Can sneakers ever really be sustainable? “Buy, buy, buy is going to kill us all.”

Nike and Adidas need more than recycled products if they're serious about saving the planet.

For all the collaborations Adidas has done throughout its history as a brand, the most unlikely one came in 2015. That was the year the company revealed a partnership with Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit organization that focuses on preserving marine life. Their work together began with the introduction of a sneaker made entirely out of recycled ocean plastic and gillnets as part of an initiative that has paved the way for a full suite of eco-friendly products from Adidas and Parley.

But Adidas isn’t alone in this newfound commitment to sustainability. Its main sportswear rival, Nike, is also making a major push into the space with its own line of recycled sneakers and apparel, which it recently announced ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And while their strategies may be different, both brands have one common goal: to try to save the planet, one recycled product at a time. Still, you have to wonder how serious Nike and Adidas are about these efforts, and whether they can make an actual, positive impact on the environment? Or, are these sustainable goods simply a marketing gimmick?

Just last month, Adidas detailed plans to eliminate its use of plastic waste, highlighting its commitment to the cause and showing that it isn’t just about selling shoes and other gear with recycled materials — though that’s certainly a welcomed byproduct. So far, the strategy seems to be paying off, as Adidas said it sold 1 million Parley-branded pairs in 2017, which led to a product boost of 5 and 11 million pairs in 2018 and 2019, respectively. To give you an idea of how much of an effect that can have on cleaning waste from the oceans, each pair of Adidas x Parley shoes is made up of 12 plastic bottles.

Adidas' collaboration with Parley for the Oceans.Neilson Barnard/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

As for Nike, its chief design officer, John Hoke, recently told Input in an interview that the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo will be a springboard for the company to focus, research, and create sustainable products. He said this sustainability vision will be an expansion of an idea that began 25 years ago with Nike Grind, a grassroots project to collect and recycle sneakers, which is still up and running today. In 2020, along with a new collection called Space Hippie, featuring shoes made out of trash (yarn scraps, recycled plastic water bottles, and more), Nike will also launch athlete uniforms designed with 100 percent recycled polyester.

Recycled is the name of the game, and it’s clear Nike and Adidas are going all in on it. The question, then, becomes about the level of impact these brands can have on the planet, and the need to prove that their ideas of sustainability aren’t only about improving their bottom line.

“As long as these brands are pursuing growth, they are not creating sustainability and cannot make any claims about sustainability.”

Timo Rissanen, associate professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons School of Design, says that although Nike and Adidas have good intentions, not much will change as long as they continue to be driven by an endless expansion of their business. “As long as these brands are pursuing growth, they are not creating sustainability and cannot make any claims about sustainability,” he says. “The pursuit of infinite growth on a finite planet is the primary cause of the current planetary emergency.”

Rissanen says the challenge for these brands is to try to set limits for themselves in terms of how much product they make, rather than simply focus on the use of recycled materials. “They should define the size that they will grow to, and then either stay at that size or contract from it, but not to pass it,” he says, noting that he understands how difficult this might be for public companies. “And they should, as quickly as possible, transform their operations such that all of the company operations become a carbon sequestration activity rather than a carbon-emitting activity.”

A football cleat made out of recycled ocean plastic.Adidas

There’s a lot more Nike and Adidas can do beyond designing garments or sneakers with recycled plastic, Rissanen says, pointing to what he and other sustainability researchers call “planetary boundaries” – which take into account carbon cycles, climate change, and freshwater resources. While Nike’s and Adidas’ efforts are certainly a step in the right direction, he says that until these companies take into account all of these factors, “we’ll be doing the wrong thing a little bit better.”

Those planetary boundaries Rissanen refers to are perhaps what Nike is trying to be more considerate of going forward. Last year, the company introduced a proposed set of principles dubbed “Circularity: Guiding the Future of Design,” which call on the entire fashion industry to “consider the complete design solution, inclusive of how we source it, make it, use it, return it, and, ultimately, how we reimagine it.”

Nike’s Circular Design guidelines, which are intended to help designers create “products that last longer and are designed with the end in mind,” are built around 10 key areas: material choices, cyclability, waste avoidance, disassembly, green chemistry, refurbishment, versatility, durability, circular packaging, and new models. In other words, relying solely on upcycled materials won’t be enough and, most importantly, Nike knows it can’t take on sustainability alone. “Climate change affects all of us, everywhere, in every brand,” Hoke said. “So I think if we're making steps together in different ways, that's a good thing.”

Buy, buy, buy is going to kill us all.”

When you have fashion companies (Nike included) burning and shredding billions of dollars worth of their own products, it’s obvious there needs to be a rethinking of their core values. But some would rather not devalue their brand instead of, say, finding cleaner, more environmentally friendly ways to dispose of their excess garments. At the same time, though, consumers have to do their part, too — be it by making less purchases year-round or by buying used or vintage clothes, a trend that younger generations are quickly adopting.

“Sustainability has to be the buzzword for any industry at this moment,” says Adriana Gorea, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Delaware, Fashion and Apparel Studies department. “But consumers have to wake up, too, and act on their purchase decisions. Buy, buy, buy is going to kill us all. Wearing things much more than once, repairing instead of disposing, washing clothes less, making fashion using less water and dyes, all these have a long way to go.” She says that while brands like Nike and Adidas are using better technologies in materials and manufacturing, it’s equally as critical to have a better buying plan of action.

Nike Grind.Nike

“Brands need to have responsibility for end-of-product-life recycling,” Gorea added. “[At] the same time, brands need to reach the consumer in a more personal way, to create emotional bonds that make it less likely to dispose of the product.”

That won’t be an easy task for Nike or Adidas, but they both seem to be genuinely passionate about their desire to create an ecosystem that’s less damaging to the planet. Now the key for them will be to educate their customers about why these sustainable sneakers and apparel are important, as well as continue to use their resources to change how they manufacture, design, and dispose of their products without creating even more pollution.

“The fashion supply chain went way too long without concern for waste, but educating the consumer that waste starts at retail, when they buy something, is as important,” Gorea says. “Buying better products goes hand in hand with higher prices, and this is a challenge that the fashion industry has to figure out — how to maintain profitability while selling less product made in less wasteful ways.”