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The Race for Most Sustainable Sportswear Maker Heats Up

With Climate Week in New York City in full swing this past week, it seemed like every sportswear company was jockeying for the title of Earth’s favorite.

First up? On Running. It was only on Monday that the Swiss performance footwear firm unveiled the world’s first shoe to be made with carbon emissions, which an Illinois-based innovator called LanzaTech captures from industrial sources such as steel mills and then ferments using ethanol-burping bacteria. Another company, France’s Technip Energies, figured out how to dehydrate the ethanol to create ethylene. A third, Borealis in Austria, polymerized the hydrocarbon to create tiny EVA pellets. Et voila: a bouncy EVA foam called CleanCloud that turns a climate problem into a climate solution.

On Thursday, On confirmed that it was working with California’s Novoloop to not only outfit its Cloudprime shoe with chemically upcycled TPU but also to incorporate the material into future products for mass production. Made with 35 percent post-consumer polyethylene waste such as plastic bags, bubble wrap and shampoo bottles, the thermoplastic marks another step on On’s journey away from virgin synthetics.

On Running Cloudprime
The TPU comprises 35 percent post-consumer polyethylene waste such as plastic bags, bubble wrap and shampoo bottles. Courtesy

“Saving the planet is a team sport,” said Caspar Coppetti, co-founder and executive co-chairman of On. “We are excited to see what can happen in the future as we unlock the potential of alternative carbon sources with further research and in collaboration with the best partners, such as Novoloop.”

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Novoloop’s secret sauce is its patented Accelerated Thermal Oxidative Decomposition technology, which turns trash that is challenging—or impossible—to mechanically recycle into molecular building blocks that are re-synthesized into TPU.

What results from this process performs comparably to its fossil-fuel-derived counterpart, On said. In tests, the TPU outpaced synthetic rubber by losing only 25 cubic millimeters in DIN abrasion and exhibiting at least 10 percent better wet grip. It’s also recyclable, can be manufactured with less waste and—according to life-cycle assessments—emits significantly less carbon.

“Our team is working hard to scale up our breakthrough process so that more footwear customers can realize the benefits of this innovative TPU,” Novoloop CEO Miranda Wang said. “We are grateful to be part of creating Cloudprime. Working with On has been an exceptional experience, and we look forward to what we will achieve together in the future.”

Sanuk, a division of Deckers Brands, also wants to whittle its footprint, both literally and figuratively.

The California company trotted out on Wednesday a “100 percent plant-based” footwear capsule collection, made up of only seven low-impact natural materials, that “offers a lighter step that doesn’t sacrifice on style or comfort.”

Dubbed “Veg Out,” the shoes include two of Sanuk’s Sidewalk Surfer silhouettes with hemp-and-cotton-blended uppers, jute footbeds and cork-and-natural rubber outsoles. The lace-ups are undyed—all the better to eliminate any additional impact from conventional fabric dyeing and finishing, it said.

This isn’t Sanuk’s first foray into better-for-the-planet kicks. The shoemaker previously rolled out SustainaSole collections derived only entirely from “reincarnated rubbish.” Its “Cozy Vibes” lineup employs bio-based EVA foam made with sugarcane. “Veg Out” goes a little further: the brand purchased offsets to address the “small” remaining amount of carbon emissions the collection emits, making it carbon neutral as well.

“This collection was designed to intentionally push the boundaries of building sustainable products through the sole use of plant-based materials, which is rarely done in footwear,” said Katie Pruitt, Sanuk’s director of product. “The research and development in the material space required us to rethink manufacturing through a new lens, and we’re proud to unveil this line as a result. Now, who’s ready to Veg Out?”

Asics Gel-Lyte III CM 1.95
The Gel-Lyte III CM 1.95 by Asics emits only 1.95 kg of CO2e across its life cycle. Courtesy

Over in Japan, Asics is feting a sneaker that pumps out just 1.95 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) across its life cycle, which it says is “significantly lighter” than the lowest CO2e sneakers currently available on the market. Indeed, the current incumbent to the title, Adidas and Allbirds’ Futurecraft.Footprint, weighs in at a comparatively clunkier 2.94 kg of CO2e.

The Gel-Lyte III CM 1.95, the sportswear retailer said, is the result of more than a decade of R&D following its partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 to discover a better way to accurately measure a product’s CO2e impact from cradle to grave.

By “continuing to finetune its research and reapply the findings,” Asics was able to make hundreds of “incremental gains” across four key life-cycle stages—materials and manufacturing, transportation, use and end of life—while identifying small differences that combined to pack a bigger punch.

The ensuing shoe’s midsole and sock liner contain a new “carbon-negative” foam that Asics whipped up from a “fusion” of bio-based polymers derived, in part, from sugarcane. For the main upper material and sock liner mesh, the brand opted for recycled and solution-dyed polyester, a nod to its goal of sourcing 100 percent of its polyester from recycled sources by 2030. Manufactured using 100 percent renewable energy, the Gel-Lyte III CM 1.95 also features a new tape-utilizing structure that uses less material.

The sneaker is part of a longer play. Asics has its eye on achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, which it says will help “conserve the ability of future generations to continue experiencing the uplifting power of sport on the mind.”

“Asics has long believed in the powerful intrinsic link between sport and the mind,” CEO Yasuhito Hirota said. “That’s why we’re so committed to doing our part to ensure the long-term viability of our planet. That way we can ensure that future generations can continue to experience the uplifting impact of sport on the mind. To achieve a sound mind in a sound body, you need a sound earth to move on, after all. The road ahead may be long but the Gel-Lyte III CM 1.95 is our latest statement of intent on this journey.”

Adidas by Stella McCartney circular tracksuit
The Adidas by Stella McCartney tracksuit builds on a three-year European Union-funded project to pilot and scale textile-to-textile recycling. Courtesy

Adidas, too, has been busy.

Earlier this week, Adidas by Stella McCartney bowed a first-of-its-kind sportswear garment designed to “demonstrate the potential of a circular fashion ecosystem.”

The oversized tracksuit, a light-grey-and-black number, is part of the New Cotton Project, a three-year European Union-funded initiative that has rallied a dozen brands, manufacturers, innovators and researchers to pilot and scale textile-to-textile recycling.

Constructed from a 60-40 blend of Infinna, a man-made cellulosic fiber regenerated from post-consumer cotton waste, and organic cotton, the garment feeds directly into Adidas’s Made to Be Remade program, which takes back customer castoffs and remakes them into new products. More significantly, the tracksuit demonstrates what the German giant describes as the “successful implementation” of the entire value chain to produce a commercial end-of-life garment, which the fashion industry at large has found elusive.

“Sport is about always evolving the approach, and material innovation is no different,” Stella McCartney said. “More than ever, we are being challenged to find new solutions to deliver the potential for circular fashion, so it’s been hugely exciting to collaborate with like-minded thinkers in the fashion landscape to help not only us, but the industry invent, innovate and consciously design. We are truly proud to have produced a garment that provides an end of life of existence, whilst also staying true to Adidas by Stella McCartney’s signature style for next-generation activists.”

The garment features alongside other Made to Be Remade styles, which include an Ultraboost design and a padded anorak, at Adidas’s “Chasing Circularity” exhibition at Design London 2022, an event that runs through Saturday.

Through the “lens of design, technological innovation, collaboration and evolving craftsmanship,” Made To Be Remade is a “critical part” of Adidas’s commitment to help end plastic waste, said Paul Smith, senior director of sustainability concepts, footwear and apparel at Adidas Innovation.

“We’re constantly innovating and developing our capabilities alongside world-class partners to include more and more options to enable product creation with circularity in mind for both apparel and footwear,” Smith added. “Relentless innovation births continuous challenges, but our passion for problem-solving continues to evolve as we strive for circularity. Rethinking the materials we use and redesigning our processes are just some of our imperatives.”