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In the Loop

Imagine a future where shoes are easier to recycle

What we can learn from On and Baliston, innovators experimenting with tech-augmented, recyclable athletic shoes.


Courtesy of On

The global market for footwear is approaching $400 billion, and we produce over 20 billion pairs each year. Various estimates show we dispose of about one pair of shoes for each pair produced, with nearly all of them going to landfill, incineration or the environment. Something in this system has to give.

Last fall, I wrote about the Cloudneo running shoes from On, a Swiss company with a mission to "ignite the human spirit through movement." Because all components of Cloudneo are made from the same base material, they are fully recyclable in a relatively simple process. They are only available by subscription, providing a major financial incentive for runners to return them at the end of their first use cycle. The only kinks in the system, as far as I can tell, seem based on the "shoe as a service" model itself. Allow me to elaborate.

I recently hit 340 miles in my Cloudneo shoes. Because I meticulously track all my runs and what shoes I wear for each, I have some deep insights into my running habits. Generally, I prefer to use each pair of shoes for about 300 miles. At a $29.99 per month subscription fee and my 75-mile-per month pace, that’s nearly $120.

This price is in line with the cost of regular running shoes, but there may be a catch: According to On’s website, runners can generally request new running gear every six months through the program. In that six-month period, each pair of shoes would need to cover more than 400 miles, and it would cost me $180 before I could send them back. This quickly turns into a premium product proposition compared to my usual running shoe purchase. The FAQ section for the subscription program does say that “The Cloudneo was engineered to crush about 600 km (or 370 miles) — the average distance a dedicated runner covers in about 6 months. If you reach those 600 km before the 6-month mark, just message our happiness delivery team, and they can help.” In other words, there are methods for runners that log a lot of miles to exchange more frequently if needed.

Overall, though, I’ve had a great experience with the Cloudneo shoes, and I’m excited to see how the offering evolves over time. With that, I’m on to the next circular shoe innovation. 

Cue Baliston, a new direct-to-consumer company founded by shoe veteran Karim Oumnia. The company is entering the market with a casual walking shoe designed by Philippe Starck, and I’ve been lucky enough to preview them over the last couple of weeks.

Tech-augmented and 100% recyclable

According to the company, the new Baliston is "the first tech-augmented shoe to capture biometric information straight from the wearer’s feet." Put simply, this has been a different shoe experience from the moment I received them. 

First, the box is — futuristic. Check out the photo below. 

Baliston shoes with box

Baliston shoes with box. Courtesy of Baliston


Once I cracked the box open, though, I was even more surprised. Inside I found my shoes and three small electronic devices. I quickly figured out that the first two were inserts for each shoe that will provide the walking data to the connected phone app. The third, though, was slightly more confusing. After some experimentation, I figured out it was the charger. I probably should have thought about opening the app, as it actually has great instructions for getting started.

Once I got these shoes fired up and tried them on, I was impressed with their comfort. The walking and gait tracker seem to work great, and overall this is a pretty good footwear experience. If I have one beef with Baliston as a walking shoe, it’s that the laces don’t really do a good job of tightening the shoes, so they feel a bit too loose on the foot for longer walks. 

What I really want to talk about, though, is the environmental story behind these shoes. It really breaks down into three parts. 

First, the shoes are made from just five bio-based recyclable materials. That means every shoe produced can be collected at the end of its life and can be 100 percent recycled. If the recycling process is successful, this would be a great innovation for a historically difficult to recycle product category. 

Second, support for recycling was built into the design from the outset. I had the chance to speak to Oumnia recently, and he told me that the company worked to identify buyers for the recycled materials before going to market. This allowed Baliston to use high-value materials in the shoes knowing that the materials could provide additional value when the first use is over. Unlike the On CloudNeo, it appears the Baliston shoes won’t be managed via a closed loop recycling system, but the highest and best use for each material has been predetermined. 

Baliston shoe disassembled, showing the components

Baliston shoe disassembled, showing the components. Courtesy of Baliston

Last, the Baliston shoes are available through a $249.99 annual subscription ($21 per month compared to the CloudNeo price of $29.99 per month) but also have the added feature of measuring their own wear and tear over time. Essentially, the shoes can let you know when it is time to return them. This is good for Baliston because it makes it more likely they will get the shoes back. It is also good for the wearer because they can change to a new pair before their shoes wear down and could cause injury. Additionally, Baliston is offering users a pair of fitted custom insoles based on their walking style to help support healthier movement patterns.

Overall, it is too early to tell if this model will be successful. But as I walked away from my conversation with Oumnia in my comfy new shoes, I had hope for what Baliston can do in the future. 

As a parting thought, Oumnia told me that Baliston "wants to show to the world that we can create a business, a manufacturing company and a brand that is responsible for what they produce." 

That’s as good a place to start as any when building a shoe company, so this may be one to watch out for. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the options for returning and replacing the Cloudneo shoes.

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