Shoes have been a prime target for circular innovation in the last few years. But so far, the movement hasn’t been scaleable.
As of 2021, Adidas has a net worth of approximately $40 billion. It’s an amount that’s comparable to the GDPs of entire mid-sized nations, like Paraguay or Azerbaijan. And since the German sportswear corporation was founded in a small Bavarian town in 1949, this accumulation of wealth is the result of millions of sales of clothing, accessories and of course, shoes.
Today, however, Adidas is asking you to buy a little bit less.
Call it counterintuitive, but reducing consumption is the driving force behind its circular Futurecraft.Loop sneaker, a 100% recyclable running shoe the company debuted back in 2019. Here’s how it works: Adidas encourages shoppers to return their Futurecraft.Loops to the brand when they’re done wearing them, at which point the shoe will then be deconstructed and reconfigured to create a brand-new pair.
Though an age-old biological and philosophical concept, circularity is steadily gaining new momentum within fashion and retail — both as consumers demand more environmentally responsible options and as brands cater to changing customer preferences. In any closed-loop system, resources are kept in use through their life cycles; when a resource has reached the end of its life, it returns to its manufacturer, which then regenerates it into a raw material. The cycle begins anew.
Shoes (and running shoes, in particular) have been a prime target for circular innovation in the last few years. And so far, the movement has been primarily driven by smaller brands that have the flexibility to build complex systems into their more nimble supply chains. However promising circular shoes may be on paper, though, there’s yet to be a solution that can be scaleable for the entire footwear industry. And that’s a problem no one brand can solve on its own.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation dates the concept of circularity, as it’s defined today, back to the 1970s, when a small number of academics, thought-leaders and businesses began advocating for an economic framework rooted in effective, efficient design that could also reduce waste. By the 1990s, a German chemist and an American architect teamed up to codify these beliefs into a certification process they called “Cradle to Cradle,” modeled after nature’s metabolic systems.
They argued that old products don’t always have to turn into waste, but rather can become nutrients for a new product. A wooden stool, for instance, could decompose in a few decades, during which time the decay might enhance the soil and result in bigger, healthier plant life as a result.
But what if that material product is a pair of running shoes, which are typically constructed from a cocktail of 30-plus synthetic materials?
“I would say important steps are being taken toward achieving circular products in the sneaker market,” says Fernando Porto, co-founder of Brazilian sustainable sneaker company Cariuma. “But there’s a high level of complexity, mainly because of the properties and characteristics that shoes need on a functional level.”
After a two-year development process, Cariuma recently released its most innovative product yet: the IBI Slip-On, an ultra-low-carbon sneaker made from sugarcane and bamboo. It has a lifetime footprint of 5.48kg carbon dioxide equivalent. (That includes its distribution and transportation.) According to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, this equates to the greenhouse gas emissions of just 0.003 passenger vehicles driven for an entire year.
Cariuma’s IBI Slip-On isn’t technically “cradle-to-cradle,” but it’s in line with the standard “cradle-to-grave” life cycle. Still, it ends in resource disposal, not renewal, so, no, the IBI Slip-On isn’t technically formulated to regenerate on its own in a composting bin. For a shoe to do this in actuality, Porto explains, it would need to be made from a maximum of three materials that are not only easy to disassemble, but can also biodegrade in a short period of time.
“This is possible, but it comes down to the design exercise,” he says. “Let’s remember that they must work as functional shoes, and they have to look good, otherwise, no one will buy them.”
There is another more viable option, however — if the company is willing to take the regeneration into their own hands. We’ve seen this in fields ranging from apparel to computing, in which companies like Eileen Fisher, Hewlett Packard and yes, Adidas have implemented entire programs around retrieving their own used products and reprocessing them into something new.
For years, Rothy’s has been establishing itself as one of retail’s most innovative sustainability players, first with its washable, woven flats made from recycled materials and now with a big-time commitment to reach circularity as soon as 2023. This starts with a pilot recycling program, which the company will begin rolling out this year. Upon collecting old shoes, the San Francisco-based brand will then deconstruct them into its main components and incorporate those materials into new products. Right now, there’s no universal location Rothy’s consumers can send their old shoes to, just as there’s no system for Rothy’s to physically recycle them. Yet, this recycling pilot will allow the brand to test new systems and eventually, find a process that sticks for consumers and the company alike.
“There’s a larger amount of infrastructure to collect, for example, wool or cashmere or denim and recycle those materials back into the thread of other fabric that can be used again,” says Rothy’s Head of Sustainability Saskia van Gendt. “Footwear tends to have much more complex construction that makes it very difficult to disassemble and recover the materials.”
This quandary is not unique to Rothy’s. Our contemporary economies are just not set up for cradle-to-cradle capabilities, period. So to properly incorporate circularity, brands are having to start from scratch, beginning with recycling programs, just like the one Rothy’s is testing.
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Essentially, what Rothy’s is doing is trying to fit a square peg into the round hole of a conventional cradle-to-grave supply chain. But what if a brand started incorporating circularity from day one? That’s the idea behind Swiss brand On Running, which offers customers a fully recyclable performance shoe, called the Cyclon, on a subscription basis. For $29.99 a month, runners can sign up to receive replacement shoes whenever their current pair kicks the can. On collects the old shoes, then deconstructs them into raw materials to become a glossy new pair once again. To eliminate waste, it isn’t until the subscriber ships their used shoes back that a replacement is provided.
“If you truly want to build a closed-loop product life cycle, you must first choose material that can be recycled and reused, design a product accordingly, and — this step is often left out — implement a system to get the product back to recycle,” says Caspar Coppetti, one of the three co-founders of On. “That’s exactly what we did with Cyclon.”
The Cyclon is engineered from two types of polymers, one of which is derived from fast-growing castor beans. So while the running shoe is automatically recyclable, it’s also incredibly lightweight, leading to better performance for athletes. Roger Federer, for one, is already a fan, having worked with On to develop his own tennis shoe.
Like any circularity startup, company or retailer On has hurdles in building out a circular system within the confines of a linear one, from collecting old products from customers to developing recyclable materials in the first place. But small-scale companies like On or Rothy’s still have a bit of a leg up because, according to impact and sustainability strategist Michelle Gabriel, they can keep their worlds smaller.
“Right now, what’s challenging the possibility of a circular system is infrastructure,” says Gabriel, who works as the director of career services and strategic partnerships at Glasgow Caledonian New York College. “So even if one does exist in some ways that support an athletic shoe, it’s probably not readily available to everyone, and there are logistical challenges or costs associated with getting the materials to these processing sites.”
How can the footwear industry address — and maybe even minimize — those challenges? You’ve got to get the capital-C Corporations involved, which is why Adidas’s Futurecraft.Loops are the start of something promising. As Porto says: “I’d say the sneaker industry would be much closer to getting to a circular sneaker if any of the four big guys cared, because when they change something, the whole supply chain adapts fast.”
In a linear economy, innovation is said to thrive off the fast-paced competition of capitalism. But to truly incorporate circularity, Stephanie Barger, the director of market transformation and development for the TRUE Zero Waste certification, knows this is the kind of innovation that can’t exist in one lab and one lab alone. After all, the apparel and footwear industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by more than 60% by 2030. Isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to collaborate for the health of the planet we all call home?
“If you’re going to have a circular running shoe, then the entire industry needs to come together and have those hard conversations,” says Barger, “which means sometimes sharing what’s in your shoe so that anybody anywhere can get it into a recycling bin.”