Digital Design and Circular Systems for Custom Sustainable Footwear

Vivobarefoot uses barefoot biomechanics to create ‘perfect shoes, perfect for feet’, using ultra-thin soles that allow feet to behave as naturally as possible. Every customer’s feet are unique, which poses a challenge for fit and design as well as a real market opportunity.

By collaborating with students and researchers at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in a project funded by Future Fashion Factory, the brand has made strides toward customisable, made-to-measure shoes that can be disassembled and recycled at the end of life – paving the way for more sustainable footwear in a circular economy.

“If we want to make the perfect shoes for everyone, customisation is the way to do that,” explains Lee Spiteri, Performance Designer at Vivobarefoot. “Existing solutions are outdated, so we need the digital tools to be able to design customised made-to-measure shoes and manufacture them sustainably.”

The project addressed three key challenges: digital tools to facilitate the design of customised footwear, designing a product that is easily recyclable, and making sure pieces are recycled at the end of their lives.

Vivobarefoot graphic with text reading 'Vivobiome'
VIvobarefoot seeks to connect people and planet through footwear. Image: Vivobarefoot

Researcher Dali Alnaeb was recruited through RCA to work with the Vivobarefoot team on the first issue, analysing huge volumes of footwear data to quantify the science behind barefoot biomechanics. With this knowledge in place, he was able to develop an unprecedented ‘smart last’ – a digital equivalent of the forms used to guide footwear design that can be adapted to customise new products. By facilitating digital design, it will also reduce the number of physical samples being made by the company for each product, creating less waste than traditional processes.

Screenshot comparing the shapes of the original last, a scan of a foot, and a data-driven last that more closely reflects the shape of the foot scan
Dali’s ‘smart last’ facilitates rapid design and prototyping for made-to-measure footwear. Image: Vivobarefoot

Dali’s success in feeding data into design raised some exciting questions about the skills that fashion and textile professionals will need in an increasingly digital sector. Anne Toomey, Head of Textiles at RCA, says that project is feeding into teaching, having highlighted how the curriculum could better reflect a changing industry.

“We’ve been rethinking aspects of our curriculum to reflect students’ need for technical and digital skills,” Anne explains. “Putting the emphasis on the digital more than the material showed us how much can be done with modelling before anything is made. That’s a range of opportunities that our graduates will be able to explore if they have built the right knowledge base alongside their creative design skills.”

As the design tools began to take shape, the partners also began tackling the challenges of sustainable design and manufacturing. The materials and adhesives used in traditional footwear construction make the finished products particularly difficult to recycle. By simplifying the design, Vivobarefoot sought to remove barriers to effective recycling.

Screenshot of a digital footwear scan from multiple angles
Data-driven techniques will enable more accurate custom fitting and reduce sampling waste. Image: Vivobarefoot

Working with their re-use and repair partners at the Boot Repair Company in Leeds, Vivobarefoot tested new designs with less complex construction, where the outsole and upper were easy to separate. The benefits of a simpler approach were apparent right from the sampling phase.

“A simpler product is easier to recycle so we can make better use of resources, but it also means a less wasteful manufacturing process,” explains Lee.

“If we can develop a simple product with fewer stages in the development process that still performs, we can lower overheads and become far more sustainable in every part of the cycle.” 

Vivobarefoot is currently refining its processes to work with larger volumes of waste products, unlocking economies of scale that will further reduce recycling costs and eventually even enable old footwear to be recycled into new products.

Creating a recyclable shoe is a big step forward to Vivobarefoot and the wider industry, but to create a circular economy and eliminate end-of-life waste, customers must actually return their used footwear. Student from the RCA MA Service Design programme collaborated to research and present a variety of options – insights on which Vivobarefoot says it now intends to build, with plans to bring in a dedicated member of staff to work on the service model through the Knowledge Transfer Partnership.

With a radical new data-driven design tool, simpler manufacturing and new insights into end-of-life processes and service design, the project’s success has built a firm foundation for new product offerings. Vivobarefoot even took the project to COP26 in November 2021, speaking directly to delegates at the global climate conference and measuring their feet to demonstrate the potential of new low-waste approaches.

“We have only just scratched the surface of what we can do,” Lee adds. “Now we can start getting shoes on feet and keep refining a truly unique product.”