A few months ago, in April, adidas embarked on a journey toward embracing the concept of a circular economy.
The Futurecraft.Loop project ushered in a running shoe that has been designed from scratch to be recycled. As part of phase one, adidas sent out 200 running shoes to beta testers. Once they were well-worn, the brand asked for the shoes to be returned, so they could be ground into TPU pellets and made into components for new shoes. adidas Running footwear developer Amanda Verbeck explained: "We said to them: here are the shoes, go away, do what you want to do with them and then give them back to us. Yes, give them back." The resulting phase-two running shoe is pictured in a new, blue colorway, that remains 100 percent recyclable for the next generation.
Traditionally, for sportswear brands like adidas, innovation would be driven by performance, and the pursuit of making shoes lighter, more comfortable, or more supportive. Projects like the Futurecraft.Loop mark a shift in this thinking, whereby innovation is driven by the need for sustainability. adidas' thinking is not to take pre-existing products and make them more sustainable, but rather to create sustainable products from square one.
To keep up with performance standards, it’s not currently possible for an entire shoe to be made out of recycled materials. The components that can be made from recycled materials do include the outsole, tongue label, eyelets and internal reinforcements. Overall, the second-generation shoe is made from 5-10% recycled content, which is the goal adidas set out to achieve at this stage of the process. The recycled content is made using material from the used generation-one shoes, and material from the generation-one production process. All returned shoes within the Loop program will be kept within a closed loop production process - nothing thrown away or wasted.
adidas' senior technology manager, Dharan Kirupanantham broke that idea down further from an adidas point of view, by noting: "In our innovation team, we approach every innovation with a sustainable mindset. We consider materials that are recycled or can be recycled, we consider end of life at the beginning of the development process. I think ultimately that's how you tackle that problem. It's not necessarily about compromising on performance, but it's more about designing for sustainability inherently."
Kirupanantham emphasizes the importance of taking the first step toward more sustainable products, by thoughtfully summarizing: "I think the first step is most important, and when you’re at the front, no one knows the way. We're kind of paving the way and we'd love for consumers, for brands, for industry to join us on that journey. So it's not, we don't know all the answers. We're hoping that we can do this together as a wider societal group."
Speaking about the first shoe, Kirupanantham explains: "The idea for phase one was just to show [the shoe] in its most natural light. We didn't add any pigment, we didn't add any color, and we just allow the material to be what it was." This ties into the ongoing discussion around the language of sustainable design. What visual hallmarks differentiate a sustainable material versus a non-sustainable material? "I think it's fair to say we haven't finalized a design language," Kirupanantham muses. "This is the start of it. I think you could look to our Ocean Plastic Initiatives as a parallel, where we had certain colors initially to give it a design language to it." It raises an interesting discussion on the look and feel of sustainably designed products.
For the Futurecraft.Loop project, adidas' main objectives are ending plastic waste through products that can be remade and reused. Many of the specifics have yet to be defined. adidas is not sure how much the Futurecraft.Loop sneakers will cost, or how many times they can be recycled, but the commercial launch is planned for Spring/Sumer 2021.