Here’s why sneakers are leading the charge to make clothes more sustainable

Adidas is rethinking sustainability.

caption
Adidas is rethinking sustainability.
source
Adidas; Samantha Lee/Business Insider

  • From recyclable sneakers to its goal of producing 11 million pairs of shoes from plastic waste, Adidas is making a major effort toward sustainable footwear.
  • Other brands like Nike, Everlane, and Allbirds have marketed at least some of their sneakers as sustainable.
  • But sustainability still isn’t the main selling point for a product like sneakers, and brands have to be careful about compromising quality or performance.

On April 17, inside an event center warehouse in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, Adidas unveiled its vision for the future.

Video clips showing people running in circles were projected on curtains while the speakers pumped in ASMR-like simulated breathing. Smoke was quickly filling the room.

Eric Liedtke, Adidas’ executive board member and brand head, stood on a round stage surrounded by media and influencers to announce the next evolution in sustainability: a sneaker made out of one material that could be broken down, recycled, and made into new sneakers or other materials.

Read more: Here’s what the ‘sneaker of the future’ will be like, according to a streetwear expert

It was called Adidas Futurecraft Loop, and it was billed as the future: the next step in a sustainable future where shoes are not thrown away when users are finished with them, but fed back into the creation of a new product, creating a loop process.

“There is no away,” Liedtke said during an interview with Business Insider, using a catchphrase he also used during the event. “There’s just out of sight.”

Closing the loop

Adidas futurecraft loop

source
Adidas

The problem, as Liedtke says, is using virgin polyester.

“The first thing we need to do is get off of virgin polyester. Polyester is just a fancy name for petroleum product,” he said. “So we want to recycle as much as we can. We want to get off of the virgin and get onto recycled product.”

That loop process will take time to implement and perfect, but it could also change the way we think about buying sneakers. Maybe in the future, instead of buying things outright, customers will rent them.

Liedtke likens one possibility to a process in Germany called the Pfand, which involves putting down a deposit for a beer glass. The deposit is returned when the glass is returned.

“If you use that analogy for footwear, I still buy it,” he said. “Let’s say that’s a $100 shoe. I give you $110, and I then wear it for two or three years. I give it back to you, I get my $10 back, you get the shoe back, and I get to pick another one.”

how buying shoes could work in a loop

source
Samantha Lee/Business Insider

“We definitely are playing with this,” Liedtke said. “How do you collect products at the end of their life cycle and make them into new products? That’s a natural challenge to what we’ve done with our circular loop shoe.”

Adidas isn’t only worried about closing the loop, however. It’s also making shoes out of plastic retrieved from the oceans, in partnership with Parley. This ocean plastic is harvested, processed, and turned into a yarn that can be knitted and used in both footwear and apparel.

Read more: Adidas is creating the world’s first fully recyclable sneaker that anyone can buy

The company announced in January that it is projecting to produce 11 million shoes this way in 2019, up from only one million in 2017 when the program started.

Why sneakers?

Sneakers are different from apparel in that they are complex and require a lot of different materials to manufacture. Athletic shoes, especially, use a lot of petroleum-based synthetic materials.

That makes it more difficult to manufacture with sustainability in mind than for other pieces of apparel. So why start there?

“Footwear – it’s the greatest challenge, if you will,” Liedtke said. “You’ve got to take on the greatest challenge first and set the edge, or set the point on, bringing it to the rest of your product offering.”

There’s also the cachet that sneakers have culturally in places like the US, creating a splash that a new set of apparel likely wouldn’t make, especially among younger consumers.

It’s these younger consumers that Adidas is targeting while talking about sustainability.

“Younger generations may have lost some faith in traditional institutions, you know, but they still look to the brands they love, and they expect us to do something,” Paul Gaudio, Adidas’ global creative director, said during the Futurecraft event in April. “[Focusing on sustainability is] good for business, and it will increasingly be mandatory for business.”

A sustainability wave

Other footwear players have also made sustainability a talking point. Nike has released shoes made out of “Flyleather,” a material made out of 50% recycled leather fibers and combined with synthetics for durability.

In 2017 Nike called Flyleather its “most sustainable leather material ever,” due to its lower water use and carbon footprint compared with leather.

Allbirds says that its shoes made from trees, wool, and sugarcane are more sustainable than the typical shoe, as they use renewable materials that take less energy to produce.

allbirds tree runners 1

source
Allbirds

Everlane has also come out with a line of sustainable sneakers that it calls the “lowest-impact sneaker of its kind.”

The focus on impact was really “a reaction to what we see now happening, which is a massive trend that’s causing people to switch their sneakers out on such a regular basis,” Everlane CEO Michael Preysman said in April, when the shoes were released.

The sneakers use a sole with only 6% virgin plastic and incorporate leather from a tannery with a gold certification from the Leather Working Group, which rates environmental friendliness.

‘Best product comes first, first, first’

The challenge lies in using these more sustainable materials in the first place, as customers still buy shoes with function primarily in mind and then consider factors like sustainability after, according to Sam Poser, an equity analyst at Susquehanna Investment Group covering apparel.

“I’m not saying that sustainability isn’t important, but I’m saying best product comes first, first, first,” he said.

“If sustainability is a really good icing on a cake, it’ll work,” Poser said. “But if they’re planning on sustainability being the cake, it’s not going to work.”

Liedtke says the company’s focus on sustainability does not come at the expense of product.

“We were very clear that we do not want to have that experience when it comes to sustainable product, it needs to be absolutely the same performance standards, the same style standards that consumers are accustomed to from all of our ranges,” he said. “So we can never sacrifice any of that.”

“You can’t ask the consumer to sacrifice, because that just becomes philanthropy,” he added.

Gaudio made a similar point.

“I don’t want people to buy it because it’s recyclable,” he said. “I want people to buy it because it’s awesome. And oh, by the way, it’s recycled.”