One of the jobs on my to-do list right now is to buy some new sandals for my son, before we take the ferry to France at the weekend. As they grow, my children need new footwear on a regular basis, and there always seems to be something wearing out or getting too tight. We do pretty well on the hand-me-down circuit, but if you don’t have friends and cousins to provide that endless supply of shoes, boots and sandals, it could get pretty expensive.
That problem is multiplied in developing countries, where there are fewer options on the market, and where shoes are much more expensive as a proportion of earnings. It’s not surprising that many children go barefoot or make do with improvised local solutions such as car-tyre sandals. It just wouldn’t be possible to keep up with the expense of quality footwear.
That can have consequences – children are at risk of injury and infection, but they may also miss out on education. As the authors of Poor Economics note, low income families are often unable to provide shoes and a school uniform to their children, who are then not allowed to attend school. The wrong footwear could lead to a lifetime of disadvantage.
So I like the idea of The Shoe That Grows. Six years of research went into creating a smart sandal that can change size and grow with the child. The Shoe That Grows comes in two age brackets – aged 4 to 8, and 8 to 12. Each pair is capable of growing five shoes sizes, thanks to an unfolding rubber sole and adjustable velcro straps. Not exactly a fashion icon, but highly practical. Ideally you could get through most of your childhood with just two pairs of shoes.
While the shoe is quite ingenious, I’m not so keen on the business model behind it. The Shoe That Grows is a US-based charity that runs on donations, and the shoes are distributed free. That’s fine in some contexts, such as refugee camps or disaster areas. In others it can undermine local manufacturers and traders and create dependencies. It solves the immediate problem of shoelessness, but doesn’t address the bigger question of why the person is shoeless. I hope the charity has paid attention to some of the criticism levelled at Tom’s, who built their footwear brand on a ‘buy one give one’ basis. To their credit, Tom’s took the challenge on board, commissioned their own impact studies, and have adapted substantially in response so that they address poverty more broadly. It would be a shame if The Shoe That Grows didn’t learn from the wealth of studies done around Tom’s.
Putting that aside for a moment, there’s definitely room on the market for expanding kid’s shoes, and the good news is that they’re available to the rest of us too. Or at least they could be – there’s a Kickstarter programme running at the moment for a spin-off called GroFive ‘expandals’. It might not keep my son in school, but it could save us money and reduce the number of worn-out shoes headed to landfill.