Barefoot shoe-maker Vivobarefoot is looking to tackle the issue of footwear waste, joining forces with Virginia-based textile-to-textile recycling innovator Circ on an innovation to advance circular shoe design.
With dozens of inputs from fabric to leather, plastics, foams and metals, footwear is notoriously hard to recycle, with about 20 billion pairs trashed each year. Soles, uppers, laces and eyelets are fused together, making shoes tough to deconstruct at the end of their useful life. Even when separated, these individual materials defy conventional solutions for textile recycling.
Disrupting the standard design process could simplify footwear development, alleviating some of the complexities that make shoes so difficult to recycle, according to Circ and . The certified B Corps have collaborated on a mono-material polyester footwear upper that can be recycled using Circ’s proprietary chemical process. New Vivobarefoot shoes can be created seamlessly from the recycled polyester, without the need for any virgin additives.
Launching in fall 2024, the Primus Circular footwear line is the result of collaboration between Vivobarefoot’s product development experts and Circ’s research and science team, which has tested numerous shoe components and constructions for recyclability. Known for their minimalist “wide, thin and flexible” silhouettes, the company’s shoes are designed to support the foot’s natural biomechanics and mimic the sensation of running barefoot.
As the teams work to test and assess the collection over the next year, they aim to create a blueprint for recycled footwear that can be shared across the industry. Working with designers from conception through execution helps promote circular design principles, they said.
“Our north star goal at Vivobarefoot is to develop performance footwear that is both durable and fully recyclable, and for us that means being able to use our recycled materials to make new footwear, rather than downcycling them,” head of regeneration Charlotte Pumford said. “This first-of-its-kind collaboration moves us a step closer to that goal, giving us the ability to make product design and development decisions based on science, which we’ve never been in a position to do before.”
Mechanical recycling, which involves the shredding and grinding of footwear materials for reuse, has been at play across the industry for a number of years. But there are limits to the recyclability of the products made from the reconstituted waste, meaning that they are likely to end up in landfills eventually. By contrast, Circ’s proprietary chemical process breaks down textiles made from cotton and polyester at the molecular level. Both waste streams can be reconstituted into materials that perform similarly to virgin polyester and lyocell—and they can be recycled multiple times.
For Circ, the project probes the possibilities for recycled fabrics beyond use in apparel. Earlier this year, the textile recycler closed a $25 million funding round led by German e-retailer Zalando, materials science firm Avery Dennison, and Korean manufacturer Youngone—the latest infusion of renta since last summer, when it raised $30 million in series B funding from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, U.S. textile maker Milliken & Co. and Inditex. In April, Circ and Zara debuted a capsule collection of garments made with recycled polyester and recycled lyocell.
But footwear is a new frontier, Circ chief business officer Luke Henning said. “Shoes are a complicated and challenging problem for recyclers that, to solve, necessitates incorporating circularity into the design from the start,” he added. Transforming the footwear design and development process will take time, effort and partnership with industry experts.
“When we met the team at Vivobarefoot, we immediately knew we had found a like-minded and committed team who lived sustainability and circularity,” Henning said. “Their passion for the planet mirrors ours, making them a natural fit. Together, we plan to push the limits of sustainable design and drive the necessary innovation for the next generation of circular footwear.”