In some Chinese shoe factories, winter is glue poisoning season. With the windows shut, benzene, and other toxic volatile chemicals in glue are more likely to make people sick. Even with adequate ventilation, spending too much time glueing shoes can lead to leukemia and other diseases over the long-term.
When a Dutch designer studied shoemaking in product design school, he started to wonder why shoes had to be made with glue at all. "I was surprised how much glue was involved in the process," says Roderick Pieters. "After each shoemaking day, I left class high on glue. Imagine if you work in a shoe factory every day."
He started to work on a new shoe design, one that uses a strong, thick cord to attach a soft leather upper to a custom rubber sole stamped with a series of holes. The shoe can be quickly assembled without glue, and easily disassembled when the sole wears out—something that can't happen with other shoes, which is why most can't be recycled.
"I like it when parts are connected in a more constructive way," he says. "That they really fit. Visible, clear, transparent connections...In this way the design/aesthetics can be about the construction."
He initially designed a sandal and then was approached by a Japanese brand, Proef, to develop shoes based on the concept. It could work for any type of shoe, he says, and though some types of shoes would be more challenging to redesign—like running shoes—they could also benefit from the change.
While some other shoes are permanently stitched together, they're also hard to take apart if the sole needs to be replaced. Pieters envisions consumers quickly taking apart his shoes when they need new soles. This would be especially useful for something like a running shoe.
"It should be normal to replace your sole or upper, like replacing a tire on your bike," he says. "Lots of people already do this with classical shoes—bring it to the shoemaker store to get a new sole—but with sneakers and most casual shoes this is impossible."
Because the shoes are so simple to assemble, he says that consumers could eventually do it themselves, IKEA-style. Proef also hopes to set up assembly locations around the world, so the finished shoes aren't shipped as far. The simple construction, and little labor needed, means that it's also possible for the company to make the shoes in small batches, instead of the typical factory orders that usually result in waste.
By crowdfunding on Kickstarter, the company plans to get an exact sense of demand, and make only as many shoes as are needed.
They're hoping it inspires more change in the broader shoe industry. "Like with most products, as a consumer, you never see the industry behind [shoes]," Pieters says. "If you visit an average shoe factory, then it is easy to see that circumstances should be better. Most factories are unhealthy workplaces. Let's change that."