Lyf Shoes – Creating the digital cobbler

Robots - one of the first Lyf designs

My favourite story coming out of Sustainable Brands London (a conference where big brands talk about their sustainability initiatives, network and learn from sustainability experts) was definitely Aly Khalifa and Lyf Shoes’ as it managed to combine several of my favourite things: shoes, sustainability and localisation together with an unlikely hero.

I was introduced (and intrigued) first by this tweet which came up on the #sb14london feed.

Lyf Shoes. Sustainable shoes printed on demand with a 3d printer.
Sustainable shoes made with a 3D printer. Intriguing.

Spotting the (rather loud) shoes peeking from under the table at one of the Monday afternoon workshops I started to learn about Aly’s unusual take on shoemaking.

In Aly’s words, the shoe industry as we know it is dirty business; shoes are mostly manufactured thousands of miles away from consumers (96% of US footwear comes from overseas), made using unsustainable materials and carcinogenic adhesives containing Toluene and Benzene and assembled mostly by women of childbearing age. Not to mention big centralised factories, a huge carbon footprint and materials which cannot really be recycled once they reach end of life. Shoes might be pretty but the reality behind them definitely is not.

Bring on Aly’s disruptive model for shoe manufacture: A shoe made of entirely compostable (never mind recyclable) material, printed locally on a 3D printer and assembled without the use of any glue. Inspired by Japanese Shinto architecture which is built to be put together without any screws or glue, Lyf shoes do away completely with any need for adhesive, creating a shoe which can be assembled on demand in under 15 minutes.

Thanks to wonderful 3D printers shoes are manufactured directly in the retail store, doing away with the need for a factory and using sales staff to help make the shoes. Manufacturing costs are brought down to 1/3 through only assembling on demand, thus not having waste associated with different upper designs and sizes, creating a model that is not only sustainable environmentally but also financially.

Uppers are digitally printed on cotton based on designs by local artists or even the customer’s own design allowing for much wider creativity  and complete customisation. Customers are encouraged to bring back end of life shoes through a discount on the next pair together with a heel lock which monitors walking throughout the lifetime of the shoe, the information from which can then be used to make shoes that support the wearer’s own walk.



Aly’s decentralised model offers tools that can be tailored locally and on a small scale, creating the opportunity for local workmanship that delivers a product that is entirely customised for the buyer, giving birth to the digital (sustainable) cobbler.

After Aly finished his presentation at Sustainable Brands London, the conversation between Aly and presenters Jo Confino and Sally Uren turned to how to scale this model up and whether Jeremy Rifkin’s projection of a collapse of capitalism through the internet of things and big vertically integrated companies is something he sees happening.

Rather than a collapse, Aly highlighted the difference between coffee companies Illy and Starbucks as an example. One provides the tools for small local cafes to use and make their own (Illy) while the other engulfs the local into a franchise that holds none of the original character (although Starbucks have tried to appear less branded in the past few years). The key is in the decentralised model that allows for individualisation and multiple local application rather than a single growing corporation.

In Aly’s words “What cell wants to keep growing and growing and growing? That is usually called cancer. What we do want is cells multiplying. Let’s follow our biology”.