Vibram's $3.75 Million FiveFingers Toe Jam: What's it Mean for Barefoot, Running?
It's week-old news now and unless you've been living in a cave (or on vacation ... wink!), you know that Vibram has agreed to pay out $3.75 Million to settle a class action lawsuit brought agains the company two years ago (Has it been that long?) over some of the marketing claims they were making around the purported health benefits of barefoot running/training.
In essence, Vibram made some claims via various marketing channels as to the health benefits of their five-toed footwear. As is somewhat common knowledge in the minimalist/barefoot running community, there's not a ton of science in support of the benefits of any footwear—minimalist or heavily-cushioned—that's one of the lessons Chris McDougall shared in Born to Run. As such, when push came to shove and a lawsuit went after Vibram for associating health benefits with their footwear, well, you get a lawsuit. Tack on at least one recent study regarding increased bone edema associated with transitioning to minimalist footwear and you get a tricky legal situation for Vibram. That's my layperson's, non-lawyerly take on the matter.
In this case, Vibram didn't ultimately go to court but opted to settle the case. Thus, they didn't officially admit any wrongdoing, officially. That they are set to pay out $3.75 million as part of the settlement — payable to the lawyers in fees and to customers who seek refunds — is the sign that Vibram must feel there's a risk they'd lose the case were it to go to court. So that's that.
The story has gotten airtime all over the internet thanks to the sensationalism and juicy story that is using Vibram's settlement as a launchpad to poison the well on barefoot/minimalist footwear, generally, and toe shoes, specifically.
Haters gonna hate. What's new? This is the Internet.
But what does the settlement really mean, if anything?
Outside of the purview of marketing lingo and the FTC, I'm not sure it means much. You might recall that Skechers had to fork up $40 million in their Shape-Ups FTC case. So for whatever reason, Vibram is only paying out less than 10% in this settlement, which could be interpreted in a lot of ways:
- Were Skechers Shape-Ups sold to more people than FiveFingers?
- Were the claims made by Vibram viewed as less dubious to those made by Skechers?
- The payout amount represents a probabilistic value of the lawsuit succeeding in court.
- Something else?
It doesn't matter much to those of us who maintain that FiveFingers are a great product — so long as the financial impact on Vibram isn't so severe that they'll stop producing them. To date, VFFs are still one of the most barefoot-like shoes around made. I'd be seriously disappointed were they to go the way of the dodo.
Bottom line: all those saying this settlement means something about the merits (or lack thereof) of minimalist footwear are being short-sighted. Just as much as marketing-speak isn't science, resolutions of lawsuits don't prove much (See also: burden of proof though that applies to cases that go to court versus those being settled).
What I've observed: Taking Individual Responsibility for your Health is the Whole Point.
I feel as though this goes without saying, but when it comes to your own health and the claims of product manufacturers, it's always "caveat emptor" — "buyer beware." It's up to us, as individuals, to determine the validity of claims made about whatever. So when I say "individual responsibility" is the "whole point," I mean it in a few ways, not the least of which is that I put responsibility in the hands of individuals first. That's a rule of thumb. It's a starting point. Yes, there's a spectrum of how different claims affect whether or not someone is justifiably duped/conned/had/whatever. Individuals are responsible for themselves; it's a starting point.
But there's more to this idea than the legal merits of claims about products. When it comes to our own bodies, we owe it to ourselves to pay attention. Therein lies perhaps the biggest benefit of minimalist footwear: they dial up the feedback we get from our feet just as much as they dial down the dampening from the soles of shoes. Mind, relative to barefoot, minimalist shoes also change the feedback we get from the ground. They are a compromise.
But they also allow you to pay more attention, so relatively speaking, minimalist shoes allow you to pay more attention to your body through the feedback you get from your feet. This quality has made them hugely popular as people have gotten more in touch with the ground, their movement, and their health.
But not everyone is paying attention. Or enough attention. Or closing the feedback loop!
If we are running shod and hurting, something is wrong. If we're walking barefoot and in constant pain, something isn't right! The onus of responsibility is on us to pay attention to feedback and respond to it. It's to iterate on this feedback loop with the goal of improving our health, reducing pain, or getting stronger. But you gotta take the feedback (feetback?), act on it, iterate, and keep on trying. It's a process. And it's not without some pain and frustration!
So Vibram FiveFingers were never a silver bullet. When it comes to the complex interactions of the human body, what is? Indeed, I remember many in the community lamenting the fact as they saw newcomers to the minimalist world that people would switch to VFFs and instantly go out and try to run miles. TMTS was a common retort to said folks, who likely were very enthusiastic to find how great it was to move around without clunky shoes and allow their feet to feel more on the ground; they got excited as a result, and did too much ... too soon. Indeed, the Godfather of Barefoot Running — Barefoot Ken Bob — would cite too much enthusiasm as a major cause for injuries in folks new to barefoot running (source).
It bears noting that physiological and neurooplastic change takes time and is intimately personal. In so many ways, switching to barefoot or minimalist movement requires whole body rehabilitation. Minimalist or barefoot training is, in a way, self-managed physical therapy. It's not flipping a switch.
A lot of you know this. I probably preach to the choir here because so many of you have had insanely positive experiences from this self-managed PT. And at least of few of you didn't have initial success but kept at it, closed the feedback loop, and came out the better for it. Many stories about these experiences have been chronicled on BirthdayShoes.
So it is that all the snarky and glib attacks on minimalist shoes that have come out of this settlement are just so much Internet trolling. And if you're like me, and you still like your toe shoes, well, move along—there's really nothing to see here.
For those of you who had a bad experience with FiveFingers, that's unfortunate. Kudos for giving something weird and different a shot. And if you're looking to get your piece of the Class Action pie, you'll want to head over to fivefingerssettlement.com and await the day it updates with information as to how you can claim your refund.
So there's my take (finally!). What's yours?