My shoes are made from recycled ocean trash. Does the planet care?
A dive into benchmarking and sustainability in consumer products
I love sneakers, especially those that have a story. Recently, I purchased a pair of adidas kicks that caught my eye online. Here is a photo I snapped of them:
They’re not great looking, but it was never the silhouette or colorway that made me take notice. This particular pair has a message.
The upper is knit from a technical fiber sourced from plastic bottles collected in the waters of the Maldives. adidas calls the process up-cycling, and this Ultra Boost Uncaged LTD represents a blossoming collaboration between the sportswear giants and Parley– a New York based firm that organizes events, talks, and curates partnerships that bring attention to our oceans and their unfortunate deterioration. Science Magazine reported in 2015 that up to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic were being dumped in our waters each year. A staggering figure in itself, that estimate was unfortunately based off of data from 2010. At the study’s publication, the researchers suggested that the amount of waste would effectively double by 2025.
I am not the first person to write about adidas and Parley’s unconventional activism. The duo debuted their hallmark collaboration in 2016 and was limited to just 50 pairs. After the success and wide praise of the special release, adidas opened the production lines and put out 7000 pairs of the Uncaged LTD that I was fortunate enough to purchase, albeit a few months late. Since their first effort, the brands’ creations have picked up major traffic on websites such as Forbes, Fortune, and The Verge, bringing eyes to both companies and the underlying issue of sustainability.
adidas was founded in 1949 and rose to notoriety in Europe throughout the late 1900’s. While the brand has been constant in the United States’ atheltic market for several decades, only recently have their designs caught major mainstream attention.
Yahoo Finance broke down factors leading to the brand’s resurgence in a thorough read, but the skinny of it tells us that mega-influencers like Kanye West and James Harden have been cast to showcase their wide array of casual athletic offerings. Silhouettes like the Ultra Boost, both in caged and uncaged variants, have caught fire with fitness and fashion-enthusiasts alike. While keeping performance at the focus of their designs, adidas hopped on the athleisure trend at the perfect time: you probably won’t see too many actual runners wearing these shoes, but you will catch hypebeasts stunting to save the planet.
At an event this Summer, Global General Manager for adidas Running André Maestrini said,
“The Fall/Winter 2018 Ultra Boost will have 80 percent of the upper material made from ocean plastic. It is no longer an addition. It is going to be how we make the Ultra Boost in the future. That’s how seriously committed we are with this idea.”
Maestrini is refrencing a general release running shoe, sold to the public all over the world, being made from this material that is being intercepted out from our waters. A “Huh. Cool.” fact if there ever was one, but the implications are deeper.
Surely, these shoes– and the 5 million limited pairs adidas plans to release in 2018– aren’t going to dent the millions of pounds of plastic and waste in our waters. They do, however, bring awareness to a cause that millions aren’t actively engaged in. I’m writing this in Nashville, TN, 6 hours away from the Gulf of Mexico and 8 from the Atlantic via Charleston. The deterioration of our oceans just isn’t a hot topic in continental America.
Pushing a message, not a product
Parley is a nonprofit who advertise their mission as reshaping the way the rest of us see ocean waste. To maximize reach, their core strategy is to partner with creators — artists, musicians, designers, and influencers — who incorporate the company’s message into their creations.
Presntly, Parley doesn’t have the resources to put out their own product, rather, they rely on other parties to help make their version of the future a reality.
Other brands, however, do have the luxury of being self-sustaining and have made environmental and social commitments that come just behind their fiduciary duties. REI, the Seattle-based outdoor behemoth, is famous for its stewardship programs, which help foster activism and volunteers to give their time, money, and energy into trails, national parks, rivers, and all of the natural wonders our country has to offer.
In a letter to the co-op’s members, CEO Jerry Stritzke says “there’s no business on a dead planet.” To do their small part on the product side, they focus on sustainable sourcing in all of the items they carry, implementing agreements with partner brands to maintain such standards. The company has even made the recycling of its inventory easy for consumers by placing appropriate instructions on the tags.
On perhaps the largest scale, Tesla Motors continually pushes the envelope in what’s happening in renewable products. At this stage in the company’s lifespan, customers buying Teslas do so primarily for economic and environmental reasons, but the brand’s sales strategy is resting on the latter.
Elon Musk, polarizing visionary and CEO of Tesla Motors, hasn’t spared brevity to make his feelings on the conservation of our planet known. Tesla’s end goal is to change tomorrow by lessening our species’ reliance on natural resources. A petrol-free future means a cleaner atmosphere, cheaper energy for transportation, and the conservation of our earth’s dwindling natural assets. There is also discussion on the falling costs of renewable energy and how electric motors are easier and more affordable to service, which play into incentivizing innovation for all automotive manufacturers.
These are two small examples, but highlight that brands that have made sustainability one of the pillars of their business have benefitted in both exposure and sales. Now, adidas is looking to break into the same mindset of consumers.
The Next Wave
Ultimately, these shoes aren’t going to save the planet. What typically happens when someone wears through a pair of sneakers? They get thrown in the trash. In some cases, they end up right in the ocean. The argument is that creating another disposable consumer good is not the answer, but the counter is that recycling is the first step in halting the process.
In this case, it is infinitely a better investment in our Earth to use scavenged plastics in the creation process. HowStuffWorks tells us that with the help of ultraviolet rays from the sun, a plastic water bottle floating in the ocean can degrade in a year’s time. The removal of that waste immediately means that our oceans stay free of BPA and PET, fish aren’t consuming those microplastics, and the food chain is less contaminated.
Last weekend, the brand with the three stripes dropped two more pairs of footwear knit from Parley’s yarns, this time in renditions of their lifestyle EQT shoes. While the company’s strategy of incorporating Parley’s threads in future designs sounds promising, there’s no way of knowing if their focus on sustainability will prove profitable and how the market will react to higher priced goods.
There are a thousand factors that go into a product and the origin is one of the most overlooked components. These are still the early days of recycled consumer goods, but my new pair of shoes are a promising start. If a major clothing and footwear manufacturer like adidas can hold up their commitments, there is hope yet for our oceans.