Clean Clothes is a series examining the fashion industry’s impact on our planet, and the brands, technologies, and people helping us toward a cleaner, more environmentally conscious future.

Consumer culture, you’ve come a long way, baby. Born from the basic principle of the power of the dollar, the foundation of consumption is the philosophy that anyone can have whatever they want — provided they have the money to pay for it. And so it was for the majority of the 20th century, that arguably many of our parents — certainly our grandparents — went through their daily lives not really giving too much thought to what they were buying beyond the benefit it would bring to them.

Then, gradually, the world developed a conscience. Sweatshops, climate change, carbon footprints, pesticides, GM crops, natural resources: what emerged was the idea that there was a price to pay for all that providence beyond the price-tag itself, giving birth to the notion of conscious consumption.

It’s easy to take Whole Foods and organic cotton for granted in 2016, but these things didn’t come about by accident; they were necessitated by consumer demand. Until recently, the majority of these movements have been dominated by small businesses. For small-scale T-shirt brands, local grocery stores and artisanal goods companies, switching from traditional production to more ethical means usually means a small increase in costs and a slightly larger increase in prices, but creating a big increase in cultural kudos for which customers are more than happy to foot the bill.

But is "ethical" shopping really the answer? And, what's more, in the context of streetwear and sneakers, can it ever be cool? Well, let's take a look.

Slavoj Žižek: It's Not Enough

Notoriously outspoken cultural theorist and philosopher Slavoj Žižek has spoken about this phenomenon in the context of two major brands: Toms shoes and Starbucks. In the case of the former, when you purchase a pair of Toms espadrilles, the company provides another pair for a child in a developing country. Starbucks, meanwhile, heavily markets its ethical bonafides, shouting its Fair Trade coffee from the rooftops and reassuring you that every pumpkin-spice coffee you buy is going to help a farmer thousands of miles away from you.

Žižek views practices like these somewhat unfavorably, arguing that they are actually rather disingenuous, working more to allay customers’ anxieties about the negative consequences of global capitalism than encouraging genuine social change. The message is, “Your consumption and spending isn’t a problem if we convince you that the bad is balanced out with good.”

On this point, it’s important to clarify the distinction between buyer and seller — supporting these types of initiatives as a customer is different to making use of them as a brand, and the motives for doing so are several, not all of them entirely benevolent. Nonetheless, surely we have to conclude that larger brands making the effort to engage with good causes is a healthy thing, whatever their reasons for doing so.

Adidas Has Its Ear to the Ground

In the sportswear world, adidas Originals has been working hard to cement its status as the big brand making socially-conscious products. Through their ongoing collaborative series with Pharrell Williams, the brand has aligned itself with the musician’s progressive culturally-unifying perspective, transforming its 3-stripes mark into an equal symbol and adorning its flagship NMD silhouette with phrases like ‘Human Race’ and ‘Human Being’.

Their extensive roster of other collaborations has also positioned them firmly amongst some of the 21st century’s most forward-facing figures — consider Rick Owens’ anti-hegemony runway shows, Raf Simons’ SS17 collaboration with controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe or even Pusha T, who only recently campaigned for Hillary Clinton and has been a vocal critic of the prison industrial complex.

Then there’s adidas’ much publicized forays into ecological and environmentally-friendly product. In December 2015, the brand introduced the Futurecraft 3D, a sneaker silhouette with a 3D-printed sole unit — not necessarily eco-minded at first sight, until they touted the possibility of in-store, on-the-spot production, potentially reducing each shoe’s carbon footprint as well as waste.

A collaboration with Parley for the Oceans pushed this further by manufacturing the sole from recycled ocean plastic, followed by a shoe manufactured from recycled illegal deep-sea gill nets. Initially limited to just 50 pairs, the 3-stripes have just announced a mass-production collection using the recycled fibers — and what’s more, they look great. Likewise, the latest Futurecraft design utilizes a ground-breaking silk polymer that replicates spider silk to create a fully biodegradable running shoe.

As a result, adidas’ Futurecraft series is being heralded in many circles as one of the most exciting developments in the sneaker industry in a long time, and people are questioning where adidas will take things next. All of this leads to a larger question about how we bring the indisputable necessity of environmentally-conscious production methods into the notoriously fickle, trend-driven worlds of fashion and sneaker culture. So we’re left with a question — could adidas be the brand that makes environmentalism “cool”?

Whilst it’s true that the desire to be the first to break new ground and make a mark has seen the fashion world push forward much faster in some areas than the rest of the world, such instances are almost always followed by a discussion as to whether they were motivated by genuine goodwill or something more cynical.

After all, fashion is inherently about creating a spectacle, so it’s often difficult to distinguish between spectacles that begin because the public was truly taken by surprise, or those that were started because it’s precisely what the label intended.

In adidas’ case, though you could accuse them of many things, lack of sincerity isn’t one of them. Kanye left Nike and complained about lack of creative control and abuse of customer loyalty regarding production levels; adidas gave him a team of designers, supported his fashion line and promised to produce a higher quantity of Yeezy Boost sneakers — something which, so far, they seem to be holding to.

The Spezial collection, headed by Gary Aspden, digs deep into adidas’ roots in European terrace and casual culture and creates a modern take on classic 3-stripes style, something which football fans and casuals young and old have responded to warmly. Even with the NMD, arguably adidas’ most successful new silhouette in recent years, the brand has kept a healthy supply of new colorways coming out to satisfy demand, and even announced a reissue of the OG only a few days ago.

Perhaps some sneakerheads see this as adidas oversaturating the market or exploiting hype, but for the vast majority of adidas customers — people who just want to get a new pair of shoes on a Saturday afternoon — it’s less disappointing than finding out those nice sneakers your friend was wearing last week actually sold out in half an hour and you’ll never get to wear them.

Sustainability Makes Business Sense

Putting the work in as a company to show your customer that you’re listening to them pays off, too. On a broader scale, a big company is always going to look good if it’s responding to what its customers are saying, but this becomes even more important when you focus on the younger generations.

Take the recent US Presidential Elections, for example. When Donald Trump was elected, New Balance came out and said his presidency may be a good thing, sparking a massive online backlash of people giving their New Balance sneakers away, burning them, throwing them away or worse. Sports Industry Analyst Matt Powell described it as follows: "Millennials want to know the values of the companies they do business with, but if those values don't align with theirs, they won't shop." New Balance later released a statement qualifying its position as a company that manufactures within the United States and thus views Trump’s pro-domestic stance differently to other brands, but the damage had already been done.

So, if we know that many consumers now distance themselves from brands whose values misalign with their own, it’s surely likely that the inverse is also true: that consumers like to shop from brands that share their ideals.

In this light, take everything that adidas is doing in various sectors — giving an outspoken creative control with Kanye; promoting equality and diversity with Pharrell; celebrating authentic street culture with Spezial; bridging the gap between supply and demand with its most sought-after sneaker releases and highlighting environmentalism with its Parley collaborations — and the German sportswear giant is basically every young person’s “best friend’s cool dad.” They’re the brand that gets what young people are into, and gets into it to, and makes a difference.

Can It Be Cool, Though?

Back to that original question: is adidas making environmentalism cool? Despite my enthusiasm for the brand’s overall direction, my answer in every single one of these instances is no, because I don’t believe big brands are the people who set the trends when it comes to issues such as these.

Consumers, particularly socially-conscious millennials and teens, are an increasingly-influential force in all of these fields, and letting the big brands know that if they still want their business, they need to fix up. Far from setting the trend, adidas is simply responding to a conversation that has been raging for decades and is now reaching fever pitch. Their reasons for getting involved are less about setting trends as they are about capitalizing on the kudos they can receive. In short, they're not the ones leading, here.

However, if adidas can take the hit of being more environmentally-conscious, make a success of it and capture the attentions of consumers, then other big companies are going to follow suit. Maybe, in the end, this is less about making environmentalism cool with the consumer, and more about making it cool to other companies. Sadly, the only way that'll work is if it makes money, so let’s hope it does.

For more on the topic of sustainability, check out our guide to compiling a completely sustainable outfit – and still looking good.

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