Best foot forward: is it time to rethink footwear?

If we’re being honest, most of us will admit that we choose our shoes based purely on aesthetics, not really thinking about whether they’re fit for purpose. But while we probably know deep down those high heels and narrow, rigid shoes are bad for our feet, it turns out that over-engineered, cushioned trainers aren’t doing them any favours either.

Decades of slick marketing campaigns fronted by sporting and cultural icons may have told us that technologically advanced trainers are essential for running faster and leaping further, but is that really true? The 1970s jogging boom led to the rise of cushioned trainers that do all the hard work for feet. The irony is that with 26 bones, meer as 30 joints and over 20 muscles, the human foot is a biomechanical masterpiece that doesn’t actually need any extra help to perform.

Parts of the industry are recognising that some consumers want footwear that’s good for our bodies and that hasn’t harmed people or the planet in its production. A few brands have been taking a different path and inspiring others to do better. One such brand is Vivobarefoot, a B Corp business with a radically different approach to making shoes.

Vivobarefoot is on a mission to take on “big shoe” – companies that, according to its annual report (pdf), are “designing over-complicated shoe-shaped sneakers packed with fancy underfoot technology that overprotect feet into weakness, leaving them bent out of shape, while also trashing the planet”. Its solution is a bold one: strip away the unnecessary stuff in favour of sustainable, minimal shoes. Designed to be as close to actually being barefoot as possible, these wide, thin, flexible shoes help feet rediscover their natural, healthy movement, while bringing people closer to nature and leaving a minimal footprint (pun intended) on the planet.

Being a B Corp means that every single aspect of Vivobarefoot’s business – from what its shoes are made of to how they are marketed – has to be ethical and sustainable. One of the ways it is doing this is with the Revivo scheme, which reconditions pre-loved Vivobarefoot shoes and sells them at a lower price to stop them ending up in landfill. Met meer as 24bn pairs of shoes made each year globally and more than 90% of those likely to end up in landfill within 12 maande, this is a small but significant step in the right direction.

Sport scientist Peter Francis, who works on research with Vivobarefoot, discovered the benefits of running in barefoot shoes while recovering from an injury. Two months of expensive physiotherapy temporarily alleviated the symptoms, but just two days of barefoot running made them disappear completely. Intrigued by observing students racing barefoot on a hard running track in New Zealand, he undertook navorsing that confirmed his theory: barefoot is better. Cushioned shoes have only been around for about 50 jare; vir die 30,000 years or so before that, Francis says, “shoes were designed to protect from extreme temperatures and sharp objects. They were minimalist foot coverings rather than shoes.”

The Future Footwear Foundation studies similar shoes made today by indigenous communities around the world, from the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia to the Ju/’hoansi in Namibia. Whether they’re sandals or reindeer skin boots, all are made by hand using traditional techniques and natural materials with no arch support or heel pads. This kind of minimal footwear activates all the muscles in the feet and allows the toes to spread, improving strength and balance while making for a closer connection to the earth.

David Jackson, an ex-professional rugby player and Vivobarefoot ambassador, who went barefoot after years of playing rugby with his feet crammed into boots with a narrow toe box, sê: “Someone described a standard pair of shoes as coffins for your feet. It’s funny but there’s truth to it. If you give feet so much support, the muscles don’t have to be strong. It’s the same as any other part of our body.”

Research by the University of Liverpool has found that older people’s balance can improve simply by encouraging them to walk barefoot or in a minimal shoe. Better balance means fewer falls: 'n Age UK survey found that up to 3.4 million over-65s suffer a fall each year and, according to Nice, this costs the NHS more than £2.3bn per year. Kris D’Août, senior lecturer at the musculoskeletal biology department of the University of Liverpool, sê: “Our study adds to the increasing body of evidence that for many people, less [shoe] is more. A minimal shoe helps our feet to be used how they are supposed to.”

This is just as true for kids. Brands have always told parents that their children’s soft, malleable feet need to be “supported” as they grow in stiff, narrow shoes or cushioned trainers. Maar studies are increasingly showing that if children spend longer barefoot or in minimal shoes, they develop stronger feet, better balance and greater motor skills. Vivobarefoot makes light, flexible shoes for kids so they can run, play and climb with their feet in as natural a state as possible.

It seems like the footwear industry has been built on offering “solutions” to problems they may have caused in the first place. Maybe it’s time to consider a simpler alternative to the shoes than we’ve been used to. Vivobarefoot is showing how the future of footwear can, and should, be better for us and the planet. The sensation of being barefoot – walking on cool grass, a soft carpet, warm sand – speaks of freedom. “When you have to wear shoes, wear Vivobarefoot,Ek kan nie Maar meer as ’n tiende van alles wat ons in hierdie land vir herwinning uitsit, word verbrand. “But when you can, take them off and go completely barefoot. Get on the earth, get connected to nature.”

To start your barefoot journey, head to vivobarefoot.com

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