The man who signed Beyoncé and Kanye West to Adidas is now on a mission to eliminate plastic from the fashion industry.
It won’t be easy, admitted Eric Liedtke, CEO of Unless Collective, which he founded last year after spending more than a quarter of a century at the German sportswear juggernaut, including in the role of brand president. But fast fashion, he said, will continue to “cover the world” in fossil fuels…well, unless someone does something about it. He and his team of “innovators, engineers, artists and activists” want to be that someone.
“We started by saying that we would need to take responsibility for the things we made, and not push that problem onto the consumer, municipalities or the environment,” Liedtke told Sourcing Journal. “If we were to take responsibility for the products we make and sell, then we needed to design them with the end in mind.”
After releasing tees, hoodies, jackets and hats in “plants, plants and more plants,” down to the threads, tags and binding tape, Unless set its eyes on a bigger challenge, one that Liedtke was more than familiar with: athletic shoes. Even the most “sustainable” sneakers still rely to some extent on petrochemical inputs, which break down into microplastics that pollute rivers, oceans, the food chain and human bodies. When hundreds of millions of pairs of shoes are chucked in the United States alone, this becomes a problem.
But Unless, together with Natural Fiber Welding (NFW), the brains behind bio-based materials such as performance textile Clarus and ersatz leather Mirum, managed to jettison every last ounce of plastic using the same “plants, plants and more plants”—think recycled cotton, cork powder, rice hulls and vegetable oils—plus a mineral or two. The resulting product, a first-of-its-kind skate sneaker called the Degenerate, is designed to live a “long, useful life,” Liedtke said. When that’s done, it can be recycled to make new shoes. And if push comes to shove, the workwear and outdoor-inspired lace-up will biodegrade completely, returning to the soil from whence it came, allowing Unless to “use the decomposition process to birth something entirely new.”
Unless and NFW were naturally simpatico. Liedtke was loathe to use even recycled plastics in his products because it would only postpone the “inevitability” of them winding up in “landfills, incinerators, oceans, rivers, animals, food, mothers and babies,” he said. NFW felt the same way. Luke Haverhals, the materials scientist who launched the firm in Peoria, Ill. in 2015, is an outspoken critic of hidden fossil fuels in plant and mycelium-based alternatives to cowhide. Anything less than 100 percent bio-content, he previously told Sourcing Journal, is hype at best, greenwashing at worst. In short, a match made in shoe heaven.
“Our mission was aligned with theirs, and our capabilities were complementary,” Liedtke said. “We needed a material innovation partner and they needed a consumer-focused brand to showcase our shared vision.”
Liedtke declined to disclose how many shoes will be made, although he revealed that the first drop is expected to sell out quickly, probably within the month. At $139, the Degenerate is cheaper than Adidas’s Ultraboost and comparable with Nike’s Air Force 1. Allbirds’s Plant Pacer, which the shoemaker clad in Mirum in September, is priced at a similar $135. But while Allbirds, Camper and previous footwear collaborators picked and chose NFW materials for certain components, Unless was the first to deploy all four of NFW’s range from top to bottom, including two that hadn’t been commercialized before: Pliant, a rubber-based outsole, and Tunera, a midsole foam.
Alan Lugo, product strategy manager at NFW, is aware of what a momentous feat the Degenerate is. Instead of plastic aglets, the linen laces are tipped with cotton embroidery. For the insoles, the companies cobbled together a mix of coconut husk, natural latex and cotton. The low-top also uses no glues, which is unheard of in the realm of athletic footwear. Instead, everything is meticulously stitched using Tencel and linen thread by specialists in Italy.
“The purpose of why we’re creating the shoe is bigger than any person, bigger than the designer, bigger than the brand,” he told Sourcing Journal. “I would say it’s as large as the industry itself. And it just happened to be Unless that was the catalyst to make this happen.”
One thing that made things easier was the fact that shoes were completely untrod ground for Unless, which didn’t have the burden of pre-conceived processes and therefore limitations. That gave both of it and NFW a sense of freedom to experiment instead of trying to force material developments into a model built on “mass producing plastic shoes for the most part,” Lugo said.
Still, this isn’t some one-off capsule collection, he stressed. Both companies are in it for the long haul. “We didn’t pull a bunch of work together to try to just make 100 pairs,” Lugo said.
What this means is that NFW needs to continue scaling up its materials. Mirum, its Peoria-made tentpole product, is already at commercial scale, but the demand for Clarus—the yarn is made in Peoria and then woven into fabric in Canada—is currently “much greater” than what it can produce. Pliant, a collaboration with footwear component maker Meramec at a facility in the Dominican Republic, is still new, though other facilities around the world will soon come online to pump out more of the material. Tunera is still in the development phase; while NFW made it available to Unless, it’s not ready to sell it openly just yet.
The plastic-free concept wasn’t without its comprises, however. Unless had to be happy to use whatever colors NFW had available—i.e., black or white for the uppers and brown for the soles—since new ones require time to develop. Both companies agreed that it was more important to get the product out in the world than wait to have a rainbow of options available.
“The entire shoemaking system—the performance requirements, how comfortable a shoe is, how fast we can make it, the availability of color—is all built on the foundation of synthetic petroleum-based ingredients,” Lugo said. “It’s a hard band-aid to tear off—to constantly remind yourself, oh, wait a minute, we’re trying to do something that can’t operate by those rules.”
Still, the Degenerate proves that the industry can shake off its plastic addiction if it wants to, he said. It only has to consider every aspect of footwear production and not simply nibble at the edges of material selection or emissions reductions without considering what happens when a shoe is no longer a shoe. NFW and Unless are still hammering out what that final piece will look like for them—a takeback program will almost certainly be involved, but the specifics of what happens to the ground-up materials have yet to be decided. Deconstruction is the easy part: because the shoe is sewn together, they‘ll only have to rip out the seams. Composted, it’ll grow new plants.
This isn‘t something they’ll have to worry about anytime soon, however. The hardest parts are, mercifully, over.
“There’s not immediately going to be 10,000 shoes coming back, right?” Lugo said with a laugh. “So we’re going to be dealing with a few pairs at a time.”