Wear and Tear: The Underlying Crises of Footwear Fit

Uncover the hidden risks of ill-fitting footwear, from personal discomfort and health issues to the environmental impact of returns. Learn how IAMBIC is stepping up to solve the footwear fit crisis with AI-driven precision-fit shoes.

By Maeve Wang & Frank Mojica

Of all the retail purchases made every year, few are as important as footwear. Shoes are the most universal mobility device, regardless of age, gender, location, or lifestyle. Yet, shoes and other types of footwear can cause significant problems for people, companies, and the environment, all stemming from issues of footwear fit.

The Risks of Ill-Fitting Footwear

Bad fit impacts much more than just how easy it is to lace up your footwear — it affects your personal comfort and physical ability. Discomfort may be the most obvious and immediate sign of ill-fitting footwear, but the problem runs deeper than short-term aches and blisters. People assume getting blisters or cuts on their feet is a normal part of the break-in process, but wearing footwear that doesn’t fit well can lead to far more serious problems. Poor footwear fit can cause permanent injuries like peripheral neuropathy and physical deformities such as hammertoe.1 These issues aren’t rare — they’re actually rampant. Approximately 5 billion people globally (2 out of 3 people) wear shoes that don’t fit, exposing themselves to lasting physical harm and mobility, limiting their long-term ability to enjoy life to the fullest.2

Footwear Fit Cramps Business

Stepping away from the human perspective, bad fit also severely impacts businesses. It takes resources to successfully sell footwear — not to mention what happens if those pairs are returned, wasting even more time and money. Fueled by the rise of Amazon and its generous return policy, other e-commerce retailers have adopted similar policies to stay competitive — and it might be driving them out of business.

E-commerce returns have skyrocketed by 95% in the past 5 years, costing retailers a third of their revenues.3 Nearly 40% of footwear purchased online is returned, and less than half of these returns are resold at their full price.4 The #1 reason for footwear returns? Poor fit. Returns not only impact each specific sale, but also may diminish the purchaser’s view of the brand or retailer, possibly resulting in lost future sales.

Footwear Impacts Climate

Beyond human and financial pain, the fit crisis also hits our environment with waste that is almost impossible to reclaim. Retail returns create carbon emissions from additional shipping and massive landfill waste — up to 5 billion pounds of extra packaging and plastic.5 Approximately 10% of online returns are incinerated, and U.S. market returns alone produce over 15 million tons of carbon emissions annually. As e-commerce sales and product shipping continue to grow globally, inevitably so will returns, and with them an ever-expanding carbon footprint and even more waste. If footwear buyers were able to purchase better fitting footwear, these environmental strains would be reduced.

Stepping Up

Improper footwear fit may appear to be the result of a simple consumer mistake, but its prevalence has large and long-lasting consequences on customers, businesses and the environment. Until the footwear fit issue is addressed head-on, it will continue to lower the quality of life for people around the world, cost the retail industry untold billions and generate more landfill waste and CO2 emissions. We can and we must do better: our feet, planet and bottom lines depend on it.


IAMBIC is stepping up to solve this footwear fit crisis. IAMBIC is a next generation shoe brand delivering precision-fit shoes at scale through merging AI, virtual scanning, and streamlined manufacturing — making footwear finally inclusive. IAMBIC’s patent-pending, National Science Foundation-backed technological innovations are developed with the world’s top foot and footwear researchers, industrial designers, and passionate creatives. Learn more at iambic.co.


  1. Vanderheiden, Terence, “Why It’s Important to Wear the Right Shoe Size,” Very Well Health, December 2020: https://www.verywellhealth.com/do-people-wear-correct-size-shoes-1337769. ↩︎
  2. Andrew Buldt and Hylton Menz, “Incorrectly fitted footwear, foot pain and foot disorders: a systematic search and narrative review of the literature,” Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, July 2018: https://jfootankleres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13047-018-0284-z. ↩︎
  3. Schifer, Jessica, ”The unsustainable cost of free returns,” Vogue Business, July 2019: https://www.voguebusiness.com/consumers/returns-rising-costs-retail-environmental. ↩︎
  4. Reagan, Courtney, “That sweater you don’t like is a trillion-dollar problem for retailers. These companies want to fix it,” CNBC, January 2019: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/10/growing-online-sales-means-more-returns-and-trash-for-landfills.html. ↩︎
  5. Coresight Research and Newmine, ”Sustainability Insights: The Hidden Costs of Retail Returns,” Coresight Research, April 2021: https://coresight.com/research/sustainability-insights-the-hidden-costs-of-retail-returns/. ↩︎