Creating space for a Better Place at adidas

Sportswear giant adidas is taking great strides in its green ambition to rethink product design and manufacture and challenge itself through innovation, as Maxine Perella finds out

Think of any major active lifestyle brand, and you tend to think performance. How a product performs, whether it's a trainer or running vest, is critical - that ability to engineer in speed, durability, comfort and functionality. If you throw into that mix sustainability metrics around material optimisation and lifecycle impact, it becomes a heady combination. It also becomes a race towards constant innovation.

One brand accelerating the agenda on this front is adidas, one of the world's leading sportswear manufacturers. Through its Better Place programme, the company has established a sound platform on which to test bed such product innovation and address environmental issues at the same time.

Better Place started out in 2007 as an in-house initiative to help guide and encourage the creation of more sustainable products without compromising functional and quality performance. It has been instrumental in developing a series of environmental performance benchmarks for adidas branded products, in the absence of a single global standard or set of guidelines. The goal for adidas is simple - to demand product sustainability at the same level as product performance.

Leading on this work is Alexis Olans, senior global programme manager for Better Place. In her view, where true sustainability kicks off is at the design stage - how the product is made and what materials are used. It's a strategy that involves taking a lifecycle approach and determining where the biggest impacts are along the value chain - once these hotspots are identified, they can be targeted.

And, says Olans, there is often an unintended benefit to this type of lifecycle analysis - an array of positive 'spillover' effects. "When we focus on one particular area because so many different environmental factors are interlinked, you end up discovering better processes around for example, waste savings, even though your original focus was on improving energy efficiency in manufacturing," she says.

Lightweighting is currently a big theme at adidas - the use of less fabric to not only create less material waste, but to reduce the amount of embodied energy and water used in the manufacturing process. Bio-based alternatives are also being actively explored for certain fabrics - and this offers the chance to engineer in better performance and functionality from the outset.

"When we use bio-based plastics that come from non food-based crops, those plastics depending on how they are engineered could perform better in fact than our existing suite of plastics," Olans explains. "There is a high level of technical innovation out there, but there are only few companies able to offer this level of innovation ... so the only challenge we face is that it maybe takes longer to develop a certain innovation and bring it to market."

That said, Olans is confident these time lags will be overcome as more and more technology providers move into that space. "Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, we are in a good position as most of the technology and design changes we are looking at now, the determining factor of whether or not they improve performance has nothing to do with sustainability, it is independent of it. It really comes down to the supplier you pick and the quality levels being offered among sustainable materials."

A great example of how adidas' is rethinking its footprint around footwear is its Element Soul and Element Voyager running shoe lines. Both models are based on a minimalist approach - using only what is essential to create a sustainable product capable of meeting an athlete's performance needs. "Less material between the runner and the run" is how the company puts it, where essential means using fewer parts, fewer materials and fewer adhesives. The shoes themselves weigh less than 200 grams, feature only water-based adhesives and no sock liner.

Since the inputs to the shoe are so reduced, there is an estimated 50% waste saving when compared to a traditional running shoe with less embodied water and energy to boot. The Element Soul is currently on the market and incorporates recycled polyester and soybean-based foams, a one-piece injection mid-sole and high pattern efficiency, resulting in a simplified yet high-performance running shoe.

The Element Soul will shortly followed by the Element Voyager which is the next step beyond, according to Olans. "The Voyager will have a 95% pattern efficiency - that's the percentage of original fabric used that ends up in the final shoe, so it results in hardly waste. It is also dematerialised in the sense that there is a 60% reduction in the number of parts overall, compared to an average shoe. It will also feature greater use of recycled materials."

The company is also planning to launch an apparel line later in the year featuring low fabric waste as a complement to the Element shoes. While adidas works closely with its suppliers and other key partners to drive such innovation, it is also increasingly moving into a space of pre-competitive collaboration with other sportswear and clothing brands to unlock some of the common sustainability challenges faced by this sector.

Olans is heavily involved with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), an industry-wide group of more than 80 apparel and footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, government bodies and NGOs. SAC's mission is to create industry benchmarks for product sustainability through developing a series of metrics, such as the Apparel Index and the Footwear Index. Prior to the formation of the SAC, there was a real lack of quantitative and transparent data on such environmental impacts.

"SAC's goal is to create a single unified index that would be able to assess the sustainability of apparel and footwear. It is all in our best interests to agree on what needs measuring here, what the most important issues are, because we can then as a group go to our joint supply chains and show them where the opportunities are if they bring us greater innovation in these areas," explains Olans.

She reveals that she was surprised by the extent of the information gaps that existed across the industry. "The general lack of information that we needed access to, for example knowing the average energy use per pair of sneakers - there's no data set that is available out there. Academics have done single studies, companies have done single studies, but there was nothing to bring it all together," she recalls.

Going forward, Olans sees the role of the SAC evolving so it can deliver such indexes in a more user-friendly and accessible way, enabling the metrics of sustainability to be scaled up so that any apparel or footwear product out there in the market can be assessed and benchmarked against its competitors in a meaningful way. "We are not yet at the level or ability to put scores on products, for example ... but that could happen in the future."

Such a collaborative approach will undoubtedly stand adidas in good stead going forward as it looks to build upon its sustainability ambitions. In 2012, the adidas brand produced a total of 110 million pairs of shoes and 15.1 million units of apparel with sustainable content, and the company is not about to rest on its laurels. The company chose to call its sustainability progress report issued in May 'Never Stop' - a fitting title to a transformational journey only just beginning.

Maxine Perella is waste editor at edie


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