If you’ve been slow to embrace the whole sustainable footwear concept, Simple Shoes will forgive you; after all, it took them nearly 13 years to come around.
The company was founded in 1991 with a somewhat amorphous vision to be a different kind of company. They wanted to stand in contrast with the over-teched, over-hyped, “It’s gotta be the shoes!” sneaker culture that was pervasive (this was the Michael Jordan era, you know), but struggled with how to distinguish themselves.
Simple had an epiphany of sorts in 2004 (and even posted it on their website - see below), and reinvented themselves as one of the most eco-friendly companies around. Written into their manifesto was this notion: HOW they make their shoes is just as important as WHY they make them. That meant finding more sustainable ways of doing business while creating products that were fashionable enough for the company to still pay the bills. Even more impressive is that they managed to do this while keeping their retail prices quite affordable.
Shortly thereafter, Simple introduced a methodology called Green Toe, utilizing materials and manufacturing processes that make their products as sustainable as possible. Initially the Green Toe collection included only two shoes, but the program’s ongoing innovations are now incorporated into every shoe in the Simple catalog.
Simple’s overall aim is for 100% sustainable footwear that’s easy and comfortable to live with. I had the opportunity to test two models; the GUMshoe is reviewed today, with the CARport to be reviewed separately in a couple of weeks.
The GUMshoe is a staple of the Green Toe collection, and is available in several different styles and materials. Corduroy versions are made of certified organic cotton, but Simple’s real innovation with this model is the use of hemp uppers in select styles.
Although hemp is illegal to grow in the United States without a DEA permit (a somewhat unfathomable regulation that I won’t delve into here), it is a very productive crop in Asia, and an almost ideal material for shoe and apparel construction. It grows rapidly and is naturally organic, as it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides to protect. It’s one of the most durable yet soft and breathable fabrics available. (Personal anecdote: this year’s official Western States race t-shirts are made of hemp, and mine is the softest shirt I own.) Simple uses fresh-cut, unbleached, undyed hemp for its shoe uppers, making for a completely natural product; about the only thing you can’t do is smoke it.
Both the corduroy and hemp versions of the GUMshoe are 100% vegan friendly, with no animal products or byproducts utilized at any stage of construction. The construction process also features a ton of stitching, so that nearly no glue is used in assembly – and the tiny amount of glue that is required is water based instead of using petroleum.
Like all Simple footwear, the Gumshoe uses a huge amount of post-consumer content in its design (as well as all its packaging). This is most obvious on the sole of the shoe, which is made from a recycled car tire. As you’d expect, this outsole material provides remarkably good traction for a loafer-style shoe. It also squeaks a bit on tile and hardwood, but it doesn’t mark either of those surfaces from my experience.
The GUMshoe’s footbed and insole are made from recycled carpet padding, which is a great eco-friendly innovation. However, the insole represents the only drawback I found with the GUMshoe, in that it’s not removable, and it has a built-in arch support that is fairly substantial. If you’re like me and trying this shoe from the standpoint of a barefoot or natural footwear enthusiast, you might be frustrated about that bulging thing pressing against your arch.
It’s especially disappointing because aside from the arch support, the GUMshoe has a very low profile, good ground feel, and a great minimalist look to it. Other Simple models have removable arches, so I’d love to see this feature offered in the GUMshoe as well.
Despite my objection to the arch, I have to say that this shoe is extremely comfortable both above and below the foot, and its styling has proven to be more versatile than I anticipated. I originally thought it would be just a casual wear-around-the-house shoe, but I’ve found that I can dress them up with a pair of jeans or khakis and get away with it (as is customary, my wife may disagree with any fashion-related claims I make here). They’re the kind of shoes you enjoy wearing, both because of how they feel, and because of where they came from.
Simple is clearly a company that you can feel good supporting; they’re committed to a “less is more” philosophy for both their product design and manufacturing, and they’re a plausible alternative to our grossly consumptive, flashy hyper-marketed designer-brand culture. Which is all they really wanted to be in the first place.
The Simple GUMshoe hemp model retails for $60 from the company website, with select colors discounted from Endless.com (who also supply Amazon.com). The corduroy model is $10 cheaper from both vendors.
*Product provided by Simple Shoes
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.