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Vibram settles a 3.75 million USD lawsuit over shoes with alleged health benefits

May 19, 2014 United States
Vibram settles a 3.75 million USD lawsuit over shoes with alleged health benefits
The maker of the famous FiveFingers barefoot-style running shoes has agreed to a multi-million dollar settlement over the shoes’ declared health benefits
Vibram first produced the five-toe minimalist shoe in 2006 and announced its use could prevent injuries and strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs; improve the motion range in the ankles, feet, and toes; stimulate neural function important to balance and agility; eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture and allow the foot and body to move naturally. With the big sportswear brands following Vibram, the barefoot or minimalist running trend was quickly created, with runners aiming to get more efficient, while strengthen their muscles and avoiding injuries.

In 2007, Time magazine named them as one of the year's best health inventions, and two years later Born to Run, a book by Christopher McDougall, helped enhance its popularity. The thin-soled flexible shoes cost on average 100 USD a pair, and according to numbers quoted by the international press, sales of Vibram's shoes have experienced an annual average growth of 300% over the past six years, with total sales of their FiveFinger shoes approaching 70 million pairs in 2012.

As the shoe was becoming popular, several critics voiced their arguments against it, defending there was no science evidence to back up the health benefits claims. At the same time the scientific community was divided and arguments differed. Early studies showed that the barefoot style could reduce impact in areas like the knees that are prone to strain, but later studies found that the strain simply shifted to other parts of the leg and foot.

Valerie Bezdek, one of the critics, decided to take action further and in March 2012 filed her class-action suit against Vibram in Massachusetts, claiming the company had deployed deceptive marketing and falsely advertised benefits without basing its claims on any scientific research. Now, while the company denies any wrongdoing, no scientific proof to back the alleged added health benefits was presented, and Vibram has agreed to shell out 3.75 million USD in settlement funds to be distributed to customers claiming a partial refund. Quite significant is the other part of the settlement as Vibram will have to dial back the health claims that the shoes are effective in strengthening muscles or reducing injury made for years: "Vibram will not make...any claims that FiveFingers footwear are effective in strengthening muscles or preventing injury unless that representation is true, non-misleading and is supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence", it can be read on the federal settlement.

Whether running barefoot is actually superior to using normal running shoes has been increasingly called into question over the last few years and no unanimous conclusion has been achieved so far. It is possible to read on the American Podiatric Medical Association website that “barefoot running is a possible alternative or training adjunct to running with shoes. While anecdotal evidence and testimonials proliferate on the Internet and in the media about the possible health benefits of barefoot running, research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice. Barefoot running has been touted as improving strength and balance, while promoting a more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection, which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds, and increased stress on the lower extremities. Research is ongoing in regards to the risks and benefits of barefoot running.”

Is still too early to know the consequences of this lawsuit and this agreement to the reputation of Vibram and its products and what the impact on its sales will be in the near future, but the critics heard from years have now been backed by a strong argument and can’t be ignored.

The company claims to be the world leader in high performance rubber soles, targeted to the outdoor, work, recreation, fashion, repair and orthopedic markets. Vibram’s history dates back to 1937, when they started to develop rubber biking boot soles using the same technique as Pirelli’s tires production. Over the next decades the company has been focusing in developing a range of products for a wide variety of activities including outdoor sports.

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