Who’s buying the shoes?

Who’s buying the shoes?

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Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs has worked in the fashion industry for more than 20 years. So far she’s talked about some of the issues surrounding footwear and production processes – now she turns her attention to footwear consumers.

Footwear sales in the UK grew 8% in 2017, reaching £11.8 billion. That’s seven pairs of shoes sold for every man, woman and child in the UK. Every year. It’s set to grow by 5% this year – Mintel forecasts that the footwear market will grow 26%, reaching £15.6 billion by 2023. While consumer confidence will be knocked by Brexit (with exchange rate fluctuations and import challenges) this is still a growth market which continues to outpace clothing sales growth, which rose 3.1% in 2017.

Variety, convenient access and delivery, affordability and fashion trends have all boosted growth. It wasn’t so long ago that we had one pair of shoes for going out or ‘best’ and only wore trainers to do sport in. The men’s market, in particular, has become very fashion focused rather than practical – catching up with women in fashion terms.

The retail environment makes it so easy to buy shoes these days. Availability in store through self-service in non-footwear specialists (just take a look at M&S, New Look and supermarkets) – versus traditional interaction with a sales assistant and checking fit. Online stores also now offer a huge variety and convenience compared to in-store, where storage space constraints means size and colours are limited. Choice and colour means there are more styles to purchase than every – creating more promotions and incentives.

Fashion trends and the speed of change

Casual dressing and the rise of sports trends in footwear – wearing trainers for style, not performance of sports – is set to increase. Its acceptance in both the workplace and for social occasions makes this the fastest-growing product style for men and women. Wearing different footwear to show status, identity and affluence – rather than just practical, durable or functional purpose – has added layers of complexity and politics to our choices. We mirror celebrity styles, and no longer purchase simply when we need to replace a pair, but for styling and different occasions. And that means there’s not the same expectation that footwear will last – consumers want convenience and choices that respond to trends and styles, so they don’t need them to last. The ever-increasing role of social media and unavoidable consistent images of desirability means consumers act on psychological as well as practical motivations.

Which makes disposal of footwear a challenge. We manufacture five million pairs of shoes every year in the UK – not a huge volume of shoes from a global perspective, yet tempered by the fact that we consume the most per capita in the world (seven pairs per person). Disposing of footwear is an immediate environmental crisis, that needs addressing.

Most shoe components aren’t biodegradable and the leather tanning process stops the decomposition of a raw material. Synthetic materials that don’t decompose can end up in the ocean, adding to our plastics crisis. Most of our shoes go into landfill. Some shoes are laterally cycled – re-sold on eBay or other sites, and some are donated to charity. And, while cobblers still prevent many shoes going to landfill, with the increase of trainers and synthetic materials the techniques used need much more investigation.

Reducing the amount of shoes produced might not be as difficult for a younger generation, that has grown up with excessive choice, over consumption and social media to come to terms with. However, our older generations now expect plentiful choice and consider this a freedom earned. 

So how can we tackle it? With recycling facilities on the high street next to the shops where new fast fashion is sold (taking a similar approach to health warnings on cigarettes, alcohol and gambling)? With money back/ brand credits for customers that engage with recycling? Like the glass bottle return policy, or a discount if you trade in an old car, these aren’t new ideas. But they’re suggestions we can pair with new issues, as we become more aware of them.

The fashion industry is seeing a raft of new materials, made from recycled t-shirts and other garments. While they can’t be disposed of, it allows them a new form, rather than just producing more. What ideas and innovation can we come up with for shoes?   


Join us to create a collective of designers, artists, digital and tech people who’re keen to use 3D printing in your work at an early or prototype stage, which could lead to small scale commercial development of a footwear range.

@businessofshoes  @3dshoebirdproject

Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs is a fashion lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. Her sustainable shoe project is backed by the EU-backed OpenMaker project, supporting digital manufacturing innovation in Italy, Slovakia, Spain and the UK.

Photo by Niko Lienata on Unsplash.


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