Every afternoon, a young man runs barefoot down the middle of our street. He’s one of those paleo-fitness people—the ones who believe we should go shoeless like the cavemen when we exercise. I’m not necessarily a detractor—as a runner myself, I think about things like long-term impact on my joints, heel strike and arch support, all of which are purported to be better when barefoot—but given that our environs are now covered in asphalt, broken glass, and worse, I’m also not eager to take up this practice.
The barefoot approach is just one among a variety within a movement known as minimalist running. Going shoeless is both the most extreme and the most low-tech of the options for “reducing your shoes.” For those who prefer an intermediary between their skin and the street, there is barefoot-inspired footwear, like the ever more prevalent Vibram 5 Fingers (I’ll reserve my opinion on the aesthetic consequences of this trend). Recently, Nike announced a new shoe for the lightweight category that responds to many of the desires of minimalist runners, and then‚ since Nike likes to push the innovation envelope, goes further, tackling some of the bigger challenges inherent to mass-manufacturing shoes.
The Nike Flyknit takes its cues not so much from bare feet as from socks. The company had heard from runners that the ideal fit for a shoe would be the snug feeling of knit material. “But all the features that make a sock desirable,” Nike says, “have proven to make them a bad choice for a running upper . An inherently dynamic material like yarn generally has no structure or durability.”
The company engaged in four years of R&D to come up with software and technology that could turn a factory-scale sock-making machine into a producer of sneaker uppers. Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Matt Townsend wrote a great article on the process: ”Spools of colored polyester yarn are fed into the 15-foot-long machine, which weaves together the top of the shoe and creates a ‘second skin’ with tiny synthetic cables knitted into the weave around the midfoot for support.”
Besides the visible minimalism of the Flyknit’s structure, the design enables a huge reduction in material use and production time. As we learned last week, most shoes are composed of dozens of materials and require at least as many productive steps. According to Townsend, “the Flyknit has 35 fewer pieces to assemble than the popular Air Pegasus+ 28″ and reduces material waste by 66 percent. The implication is that labor requirements shrink, which could make domestic manufacturing financially viable, which in turn diminishes transportation and its associated ecological burden.
The computer-reliant design also means Nike could rapidly and inexpensively deploy different yarn types or change the density of the weave. There’s also the potential for more consumer-friendly applications, such as the ability to scan a customer’s foot in a retail store and order shoes custom-woven to the exact specifications of that individual—yarn color included. It’s not quite 3D printing, but it’s not that far off.
From a sustainability perspective, the Flyknit is an interesting example of how to address environmental issues at the design phase, creating systemic change before the product reaches the consumer and the likelihood of a shift plummets. Nike itself has experimented with sustainability initiatives at the consumer end, asking shoe owners to bring back old pairs for recycling. Patagonia does it too. But relying on individuals to close your loop is a much riskier bet than baking more efficient methods into your factory.
The Flyknit isn’t out yet, so all the talk of an industry-wide butterfly effect triggered by a sock-like shoe is mere speculation. But based on the picture I can at least say one thing: I’d be a lot more willing to wear this sneaker in public than certain other shoes in the lightweight running category.