On Running wants its customers to feel like they’re running on air. Its latest offering, which it says is the world’s first shoe to be made with carbon emissions, might help.
Cloudprime heralds a “significant moment” in the Swiss performance footwear company’s journey away from petroleum-based resources, Nils Altrogge, head of technology and innovation at the Swiss performance footwear company, told Sourcing Journal.
What sets the sneaker apart is its midsole, a springy EVA foam called CleanCloud that uses captured carbon monoxide from steel mills and other industrial sources as a raw material. Made in collaboration with LanzaTech, Borealis and Technip Energies, three of the “most innovative companies in biochemicals, process and materials innovation,” according to Altrogge, the result is not only a first for the industry but also proof that it can “rethink materials and supply chains in an effort to do our part for the world.”
“For decades, On has worked to pioneer innovative ideas, technologies and solutions that challenge the status quo and set a new bar for performance,” he added. “We have made significant strides forward related to sustainability and circularity, specifically, and see CleanCloud as the beginning of a new chapter for the brand and industry as we consider progressive solutions to help save our planet.”
The spread of fossil-fuel-derived materials has been a longstanding concern for the company. So has the planet’s intensifying climate crisis. Connecting the two didn’t require a huge leap. On reckoned that since every material in the world is made from carbon atoms, creating new materials using the same “feedstock” would allow it to “convert the problem into a solution.”
The road from “aha” moment to prototype was neither quick nor easy. In fact, it took nearly three-and-a-half years. LanzaTech, an Illinois-headquartered company, had worked with clothing purveyors such as Lululemon and Zara to use its patented fermentation process to transform waste carbon sources into ethanol for polyester production, but footwear soles were brand-new territory. It would take Technip Energies in France to figure out how to dehydrate the ethanol to create ethylene and later Borealis in Austria to polymerize that ethylene into small EVA pellets. Only then was On able to begin building the foam material.
Looking ahead, On plans to incorporate the CleanCloud technology into its broader line in the next three to five years, Altrogge said. By then, CleanCloud wouldn’t just refer to EVA but rather a “full portfolio” of materials. It’s partnering with California’s Novoloop to make an outsole using chemically upcycled TPU from post-consumer plastic waste. In France, a startup called Fairbrics is honing its attention on an upper made from carbon emissions-based polyester.
“Our goal is to demonstrate that it is possible to reuse carbon emissions and to pave the way as a climate-focused innovator in the performance footwear and apparel space,” Altrogge said. “The proof-of-concept is a meaningful step forward, while also signaling there is still significant work to be done. To scale this technology, across the industry, it will require enthusiasm and investment from not only fellow brands within the industry but consumers as well.”
Indeed, expanding CleanCloud beyond a capsule exercise will be one of On’s biggest challenges. Still, Altrogge pointed to the electric vehicle industry as a precedent. Fifteen years ago, both the technology and the demand for it were leagues away from where they are today.
“When you look at the market for EVA foam, there is a similar ‘chicken and egg’ comparison,” he said. “As consumer and company demand increases, so will the ability to scale the technology and product. Our mantra when we look at innovative initiatives is to discover, apply, then scale. We have completed the application phase and are moving into scalability.”
On is also exploring ways to recycle both the CleanCloud foam and the conventional EVA it still uses. By the end of 2021, 63 percent of the polyamide and 53 percent of the polyester it used were from recycled sources, but “there is still more progress to be made for EVA foam, Altrogge said.
The company is taking a holistic look at sustainability, he noted. In addition to releasing Cloudneo, a fully recyclable, castor-bean-derived shoe that is available through a subscription model, On has trotted out a resale platform where people can shop gently used gear that customers have returned. It’s also on track to reduce its Scope 3 carbon emissions, which account for 99 percent of its total impact, by 55 percent by 2030.
The CleanCloud EVA isn’t just a win for fashion, Altrogge said. On’s biggest takeaway from its trial-and-error phase is that the high-performance foam can be deployed across myriad industries.
“This innovation has the potential to impact the fashion and footwear space as well as broader applications, considering the materials in every mattress, in cars and airplane seats, packaging and more,” Altrogge said. “It is a solution that can touch many different industries, leading to a greater impact. This requires us to be intentional with our choice of partners since disrupting a supply chain requires agility.”
On doesn’t have a release date for the Cloudprime as yet, nor has it firmed up a price, but its goal is to make it price competitive with other foam technologies on the market.
“As we evolve our go-to-market strategy and continue to build excitement for this new model of materials innovation, we hope to generate increasing demand that will help balance the significant investment that is required to make the shoe,” Altrogge said.