Is Sustainability the New Cool?
In 2012, Nike, as it so often does, revolutionized the trajectory of modern footwear with the introduction of “Flyknit”. By blending yarns and fabric variations into a seamless, featherweight, and formfitting upper, Nike launched sustainable footwear manufacturing into the mainstream. The launch of the Flyknit Racer revolutionized running footwear. Weighing in at 5.6 ounces in its initial form, the Flyknit Racer was 19% lighter than the shoes worn by the winners of the 2011 marathon in the World Championships. By July of 2015 Nike had 28 Flyknit models in rotation, including the wildly popular Kobe 9 elites and the Nike HTM Trainer and Chukkas.
Nike’s powerhouse of Flyknit boasts reducing production excess by about 60%, for a net reduction of 3.5 million pounds of waste. Nike claims that 3.5 million pounds of waste is the equivalent to the weight of 2.5 million regulation basketballs that, stacked end to end, would stretch the distance between LA and San Francisco, or about 400 miles. In 2016 Nike transitioned from core yarn to recycled polyester. This transition is claimed to have kept 182 million plastic bottles from landfills. That’s enough water bottles to cover 300 full-size soccer/football pitches.
Nike has moved sustainable production beyond the Flyknit footwear also introducing ColorDry technology, which is responsible for dyeing fabric without the use of water, as well as it’s Reuse-A-Show program that has recycled nearly 30 million pairs of shoes. Nike has also cut the energy used by its footwear manufacturers by about 50% per unit in the last eight years. Nike Grind pushes the company towards a closed-loop model of manufacturing; a model in which zero waste is sent to a landfill or incineration without energy recovery. Nike Grind transforms old shoes and manufacturing scrap into high performance Nike footwear, apparel, and high quality sports equipment and playing surfaces.
Long-term, Nike’s aim is to cut the average environment footprint of its shoes 10% by 2020, and to use 100% renewable energy in its owned and operated facilities by 2025.
For 2017, Nike has once again looking to revolutionize the footwear game with the introduction of Flyleather. While Flyknit has changed the game in many ways, the battle of cheap synthetic leathers versus real, quality leather has been one Nike has fought, and lost, for many years. Its use of synthetic leather on several of its models, namely the Jordan brand shoes, was met with market ire and sales declines. However, as Nike embraces the success of its sustainability campaign, leather seems to be the company’s next big foray. Discarded leather scrap from tannery floors is converted into fibers. These recycled fibers are then combined with synthetic fibers and a fabric infrastructure. A hydro process then fuses all three materials into one, while a finishing process can add pigmentation and converts the material into a sheet which is then cut into the necessary shape.
Nike claims the Flyleather look and feel is no different than premium leather and that it mimics full-grain leather in fit and touch, but can be produced in a more consistent grade across a broad range of products. Leather as it is used right now is the second-highest environmental impacting item on Nike’s carbon emissions and water usage. Flyleather creation takes 90% less water and sees an 80% reduction in carbon footprint over traditional leather. Staying true to the current average, a 50% reduction in carbon footprint exists with every pair of Flyleather produced shoes, compared to a traditional leather produced shoe. Flyleather production also creates less waste and can improve cutting efficiency over traditional cut-and-sew methods used in traditional leather manufacturing. All this is achieved with a material that is 40% lighter and five times more durable.
Nike has released a limited series of classic models which feature this updated Flyleather. The Nike Flyleather Tennic Classic, Flyleather Air Force 1 SE, Flyleather Air Max 90 SE, Flyleather Cortez SE, and Flyleather Jordan 1 SE all saw a limited release during Climate Week in September.
Never to be outdone, Adidas has launched its own environmental innovation and sustainability campaign. Adidas’ approach to sustainability was been more focused on creating collaborative partnerships and being involved in worldwide climate and energy policy creation.
Adidas has worked with EU policymakers to help establish a dialogue on mandatory carbon reporting and environmental impacts of their products. Adidas has also joined the UN Climate Neutral Now Initiative which promotes societal opportunity for being climate neutrality through the reduction of emissions and offsetting unavoidable emissions with UN-certified offsets. Becoming a member of the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) has played a role in pushing the company’s goals of sustainability forward as well.
Like Nike, Adidas has adopted new technologies that improve minimize the environmental impact of many manufacturing processes. Adidas introduced a prototype shoe with a 100% Biosteel Fiber upper, a nature-based and completely biodegradable high-performance fiber. The material boasts being 15% lighter weight than conventional synthetic fibers while also being the strongest fully nature-based material available. DryDye is Adidas’ polyester dry dyeing process that uses no water as well as 50% fewer chemicals and 50% less energy than previous dyeing processes. DryDye injects dye into fabric using compressed carbon dioxide, the carbon dioxide is then recycled back into the dyeing vessel after being converted back into gas form. Having been introduced in 2012 DryDye had been estimated by Adidas to have saved 100 million liters of water at the end of 2014.
Other processes include NoDye which allows materials to be used in their natural color state. Element Voyager Shoe was launched by Adidas in 2013 was only 12 parts compared to the 30 part average of previous shoes which resulted in a 500gs less waste per shoe. The Element Voyager also was made with environmentally preferred materials and down to only 5% of the waste previously produced.
The most publicized and transforming relationship for Adidas’ commitment to sustainability and minimizing environmental impact has come from the relationship with Parley for the Oceans. First announced in 2015, Adidas serves not only as a collaborator but also a founding member of the Parley initiative. The main focus has been on Parley’s Ocean Plastic Program, guided by the AIR Strategy (Avoid, Intercept, and Redesign) to end plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. As of January 1st, 2016 Adidas phased plastic bags out of its retail stores. The elimination of microbeads in shower gel, plastic bottles, straws, utensils, and food boxes at their headquarters soon followed. 2015 saw the world’s first shoe made of yarns and filaments reclaimed and recycled from plastic ocean waste. Shortly after a 3D-printed shoe midsole made from similar materials was constructed.
2016 saw perhaps the biggest public offering from the Parley/Adidas partnership with the release of several limited release shoes with uppers constructed from reclaimed and recycled plastic ocean waste. The Adidas X Parley for the Oceans Ultra Boost, Ultra Boost X, and Ultra Boost Uncaged released on May 10 of 2017 catching the eye of many streetwear and sneakerhead fanatics. The popularity of this first limited release spawned several follow-ups including two updated EQT Support ADV sneakers, an Alpha Bounce, flip-flops, and an Adizero Prime.
With sustainability seemingly a more ongoing hot topic for conversation, the sneaker world may have taken on a bigger role in shaping environmental footwears next steps. Are you ready?