It’s the Dragons’ Den pitch parents have been dreaming about: an expandable children’s shoe that fits long enough to be worn out, and it could soon be a high-street reality.
The average young child needs new shoes every four months, a rapid and costly replacement cycle that sees Britons buy 80m pairs a year, most of which end up in landfill.
But come 2023, kids trainers that are capable of expanding by at least three half-sizes could be in stores after a footwear entrepreneur won backing from the £1m sustainability fund.
Jeroo Doodhmal, the founder of eco-shoe brand Pip & Henry, is behind the “expandable” shoe, a product she thinks could reduce the scale of waste in the UK footwear market where 85% of shoes end up in landfill, according to the Better Shoes Foundation.
“Our aim is to create a shoe that can expand by at least three half-sizes, and therefore double the lifetime use of any shoe,” she said. The design is aimed at under-sevens, a period when children’s feet are growing rapidly.
The 38-year-old businesswoman got the idea after the birth of her daughter. “On the one hand I was showing her Blue Planet, and trying to get her inspired by nature, but on the other, she was outgrowing clothing and footwear faster than I could effectively recycle it,” she said.
The hard part to get right will be the sole, and several options are being explored. One is a mechanism that can be extended and secured with an interlocking piece, like a jigsaw.
Another is to use a flexible material that can be stretched and then locked into position. The upper will be made out of an elasticated material and secured using zips and toggles. The shoes will also likely come with several insoles.
The £250,000 grant will be used to complete the design of the sole and its fastenings. “I think we’re about a year away from it being in the shops,” said Doodhmal. “We have to test the prototypes and then take it to industry experts for their feedback … then come up with a final concept that’s ready for commercial launch.”
To tackle the huge waste mountain generated by the footwear industry technical experts involved in the project will also investigate a design that can be dismantled, enabling the shoe to be recycled more easily at the end of its life.
But the big question is can magic shoes be affordable? Other companies have experimented with sandals and insoles that alter a shoe’s width. Doodhmal thinks the answer is yes. “We won’t move the needle on that 85% statistic if we don’t take this concept to the mass market. It is my ambition to keep the cost down as much as possible,” she said.
Pip & Henry shoes cost £60 but she thinks the expandable design will probably cost up to £20 more. “The funding is substantial enough to take us all the way,” she added. “I feel very confident we will be able to come up with something really valuable and robust.”
Last year, the John Lewis Partnership, which also owns Waitrose, invited academics, charities and startups to present ideasthat could end the high street’s “throwaway” culture. Pitches with the potential to reduce the environmental impact of the food, clothing and gadgets we buy would receive a share of the money raised from the sale of 10p plastic bags in stores. The project is run in partnership environmental charity Hubbub which will be measuring the impact of the grants.
The Circular Future Fund received 245 entries with the four winners required to share their learnings, and how their ideas can be scaled. The Scottish Library and Information Council is getting cash to pilot “lend and mend spaces” in libraries so people can share tools, equipment and expertise to repair and reuse household objects.
The other winners were the Polyester Infinity project at the University of Leeds, which is researching how to remove dye from polyester to make the fabric easier to recycle, and period brand Dame. The latter will use its cash to fund starter kits and an online advice service for women trying to switch from traditional products.
Marija Rompani, John Lewis’s director of ethics and sustainability, said the projects had the potential to create “real impact”.
“Our throwaway culture, and the waste it generates, are unquestionably among the biggest challenges we will face in our lifetime and tackling them will require a different kind of thinking.”