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A systemic approach to designing with resources

Portrait of Designer

Thomas Leech, Royal College of Art graduate

Thomas Leech is a designer passionate about the power of everyday products to get people engaged with the circular economy.

From the outset, Thomas searched for ways to change our concept of waste and looked at possible design options through a circular economy lens.

Written on
November 2017
Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Shoey Shoes are children’s shoes made and produced entirely from waste materials, and engineered to be disassembled, be reused, and recycled. They are the invention of Thomas Leech, an industrial designer in London who has embraced the principles of a circular economy.

Thomas has worked across the design industry for over a decade, taking his talents from luxury fashion to commercial white goods and mineral exploration. However, it was his passion for problem solving and user-centred design that saw him make the decision to head back into education and complete a Masters degree at the Royal College of Art (RCA). Across all his efforts in different fields Thomas began to feel that delivering sustainability in “product terms was too hard to achieve”. His frustrations lay in what he saw as hugely wasteful processes, which he had also witnessed in the luxury fashion industry. This led him to ask some serious questions related to how he could change the processes that no one appeared interested in addressing.

Thomas had previously heard about how the Ellen MacArthur Foundation talks about the circular economy in a way that encourages collaboration across the entire business, and with suppliers and partners. Up until this point, Thomas said

“Delivering sustainable solutions had felt like a burden designers were given to deal with on their own.”

This reframing rejuvenated his desire to encourage the industry to develop fundamentally better products for the future. With renewed enthusiasm, in 2015, while at the RCA, Thomas won a place on the Schmidt MacArthur fellowship.  

Thomas explains that it was actually during his first year at the RCA that the concept of Shoey Shoes was born. The students were given a two-week brief to research a waste stream and see what they could do with it.

Thomas began by going back to his professional roots and explored how leather off-cuts from the fashion industry could be used to develop a range of children’s shoes. His first main intention was to reduce the amount of leather being sent to landfill in the production of the millions of pairs of children’s shoes a year.

Having spent two and half years working as a developer at Mulberry, the luxury leather brand, Thomas knew of their issues with leather waste, so approached his ex-employers. They were very open to the idea of accepting him back into the fold to research waste issues and develop a whole new understanding of the intricacies of the leather industry. It was this launch pad that saw Shoey Shoes become much more than a two-week project and led to Thomas to embark on a whole new career trajectory.

From the outset, he sought ways to change our concept of waste and looked at every possible option through a circular economy lens. Shoey Shoes became an exploration of the unintended waste in both the shoe and leather industries, with the goal of seeking to solve two problems with a common solution. Thomas started by applying a circular design lens to the leather industry, and then pinpointing an end goal. He explained:

Reducing waste is good, but by how much? And how much more energy is required to keep that waste in circulation?it is very easy to be side tracked by efficiency improvements rather than effective long term solutions.”

That end goal of effectiveness has resulted in a modular shoe, which creates an opportunity for a new service model. The wearer leases the shoes, while the manufacturer retains ownership of the valuable materials and takes responsibility for keeping them in use. Thomas told us that he is not a shoe designer and is interested instead in how they are made, their supply chain, and the experience of those who wear them. Fundamentally, his aim has always been to steer in the direction of a systemic approach to using resources, not to create more shoes.

Since graduating from the RCA, Thomas still remains genuinely surprised at how much traction Shoey Shoes has gained. The positive reactions have given him the confidence to pursue funding and find a business partner. With his degree completed, Thomas began his freelance consultancy, embedding circular design in his work, while continuing to pursue his Shoey Shoes project.

“My aim is to take Shoey Shoes to the next level, but I want to try and raise capital from non-traditional sources – by this I mean I don’t want to create a business case which just focuses on the bottom line of generating profit. I want to demonstrate that a project like this can not only be profitable, but can also bring huge social and environmental value to people and systems and so I am working on some interesting ways to pitch the project to various and perhaps unlikely stakeholders!”

There is no doubt of Thomas’s unswerving commitment to quietly turning his initiative a successful business proposition: one that could eventually see the shoe industry being disrupted in ways that are truly reflective of a restorative and regenerative economy.

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