PARIS — Adidas is rethinking the future of plastics.
The German sporting goods giant said it was working on creating a new supply chain for polymer ocean waste that would result in an apparel and a footwear collection made from recycled plastic, due out later this year.
Last December — to coincide with the Paris climate summit — Adidas already presented the world’s first shoe made of yarns and filaments recycled from ocean waste with its partner Parley for the Oceans that featured a 3-D-printed ocean plastic shoe midsole, but was unclear about whether the shoe could be produced on a larger scale. “That’s the dream,” Eric Liedtke, Adidas Group executive board member responsible for global brands, mused at the time.
A spokeswoman for the group told WWD: “The shoe we presented at the United Nations was only a prototype. Since then, we have worked on turning old gillnets and ocean plastic into fibers that we can use to make a performance shoe. We are currently working on a consumer-ready range of footwear that will be brought to market in the course of 2016.”
Though the focus is on footwear, apparel products will also be available for consumers in the second half of this year.
There is a lot at stake for a sporting goods-maker like Adidas.
In its 16th sustainability progress report released on Thursday, its most thorough to date, Adidas acknowledged that it needed to replace nonrenewable materials such as polyester, widely in use in sportswear, but also cotton and cotton-polyester blends, which make recycling particularly challenging.
The company noted that its “products require man-made chemistry with unique criteria to meet our high-performance functional and quality standards,” but that it addressed “the global waste challenge and resource shortages by actively driving material innovations and close-loop solutions.”
In addition to converting waste plastic back into the production cycles and raising the percentage of recycled polyester, Adidas is looking to recycle rubber and bio-based thermoplastic polyurethane.
The ultimate goal is to create infinitely recyclable materials that have the exact same properties as new raw materials and Adidas is slowly closing in on its target.
Last fall, the group introduced a program called Sport Infinity, said to create “a new breed of sporting goods that will never be thrown away.” The way it works is that every bit of Adidas sportswear, including the cleats of its star athletes such as Lionel Messi, would be broken down and remolded into an inexhaustible, 3-D-shapeable material that gives customers the opportunity to infinitely reimagine and personalize products, without using any glue or other adhesives and without producing any waste.
According to the new sustainability report, at the end of 2015 all of Adidas footwear products included environmentally preferred materials. DryDye and NoDye dying techniques further helped reduce the amount of water, energy and chemicals used. By the end of 2015, all of Adidas products were also free of long-chain perfluorinated compounds, which are particularly toxic.
Elsewhere, Adidas’ Futurecraft Tailored Fiber, a new sewing technique used in shoemaking, has helped reduce waste “significantly,” the company said, while virtual samples saved the group 1.7 million apparel samples and 700,000 samples of footwear and hardware between 2011 and 2015.
Adidas stated it was particularly keen on exploring the use of waterless technologies for its products, as water shortage threatens to raise production costs in the future. “Overall, 20 percent of freshwater pollution in the entire industry is caused by textile treatment and dying. Our own footwear and apparel business also relies heavily in these processes,” it noted, adding that if consumption continues to grow at the current rate, demand for sustainable water in 2030 would be 40 percent higher than the estimated supply.
By 2020, the group aims to achieve 50 percent of water savings at its apparel material suppliers, while replacing all of its conventional cotton with Better Cotton, which requires less water and pesticides, by 2018.
Adidas chief executive officer Herbert Hainer suggested that sustainability was a complex and far-reaching issue: “We remain committed to continuing to meet society’s evolving expectations of business practices.” These include not only responsibilities towards the environment, he said, but also “towards our employees, the people who make our products, and the communities where we operate.”
Consequently, the firm expanded its sustainability track record by targeting “the entire life cycle of sport” — from the spaces where sporting goods are made, including production facilities and shipping routes, to where it’s sold and played.
“Sport needs a space like a field to play on, an ocean to surf or a mountain to climb. These spaces are increasingly endangered because of human-made threats such as resource depletion, climate change or overpopulation. We want to take action and be the guardians of these spaces with sustainable work that addresses these challenges,” Hainer said.
An example is people.
Previously criticized for not ensuring satisfactory working conditions in its factories, the group has tackled a number of health issues, including the reduction of volatile organic compounds found in solvents used for athletic footwear, which in high concentration can cause breathing and other health problems. They were reduced from above 100 grams per pair to below 20 grams and replaced with environmentally sound bonding and priming technologies, Adidas said.
In 2015, Adidas worked with 1,079 independent factories in 61 countries. One-hundred-and-one factories were either rejected directly or following a second visit due to “zero tolerance,” the firm asserted.