In June 2015, Adidas and Parley (a creative organization that addresses major threats toward the oceans) presented their first concept shoe, which used yarns created from recycled ocean plastic, sourced from beaches in the Maldives and from illegal gillnets. Fast-forward a couple years, and in 2017, Adidas made 1 million shoes using that same recycled ocean plastic and will be making 5 million such shoes this year. Each pair of shoes has a knit upper and utilizes the plastic of approximately 11 bottles. Pretty neat, right?
That’s what we thought, too. Women’s Running joined Adidas and Parley for their second annual “Run For The Oceans” event in Los Angeles earlier this month to learn more about the partnership, the marine plastic pollution problem—and to be a part of the solution.
First, the problem: According to Mike Long, director of operations from Parley for the Oceans, 8.5 million tons of plastic make its way into the oceans every year. “Plastic is a design failure,” he says, because it could potentially never degrade (depending on its exposure to light), making it last for centuries. In a culture where you can get five single-use plastic items from one takeout order, it’s easy to comprehend how that much plastic can make its way to our oceans.
While you might think fighting marine plastic pollution is an “activism” thing or an “environmentalism” thing, “it’s really about survival,” Long says, referencing both how much plastic from the ocean makes its way into our own food supply when fish consume plastic and how much oxygen the ocean creates (scientists estimate anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere is created by marine plants). “The ocean is our lifeblood. … This plastic problem is something we created, but it’s also something we can fix.”
So how do we, as runners, fix it? Enter: Adidas.
Adidas is the first running shoe brand to create a high-performance shoe from recycled plastic. While the shoe isn’t from entirely recycled materials (yet!), the upper is (well, 95 percent), and it’s set atop the popular Boost midsole platform. “What we really found was that we needed to get the consumer aware of the problem, and how we can do that is really getting them onto the journey,” says Matthias Amm, the product category director for Adidas Running. “If we were to compromise on the performance [by waiting to create a shoe from 100 percent recycled materials], the consumer wouldn’t buy it—because it’s like, ‘Okay why should I buy it? It’s recycled, but it doesn’t give me the greatest running experience.’”
That “journey” Amm references is not only purchasing and running in these recycled-plastic shoes, but also bringing more widespread awareness to the problem of single-use plastic, especially as it affects our oceans and environment.
It’s also to help save the planet for the next generation, says Nick Maass, the director of strategy for Adidas Sports Group. “What we are doing here now will be for the young generation,” he says. “They’ll be like, ‘What do you mean you recycle plastic? Of course you recycle plastic.’ So I think it’s a process, and we are trying to help accelerate that process with things like Run For The Oceans.”
This awareness of sourcing and brand transparency is a trend that more and more brands are trying to cater to—it’s something they feel that the younger generations, particularly referred to as Millennials and Generation Z, are driving. “I think it’s honestly the generation that wants more transparency and more meaning,” Maass says. “Consumers expect more. … I think that’s driving the big change. So here they’re looking for more meaning, and they’re very aware that there’s something going wrong here, while the generations before were maybe not yet that aware. These kids are growing up with all these environmental issues already in their backyard. They see global warming. When our parents were kids, global warming was not a discussion, so it’s that awareness that’s growing.”
More than just “meaning,” Amm also sees consumers caring about the environment specifically. “Our consumers are caring about more than just shoes,” Amm says. “They’re caring about what is really the impact on the environment. … The young generations know if they don’t do anything, the world is going to go under, so it’s kind of like they want to get active.” Whereas these younger consumers used to line up for all-black shoes or new colorways, “now it was super amazing to see that they’re lining up for a shoe that makes a difference in the world,” Amm says. “It’s not about, ‘Hey, I’m getting the latest stuff.’ It’s really, ‘Hey, this makes a difference in the world.’”
You might be wondering if recycled shoe plastic is what gets people to buy shoes these days, why aren’t more brands doing it? Well, creating a shoe from recycled plastic isn’t without its challenges. To start, turning plastic into the type of yarn needed to put into a shoe upper took more than a year of development, Amm says. Once they had the yarn, they could put it into a knitting machine. “The properties of the yarn are a little different than virgin polyester and virgin plastic yarns, so we had to re-engineer the design of the shoe to make sure it’s basically giving you the same performance and aspects that you get from virgin plastic,” he says. Plastic that’s already used has different stretch behaviors, aging behaviors when exposed to UV light and comes in all different colors. “It wasn’t an easy process, but for us…as we committed to it, it was really worthwhile to basically adapt the process since it’s not a 1-to-1 exchange from virgin plastic to recycled plastic,” Amm says. While the development took a long time, Adidas now plans to use recycled Parley plastic in all its knitted shoes and make it a standardized material in more products.
And Adidas isn’t stopping with this Parley collaboration. While the brand will continue to create shoes from recycled ocean plastic, they’re also looking into other initiatives that will make a difference in the environment. One idea is a sort of take-back, “continued shoe” program, Maass says. “So if you would take the shoe that’s recycled from ocean plastic that doesn’t go into the oceans, how about if you send it back to us, and a couple of weeks later we send you the exact same shoe, but it’s fresh and new?” he says. “And you can say, ‘That’s my UltraBoost, and it’s the fourth generation.’ You can change the color maybe, so you have one shoe for 10 years. And it’s nothing that’s impossible—it’s just something that needs to be solved.”
Both Amm and Maass mention a potential for a shoe created from spider silk, which would be biodegradable. “That’s the kind of material we’re looking for in the future,” Amm says. “[We] don’t really think about using plastic—we really think about materials which already, from the start, are really environment-friendly.”
For now, Adidas is committed to and focused on the Parley relationship, hosting events like the month-long Run For The Oceans movement, which WR helped kick off in L.A. a couple weeks ago. Between June 8 and July 8, the brands are hosting more than 12 major running events across six key cities around the world, including New York, London, Paris, Berlin and Shanghai. For every kilometer completed and logged (through the Runtastic app), Adidas is donating $1 (for the first million kilometers) to support the Parley Ocean Plastic Program which, through a school initiative, introduces youth to the underwater world and teaches them about the impact of marine plastic pollution while providing them with tools and inspiration for protecting the ocean in the future. Even if you’re not able to attend the physical events, anyone can record their miles through the Runtastic app. As part of the collaboration, limited-edition UltraBoost Parley and UltraBoost X shoes are available, which feature 95 percent Parley Ocean Plastic Primeknit uppers and Boost midsoles.
Outside of supporting Adidas and Parley, you can make a difference by reducing single-use plastic from your own daily life—refuse the plastic lid at your coffee shop, don’t use disposable plastic straws and bring your own grocery bags to the store. “Every single decision makes a difference,” says Hanli Prinsloo, a free diver and founder of I Am Water, who hosted panels at the L.A. event. “You’re voting with your wallet.”
Learn more about the collaboration at adidas.com/parley.