ANALYSIS: England expects, but is sustainability coming home?

As Nike unveils the new England football kit ahead of tonight's friendly with the Republic of Ireland, the trend for integrating sustainability metrics into performance sportswear is fast accelerating.

This latest fabric innovation from Nike features a clean, distinctive design, the core of which is recycled polyester – the shirt and shorts that each England player will be wearing are made from up to 13 recycled plastic water bottles.

To achieve this, post-consumer plastic bottles have been reprocessed through a flaking process and melted down to form yarn that is spun into fabric. The technology used claims to reduce energy consumption by up to 30% compared to manufacturing virgin polyester.

The notion of using less has also engineered other benefits – mainly lightweighting. The kit weighs just 150g and is 23% lighter than previous Nike kits. This level of material optimisation is not just about being resource-efficient – it also lends strength to the knit structure of the fabric, enhancing its durability and thus performance.

Out of all the major sportswear manufacturers, Nike is arguably leading the charge with such technical flair. Earlier this year it unveiled an industry first by producing a football boot incorporating a 3D printed plate.

It is also heavily engaged in exploratory work with NASA to push the frontiers in material optimisation through its LAUNCH project, where it is bringing materials specialists, designers, academics, manufacturers and entrepreneurs together to challenge thinking and inspire inventive, breakthrough R&D.

Nike’s vice president for sustainable business & innovation Hannah Jones has long stood out as a prolific ambassador for the company’s commitment to produce performance apparel with reduced environmental impact.

She often speaks of the importance of tackling material optimisation from the outset when designing new products.

“About 60% of the environmental footprint of a pair of Nike shoes is embedded in the materials used to make them,” she said at a LAUNCH event earlier this year.

“When you multiply that across our business, and across the industry, it’s clear that innovation in sustainable materials is a huge opportunity, not just for Nike, but for the world.”

Other competitors are now fast moving into this space. Adidas’ philosophy mirrors that of Nike’s in many ways – using less fabric to not only create less material waste, but to reduce the amount of embodied energy and water used in the manufacturing process.

The company is also actively exploring the use of bio-based alternatives for certain fabrics, which offer the chance to engineer in better performance and functionality from the outset.

Rethinking footprints around footwear is a big, big theme – Nike with its Flyknit lines and adidas with its Element range. Both are based on a minimalist approach, using only what is essential to create a sustainable product capable of meeting an athlete’s performance needs.

Encouragingly, what both companies have decided to run with is a vision to design out waste from the outset, through smarter product design and fabric engineering.

Speaking to edie, Alexis Olans, senior global programme manager for adidas’ Better Place product sustainability programme, said that it was essential to reduce the inputs – by using fewer parts, fewer materials and fewer adhesives.

The adidas Element Soul shoe which is currently on the market incorporates recycled polyester and soybean-based foams, a one-piece injection mid-sole and high pattern efficiency, resulting in significant waste savings.

And perhaps the most exciting paradigm shift is yet to come. Where these leading brands have the potential to so beautifully score is in the creativity they inject in bringing such innovation to market.

Making waste, or less waste, sound sexy – and aspirational – to your average consumer is certainly not beyond the thinking of brand leaders and their marketing departments. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before this realisation finds the back of the net. 

Maxine Perella

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie