycled is recycled or composted. Scale is achieved through a partners program, allowing local community entrepreneurs to set up in small shops worldwide.
How does the lifecycle footprint of a Lyf Shoe compare to a conventional shoe?
It has been difficult to establish definitive metrics since we span across many aspects not normally grouped with eco-efficiency, such as upcycling, seasonal fashion wastage and benefitting local economies. However, just on shipping, we are less than half the impact.
Is there any part of the shoe that can’t be reused, remanufactured or recycled?
Additive manufacturing is in an embryonic stage and so commercial markets have not yet developed to recycle these materials. However, we are committed to recycling those components in-house.
Your latest innovation, digital tracker heel locks, are designed to capture data as you walk. What’s the thinking behind this?
Our thought was to simply pick up data during the use cycle of the shoe and provide customers with ‘real life’ walking data. From this we can customize the three-part suspension of our footwear to further improve the walking experience. As a result, we think we can not only close the loop on our materials, but close the loop with our customers as well.
At what stage are you with making Lyf Shoes a reality given that your initial crowdfunding campaign in 2013 failed?
Our campaign centered on making our modular shoe with conventional practices like injection-molding, which is very capital-intensive and severely limited our initial sizing. Ten days into the campaign we were inundated with supply chain contacts who made it clear that we could digitally manufacture and find more sustainable sources than we had ever imagined. It turned our business model upside down. So we stopped our efforts on promoting the campaign.
Operating a closed loop model requires some nifty reverse logistics. How do you intend to incentivize consumer takeback?
We incentivize customers to return their shoes with a 15 percent discount on their next pair. However, we think the more compelling reason they will come back is to get data from their digital tracker and see how they can make their next pair of shoes even better.
What partners are you working with to enable effective shoe disassembly and re-entry of materials back into the production process?
The disassembly of the footwear happens in-house by the same folks who are putting shoes together. Component suppliers are committing to the take-back program and give us discounts on that as well.
There is a lot of interest right now in the circular economy — do you feel your business model can tap into this for competitive advantage?
We are committed to a cradle-to-cradle approach. The circular economy discussion is in many ways built on this same foundation, and so we believe we may be one of the early practitioners starting from this perspective. We have yet to see a shoe company commit to a comprehensive approach like ours.
Leading footwear brands are also putting a lot of investment into sustainable innovation — how do you assess their efforts in the wider scheme of things?
The big brands have invested a lot of time and energy into a spectrum of efforts. I am thankful for that, and am sure that we benefit from this work. Unfortunately, most of their commercialized advances have been on eco-efficiency of their current practices, and not a complete rethinking of the systems engineering within their entire business model. This is understandable, but limits the possibilities for significant change.