“You cannot put the same shoe on every foot.” While Latin writer Publilius Syrus’s age-old proverb undoubtedly holds deeper layers of meaning, the literal definition is something Swiss sustainable shoe brand URBNC3 is urgently looking to champion.
The myth that “one size fits all” is what conventional shoe conglomerates have perpetuated for decades. A myth URBNC3 is tenaciously working to debunk.
Although Publilius Syrus and his musings were perhaps not intentionally the inspiration for URBNC3’s mission, people’s health and the future of the planet certainly are.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with URBNC3 founders Linda Wang and Roman Wyss to learn how the brand is fearlessly challenging convention and setting a new standard for sustainable footwear.
URBNC3: How it All Started
The COVID-19 pandemic and numerous lockdowns caused many of us to experience earth-shattering epiphanies where we reflected on our purpose and place in the world.
For Linda and Roman, 2020 was the year of serious revelation. As finance and banking professionals, the duo worked a great deal yet felt they could be doing more for people and the planet. “There must be something else,” Linda ruminated. “Something more in our personal interest that we can build up.”
At the same time, Linda was suffering from foot problems. “I had pain when I was walking and the doctor said he couldn’t find anything significant and to wait until it got worse before going for orthopaedic inlays.” Likewise, Linda’s partner Phillip requires orthopaedic inlays and has experienced significant issues finding the right shoes. “Inlays are very difficult to fit into different shoes,” explains Linda. “Especially in summer he could never wear open shoes like flip flops or sandals.”
The truth is: so many people wear shoes that don’t fit properly. Perceiving a huge gap in the market, Linda and Roman embarked on an incredible journey to create custom-made tailored sandals that are also kind to the environment.
“We want to make the footwear industry more sustainable and efficient by incorporating modern technologies such as AI and 3D printing into the shoe production value chain alongside using alternative materials,” says Roman. “This is basically at the heart of our concept.”
What’s more, URBNC3 shoes don’t discriminate. Every pair champions fluidity and allows consumers to express their uniqueness. “We don’t gender at all,” says Roman. “There is only going to be one shop. Our sandal is one model you can customise yourself.”
“Women have a hard time finding large sizes and vice versa,” echoes Linda. “Certain styles are only available for women rather than men and vice versa. We want to create a shoe that is customisable to each person. No discrimination.”
The brand is also tapping into a niche market of people who have differently-sized feet. “For those people,” urges Roman. “There are almost no solutions.”
Most footwear is made from a complex concoction of synthetic materials that are near impossible to recycle. Out of the 22.2 billion shoes made each year, a shocking 90% are thrown into landfill. “From the beginning, we were looking into alternative materials because setting up a new brand is a good chance to explore other materials than the standard,” explains Roman. “Pretty quickly you get into those topics of microplastics and leather alternatives.”
Determined to sever ties with the footwear industry’s enduring plastic addiction, URBNC3 is experimenting with a wide range of plant-based materials. “We started with apple-based leather,” says Linda. “But we are also testing other plant-based materials like pineapple, mushroom and cactus.”
Nevertheless, eradicating plastic from a shoe’s production is no small feat. “This is actually the biggest challenge we face,” says Roman. “It’s already difficult in fashion but it’s even more difficult in the shoe industry.”
Even though plant-based leather has some great ethical and environmental strengths compared to its animal skin counterpart, many flora-derived materials are enveloped in a synthetic finish. “Plant-based leathers are not the ultimate solution for a circular economy,” Roman tells us. “That’s why we are also looking at other solutions. At the moment, we are taking what we think is the best.”
And URBNC3 is leaving no stone unturned when finding the best sustainable materials! For example, the team is considering using bio-based materials for insoles and outsoles. “The material is a thermoplastic elastomer where the filling is nut shells,” explains Roman. “It is 50% bio-based and is industrially compostable.” On top of that, the material doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals, colours or softeners, and any shedding microplastics take significantly less time to break down than traditional plastic-based counterparts.
AI, 3D Printing and Ethical Factories
So, how do you purchase a pair of URBNC3 sandals? Linda and Roman walk us through their simple yet tech-savvy process.
“First you choose your design online,” explains Linda. “We want the process to be very customisable, since it’s tailored anyway. Then you can use your smartphone and scan your feet using our app. Three pictures are taken and then this will spit out the 3D model of the foot.”
From selecting colours right through to sole thickness, URBNC3 allows every customer to express their style and create shoes that are truly unique to them. Each sandal will follow each individual foot shape, and a custom arch support is added to your natural footbed!
URBNC3 sandals are designed and developed in Switzerland and ethically produced in Europe. Linda and Roman have done their due diligence when researching producers to partner with and make a point of visiting every factory. “We’re in discussion with Italian and Polish producers,” says Linda. “They are mostly mid-sized family-run businesses.”
Roman also tells us about a Swiss-based workshop they partner with that supports people with disabilities. “They are usually more open to trying new things and they are now supporting us. What the shoe industry is really struggling with is the shape of our shoes. They always use standard moulds in different sizes, but we require another production process.”
Circularity and Hopes for the Future
How do you make shoes circular? A head-scratcher that continues to plague the global shoe industry but is a challenge Linda and Roman are actively tackling. “It’s very hard to come up with the perfect solution right away,” says Linda. “It’s a process and you need to take it step by step.”
Although the pair recognise the long journey ahead, they are already taking incredible steps for the future of footwear and the planet. “Somehow you need to make it as simple as possible for the customer to either recycle or send back the product,” says Roman. “So, right now, we’re planning to have a programme where customers can return the shoes and receive a voucher for their next purchase.”
Embracing circularity is about finding ways to shift the throwaway mindset which permeates today’s consumer culture. “The thing is, and what consumers need to understand, it comes at a certain cost. It’s still cheaper to just buy new and throw it away.”
Eventually, Roman tells us, URBNC3 wants to make a sustainable shoe that is 100% compostable. “So, we’re looking at materials that aren’t artificial leathers, but they are more like textile that is fully plant-based and then at a certain point if you can compost the shoe, even if it’s just industrially, there is already a potential to recycle them.”
For now, encouraging customers to send back their old URBNC3 shoes will be the duo’s focus. “The ultimate goal would be to have a compostable shoe so it wouldn’t matter that much if they end up in a landfill,” says Linda. “In the beginning, we would take those components that are industrial compostable and then recycle what we can and then the rest we can upcycle.”
Roman and Linda are also hoping to go beyond sandals and expand into other shoe types. “The orthopaedic aspect is really relevant for technical shoes like ski boots, sports shoes and hiking boots,” says Roman. “And it doesn’t mean that we want to do this all ourselves. We also want to collaborate with other brands, for example, to produce inlays for Nike. If the inlays are 3D printed from the material we use, they can already be industrially composted so if the shoes are worn out you just take out the insole and compost it.”
URBNC3’s Kickstarter Campaign: Show Your Support
URBNC3 is redefining the traditional footwear industry one unique step at a time.
From successfully disrupting conventional production processes to using innovative plant-based materials, Linda, Roman, and the rest of the URBNC3 team are putting their best foot forward for people’s health and the environment.
So if you’re looking for stylish, sustainable and ergonomically sound footwear, URBNC3 sandals are the shoes for you!
Show your support today by signing up for URBNC3’s Kickstarter campaign.
Are you ready to be a part of the footwear revolution?