How can sustainable shoes contribute to a healthier and happier living?
Galahad Clark is the Founder and Managing Director of Vivobarefoot, the fast-growing footwear manufacturer which believes that conventional footwear can damage people’s feet and their ability to walk and run properly.
Vivobarefoot has sold more than a million pairs of its minimal “barefeet” shoes and trainers in three years and is growing at 30 per cent per annum. Profitable for the past two years, the company has sales of £10 million.
Earlier this year Vivobarefoot successfully raised £1.36 million in investment through Crowdcube and £92,000 through their Kickstarter campaign to bring the SAN-dal, created by the bushmen of the Ju’/Hoan San Community to a wider market.
Galahad’s favourite definition of Sustainability is from the book ‘Sustain-ability’ by John Ehrenfeld. According to Ehrenfeld, sustainability means humans and other life on earth are able to flourish – to grow and prosper, and be better and more beautiful.
In order to justify filling the world up with more man made stuff Ehrenfeld believes a product should be able to answer at least one of the following 3 criteria:
1. The product should help us connect more with nature.
2. The product should help make us feel more human.
3. The product should help ask important ethical or environmental questions.
Vivo uniquely does that. Going for a walk in the woods wearing Vivo’s is a completely different experience than when wearing a conventional pair of hiking boots. Individuals have a completely different relationship with nature and themselves as a result – since feet have as many nerve endings as hands, and the part of the brain which takes information from the feet is the same size as the part that gets information from the hands.
Humans are programmed for the brain to receive information with every step and that is a core part of the movement function of the body. Wearing padded or restrictive shoes massively interferes with the connection. Therefore, by definition individuals feel less human wearing more shoe, and more human wearing less shoe!
Research undertaken by Dr. Merzenich (University of California, San Francisco) looking in to neuro plasticity shows that, when walking around in padded shoes in a concrete world, parts of the brain start to atrophy. This was linked to the likes of Alzheimer’s. The key thing for Vivo is that even if an individual’s feet or posture have weakened, by sitting around on chairs and wearing bad shoes, their whole body is able to reconnect amazingly, and quickly, if they correct their bad habits.
Galahad was originally making other shoes and other brands. As he learned more and more about sustainability, he quickly realised that the only sustainable shoes were shoes that help individuals connect with themselves and connect with nature. This helped him make a critical decision to focus all their energies and resources behind Vivo.
This was not a hard decision to do and he instinctively liked it. He was lucky enough to grow in the countryside and had very happy associations of running around barefoot in nature. The more he learnt about feet and shoes, from the scientific and bio-mechanics point of view, he knew there was no choice.
Engaging Stakeholders to the Vision
Most of Vivobarefoot’s stakeholders are really bought in, and are very loyal, to the concept.
They do have some distributors who say that Vivobarefoot could sell a lot more shoes if they just added a little more padding. However, Vivobarefoot holds regular education days and make videos explaining the concept.
Ultimately, with Vivobarefoot, it is about experiencing the shoes. It is about transitioning into the shoes and taking time to walk around in them every day and allow your body to adjust. Then it is fairly easy to convince people that it is a good thing!
The challenge is getting people into Vivos for the first time. The problem with ‘barefoot’ (as a concept) is that it was originally about running. However, Galahad believes ‘barefoot’ is not about running, but about everyday life. Individuals have to be in a pretty good physical shape to be able to run any kind of distance barefoot and most aren’t!
Vivobarefoot has pushed hard to encourage every day walking in Vivos. For kids it is more irrefutable, that letting feet work in the natural way while they are walking about in their day to day life, is better for growing feet.
Balancing Sustainability with Profitability
Vivobarefoot has compromised this in the past, but, they gave up profitable products that were not barefoot and did not fit their definition of sustainability. They were making Terra Plana, a fashion brand, but realised that making fashionable shoes from eco-friendly materials was not sustainable. It was the opposite of helping people flourish on earth; promoting fleeting fashion, that is fundamentally unhealthy on psychological and physiological levels, and which can never be called sustainable, no matter what material it is made out of.
Selling fashionable shoes to ladies is profitable and relatively easy to do. When Vivobarefoot gave up Terra Plana to focus on Vivo, they gave up a lot of profitability and it was a tough decision to make.
But in the long term, through sustainability they have become more efficient, are much clearer about things and have more conviction in what they say and do. It may be a longer term path, however, it will ultimately be a more profitable one.
Impact on Daily Life
Galahad believes that the most important thing anyone can do is spend more time in nature and connect more with nature. Even on a subconscious level, this will affect the decisions everyone makes.
He tries to spend as much time in nature as possible with his kids and spending maximum intimate time in nature. Through Vivo they do a lot of off-road events and sports like ‘swimrun’. He eats a lot less meat, and he tries to eat no farmed meat at all. He drives an electric car.
When Nature has almost killed him! He has two bittersweet memories of this. The first was in the Italian Dolomites when he slipped on a mountain edge while doing backcountry skiing with an Italian. It was an amazing day and he will never forget that moment when he slipped on the mountain but was able to hold on.
The second time was when he was almost got drowned off a coast in Morocco. He was taken a long way while surfing and was gobbled up by the ocean. He crawled back on to the beach three miles down the ocean coast and then lay there coughing and spluttering while appreciating Nature’s majesty!
Takeaway from this Episode
Go back to the beginning and think about whatever it is you are doing, and try to examine that from a sustainability philosophy. Rather than trying to change whatever you are doing and making it eco; go back a step and ask if what you are really doing is something that promotes a more sustainable world and more sustainable humans, and is ultimately helping people and the earth to flourish.
Galahad Most Admires
– Great Uncle Bancroft Clark (of Clarks Shoes) – he was responsible for really turning Clarks into a big global brand. He inherited an already large business, but he drew on his Quaker principles and genuinely innovated for the good of society. He also set out to make the best, most healthy, comfortable and efficient shoes the world had ever known. He did not compromise on quality and invested in huge amounts in the community. For Galahad, Clarks was an inspirational business led by Bancroft Clark, who set up a paradigm of how business can be done.
– Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) – he has built a business which is more than just a great business. Galahad admires him, not just for making great clothes and equipment, but also for the fact he has genuinely influenced the whole apparel industry’s to approach sustainability in an inspired way; taking it beyond what government legislation would have done. This has been achieved by leading into much higher standards and investing in open source platforms and systems that have been taken on by companies like Nike and Walmart.
– Kate Fletcher (his Eco-Guru) – she has written 4 books on design and sustainability. She has helped Galahad think about sustainability in an inspired way. Galahad recommends reading her books because she of her approach to sustainability and the challenge she lays down to companies – which is more than most companies would maybe ever achieve, but it is good to have that kind of a marker.
Galahad’s Favourite Resources
– Understand philosophically what sustainability is all about – as a lot of companies are guilty of doing the wrong things righter. It is a danger to carry on doing something that is fundamentally not quite good for the world but in a more eco-friendly kind of way. In that instance go back to the beginning of what you are doing and why you are doing it, and try to examine that through sustainability lens. The challenge is what it is you are doing and what service you are providing to the world.
– Look out for genuine close loop solutions (to retain the value of the molecules in the product chain).
Profits in the end come from people doing things that they really believe in, and really love. Those are the things that ultimately stick in the world. They might not be as overnight successes as some other things.Galahad Clark