Despite the fact that sustainable goods and sneakers are two of the buzziest categories in fashion right now, historically they've had surprisingly little overlap. There have been successful counterexamples in the form of comfort-driven Allbirds runners and fashion-forward Veja kicks, but in general, sustainable fashion fans and sneakerheads have occupied two circles on a Venn diagram that barely touch.
This week, Everlane and Adidas made moves aimed at changing that. The former announced the launch of its new brand Tread by Everlane with the intent to create the "world's lowest-impact sneakers." Meanwhile, Adidas teased Futurecraft Loop, its first-ever fully recyclable sneaker made using a single material.
Plastic, which is a part of almost every sneaker on the market, presented a problem for both brands as they thought about building a more earth-friendly shoe. The solutions they landed on, however, were quite different.
For Everlane, which has pledged to make its entire supply chain free of virgin plastic by 2021, the goal was to create a shoe using as little virgin plastic as possible. The result is a sneaker composed of recycled polyester laces and lining, leather uppers and soles made with a combination of natural rubber, recycled rubber and 5.8% virgin plastic.
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"Rubber is a durable material, but your sneaker is also something that's making contact with a rough ground constantly," Everlane General Manager of Footwear and Accessories Alison Melville says over the phone. "We're working on eliminating it, but currently, [plastic]'s in there to make sure that your tread is not degrading over time. We have not found a way to do it with recycled plastic yet."
As great as minimizing virgin plastic is, it's worth noting that leather — Everlane's material of choice for its sneaker uppers — is itself incredibly resource-intensive to create and potentially toxic, depending on how it's tanned and processed. Melville asserts that Everlane carefully weighed the options before choosing to go with chrome- rather than vegetable-tanned leather, asserting that "chrome is not harmful unless it's disposed of incorrectly." Partnering with TanTec, a tannery that's received Gold certification from the Leather Working Group, takes care of that risk in Melville's view.
Finally, Tread by Everlane decided to offset 100% of the carbon emissions from its sneaker production, partnering with a third-party firm to calculate the emissions and working with NativeEnergy to offset those totals. "The vast majority of the greenhouse gas impact of our products comes from the on-farm activity of raising cattle," Melville explains. "Our cattle comes from the US. We're working with a project here in the American grasslands to do an offsetting project as close to the source as possible."
While it's clear that Everlane is going to great lengths to make sure each element of its new sneakers is sourced responsibly, Melville admits that the brand still hasn't figured out what to do with sneakers at the end of their lifecycle.
This is where Adidas's approach is almost a perfect opposite. While the sportswear giant has worked with recycled plastics in the past — it helped popularize the use of ocean plastic through its partnership with Parley for the Oceans starting in 2015 — the Futurecraft Loop sneaker Adidas presented on Wednesday was made entirely from virgin synthetics. Instead of starting with recycled materials, it was built with end-of-life recyclability in mind.
"A typical running shoe consists of probably 12-15 different materials," explains Adidas CMO and Executive Board Member Eric Liedtke at the launch event in Brooklyn. "That's a problem, because ... you've got to recycle them individually in 12-15 different ways. The solution of Futurecraft Loop is that it's made from one single material that can be taken and recycled in one single process."
It might seem simple, but the single-material shoe is a solution that took almost 60 Adidas employees on four continents six years of hands-on research to develop. According to Adidas Manager of Technology, Innovation and Futures Tanyaradzwa Sahanga, the team experimented with a variety of different materials before landing on thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) polymers, which were used to create everything in the shoe from Adidas's signature Boost midsole technology ("it's what makes Yeezys so comfortable," she explains) to the knit upper to the laces and harder plastic tread on the sole.
The fact that all of those different iterations of the same polymer can be fused together without using glue is key to the longterm recyclability of the shoe, says Adidas Creative Director Paul Gaudio, because even recycled materials become essentially un-recyclable in the future if they're contaminated with glue or other chemicals used for melding.
Adidas is admittedly still in the early stages of experimentation with this technology — despite a grand launch event on Wednesday that featured a Willow Smith appearance and a couple hundred pairs of the new shoes being gifted to attendees, Sahanga explains that Futurecraft Loop shoes probably won't be widely commercially available until Spring 2021. The brand is still working out how to create a scalable collection program to take back shoes at the end of their lifespan so they can be made into new shoes, and they're actually hoping to use the pairs already created — which they asked that giftees return to the brand after using them — to help with the iteration process.
In short, there's still plenty of gaps to the model, but the level of investment that Adidas has already poured into the process does seem to communicate that the brand really is in it for the long haul. "We have to change our behaviors," Gaudio says. "As a big brand, we have the ability and responsibility to help do that."
The two companies are vastly different sizes — Everlane has 150 employees, while Adidas has over 57,000 — so it's perhaps unsurprising that they've come up with unique ways of trying to create the world's most sustainable sneakers. But with the demand for both sneakers and sustainability showing no signs of slowing down, it's more than likely that there will be room for both approaches in the market.