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The Ocean May Be the Next Best Place to Source Fibers

By the end of next year Adidas said one million pairs of shoes made from recycled ocean waste will hit the market and more may be on the way.

Speaking at the opening day of the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in Hamburg, Germany, on Tuesday, Adidas director of sustainability Alexis Haass said getting consumers to be keen on sustainability is all about engagement.

“If it’s engaging you make it accessible,” Haass said, adding that consumers want to be able to tell the story of the product they bought—especially if it’s a do-good, feel-good kind of buy—almost as much as brands want to tell the story of how it was made.

Adidas calls its consumers “creators,” as those who buy the brand largely drive what comes out of it.

What those consumers see when it comes to sustainability, Haass said, is innovation. And most retailers know that in today’s generally stale retail market, innovation tends to translate to loyal consumers and, ultimately, sales.

In asking those consumers what they cared about when it came to sustainability, Adidas discovered those shoppers tend to think a company that’s sustainable is 400 percent more likely to be innovative.

And more than tying sustainability to innovation, consumers are also starting to equate it with quality.

“This is not just an attribute we see with our creator consumers in the developing world,” Haass said. “It’s also high in the developing world, like Brazil and China.”

The problem with that, however, is the severe lack of preferred materials available in the textile stream, Haass said.

So Adidas is turning to the sea—namely rescuing some of the 8 million tons of plastic drowning in the oceans each year.

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The athleticwear retailer launched its ocean waste-based shoe last year as part of a partnership with Parley for the Oceans, an organization trying to solve the problem of plastics pollution in the world’s seas.

Nicholas Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas Program at Ocean Conservancy, said 8 million tons of plastic go into the ocean every year. China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are the biggest culprits, and synthetic apparel and textiles are among the major contributors.

Roughly 1.4 million trillion microfibers are on the ocean floor, according to Mallos, which is such a big number it’s nearly unfathomable, and 4 billion fibers, whether through wastewater effluent, laundry or dumping, are leaking out into the environment each day.

With the help of Parley, Adidas collected ocean plastics and fishnets in coastal areas like the Maldives, bailed it and sent it to Parley to be shredded, reworked and turned into the technical yarn fibers used to make its Adidas x Parley products.

To do it, the retailer had to rethink its supply chain.

“We basically built a supply chain from scratch to source these materials,” Haass said. “We had never worked so far down in the supply chain.”

Adidas also had to rethink its consumer marketing, with the knowledge that engagement was key.

The company posted one photo on Instagram showing the shoe and one on Facebook and those become the second most popular posts for the whole month of July last year when the shoe was released.

Adidas got consumers involved more directly than that, too, allowing them a chance to win one custom-made pair of the ocean waste kicks in exchange for making a video telling the company why they love the ocean. The best videos won and 100 consumers got shoes.

Now Adidas is looking to make more of the shoes, and possibly apparel, by the end of 2017.

“We’ve cleared out a heck of a lot of bottles and we’re on our way to doing a lot more,” Haass said.