Material Exchange

Designing for the Disassembly of Footwear

Designing for the Disassembly of Footwear

Design for disassembly footwear solutions is gaining momentum; that is, the concept of assembling and disassembling pattern pieces and components. Each product/concept is built to be remade, re-examining how to approach end-of-life creatively and incorporate this into a circular economy.   

Fully recycling shoes would be very complex as there are so many pattern pieces, often involving many different materials having been stitched and glued together. The process would involve shoes being thrown into a big shredder while they are still intact and using a series of machines to separate the various materials automatically based on density. The process of recycling can be labor-intensive and dismantling shoes in a successful, scalable way is very expensive. 

Designers/creators are tapping into a desire for slower, more durable design. Rather than a flash of the new or the fickleness of fashionability, we are seeing a shift toward cherishing longevity and anti-obsolescence.

Clarks explored the concept of disrupting linear paths to producing with their most sustainable suede sneaker to date called Origin. The shoe’s 5-pattern pieces are held together with no glue and 100 percent recyclable, mono-material nylon thread.

Sneaker design is at the forefront of sustainable shoe innovation into mono fibre design, with big brands such as Adidas, Allbirds and On running leading the way.  For example, Adidas Futurecraft sneakers are made entirely from thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). The idea is that when these shoes are ground up after they have been worn (end of lifecycle), they can be remelted and cut into pellets again. Subsequently, this leads to pure TPU granules, which you can reintroduce back into footwear manufacturing. This isn‘t an infinite loop of reuse, but was ground-breaking when launched in 2019. Since then, there have been numerous cyclical sneaker initiatives, one of my favorites being On Running who have developed a recyclable running shoe. These shoes are made from Castor beans; you run in them, you return them and they give you a new pair of shoes. Essentially, you own the run, not the shoe. It’s a subscription service for £25.00 a month.

Another example of mono-material design is start-up brand Hodei. The company designs stitch-free, adhesive-free mono-material sneakers made from recyclable EVA. Non-EVA components such as laces and eyelets can easily be disconnected by the user, with the idea being that they can send the deconstructed sneaker back to the company for recycling.

A Modular Footwear Model

Imagine a world where our footwear gives us more flexibility of use, doing away with the need to purchase multiple products to serve different scenarios. The idea is having modular elements that are applied to footwear in order to provide customization. This is a concept Vibram Connection Lab are exploring, launching customization tool kits where people can purchase a kit including a sole, pieces of leather, textile, and laces to construct a shoe themselves. This could be a really great way of simply refreshing and customizing a pair of shoes without feeling the need to commit to seasonal trends. 

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Designers can also minimize their environmental impact by using alternative fastening methods. For example, stitching rather than gluing can ultimately reduce the use of toxic adhesives and also aids quick disassembly. Clarks explored the concept of disrupting linear paths to producing with their most sustainable suede sneaker to date called Origin. The shoe’s 5-pattern pieces are held together with no glue and 100 percent recyclable, mono-material nylon thread. Fewer seams means that larger pieces of fabric can be recovered and fed into a machine for the remanufacturing of the intact fabric to create new products.

Footwear and clothes are made from such a wide range of different materials and unfortunately, the majority of these materials or chemicals derive from fossil fuel-based crude oil.  And while “Multifunctional” products don’t always lend themselves to footwear, we are seeing lots of great modular garment concepts that can be disassembled into different parts and reassembled at the wearer’s will.

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Watch this space for more evolved thinking beyond existing approaches to manufacturing and designing circular footwear. Materials will definitely facilitate this movement gaining traction. Designing products around preferred materials can lead to very creative and often unexpected aesthetic and functional solutions. Also, encouraging the use of more natural materials facilitating end of life and material recovery is important.

Fixing throwaway culture will take more than repairing and up-cycling;  we know these new ideas need to work alongside buying better products or nothing new at all. Ultimately, a modular solution in which the consumer could save money would likely yield the best results.

Andrew Thompson, Creative and Design Director

About the author
Andrew Thompson is a thought leader with over twenty years’ experience as a footwear Trend Forecaster and Design Director. He has worked with brands such as  Vans USA, Kurt Geiger, Topman, Nicole Fahri, and Clarks International to name a few. His is also founder of global consultancy 

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