It’s no secret, the fashion industry is destroying the planet. Responsible for up to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 20 percent of water waste, the world’s second largest industry must make big changes if it can ever claim the label “sustainable.”
The athletic apparel market, in particular, needs to make urgent improvements. This is largely because of the materials it relies on to make stretchy, durable clothing: fabrics like polyester and nylon, which are both made with oil-derived plastic. Adidas, which is often looked to as a leader in the sustainable athletic apparel space, is trying to phase out virgin polyester for good in favor of more planet-conscious options. But is this enough to reduce the sportswear giant’s environmental impact?
Adidas swaps polyester for wood pulp
In the 1950s, a “miracle fabric” hit the clothing aisles. It was durable, yet inexpensive, and could be washed over and over again without losing its shape. Named “polyester,” it was a clothing retailer’s dream. So it’s no surprise that polyester is now as common on a garment label as centuries-old cotton—with more than 50 million metric tonnes produced every year. But the world’s love affair with this miracle fabric has a major downside.
Because it’s made from plastic, polyester doesn’t biodegrade. So even when it’s thrown out of closets, it still hangs around, causing havoc in the soil and the oceans in the form of microplastic. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly 75 percent of microplastics in the Arctic come from polyester. (Read more about the damage they cause here.)
To reduce its reliance on the pollutive material, Adidas recently announced a new partnership with Spinnova. The Finnish company makes low-emission, biodegradable, plastic-free fibers with wood pulp. According to Marwin Hoffman, Adidas Outdoor’s global vice president of marketing, Spinnova will help the retailer phase out virgin polyester and “change how sports apparel will be made in the future.” Its first garment to feature the sustainable fabric is its Adidas Outdoor Terrex HS1 Hoodie, designed for hikers.
By 2025, the company is aiming for nine out of 10 of its products to feature “a sustainable technology, material, design, or manufacturing method,” says Hoffman. He adds that the switch will help the company to reduce the carbon footprint of each product by 15 percent.
Honestly it’s about time. While Adidas isn’t the only retailer searching for a way out of their reliance on destructive synthetics, it’s one of the biggest global brands. In 2020, the Adidas Group produced 465 million units of apparel (379 million pairs of shoes alone). That means the impact of incorporating truly sustainable practices would be huge. But they’re not there yet.
While Adidas and other major brands are working to integrate sustainable fabrics into their supply chains, they haven’t gotten over their need for colossal levels of production. And without slowing this down, a sustainable future of fashion is hard to imagine.
Sustainable materials need to go hand in hand with a drop in production
Selina Ho—the founder and CEO of sustainable fashion consulting platform Recloseted—believes that Adidas’ Spinnova partnership, and others like it, is positive progress. She understands why brands take a cautious approach first, often debuting new sustainable textiles in one or two products before a bigger launch. “In my opinion, that’s a more conscious approach because it’s important to assess demand and work out any kinks before you scale,” she explains. “Otherwise, there could be a lot of wasted product that doesn’t get sold or pass quality control inspections.”
That said, she notes that introducing sustainable innovation needs to go hand in hand with a slow down in production. “If a brand really cares and wants to prioritize lowering the amount of textile waste they’re sending to the landfills, then they absolutely should look at how much they’re producing,” says Ho.
Adidas’ head isn’t totally in the sand when it comes to overproduction. Hoffman told of Adidas’ commitment to pursuing circularity. He outlined the Choose to Give Back program, which encourages consumers in the US to send their used clothing and accessories, regardless of branding, back to Adidas. The company then passes the goods on to online thrift store ThredUp for refurbishment and resale.
At first glance, the Choose to Give Back program seems a noble endeavor. But its limitations are reflected in its name. The onus is on customers to do the right thing by choosing to send back their old garments. Some will, but many won’t. Putting the responsibility on individuals to make a circular system work is tricky, because you’re up against individual human nature, and in many cases, accessibility problems too.
According to a 2019 poll by NPR/Marist, 91 percent of US consumers rarely or never return things they buy online. Not all of these purchases are faultless, but rather people are busy, lazy, flawed. None of us are perfect. The poll stated that most online shoppers don’t return items purely because of the hassle.
When it comes to recycling, there are similar problems. According to a recent survey by the World Economic Forum, 16 percent of people find recycling inconvenient, while 15 percent lack trust in recycling programs. And for some, it’s not about choice at all. More than 40 percent of consumers said they lacked the resources to recycle. Adidas itself doesn’t offer Choose to Give Back everywhere. It sells in 160 countries, but the project is currently just in the US, although Hoffman confirmed it does plan to expand in the near future.
Fast fashion companies can reduce production through rental and resale
Despite good intentions, fashion is still far from reaching anywhere close to real circularity. Every year, 92 million tons of textile waste is created around the world. In the U.S., 85 percent of all clothing waste is burnt or sent to a landfill. And for every person in the UK, 1.7 kilograms of textile waste is created every year.
This is disheartening. And when it comes to a sustainable future of fashion, Ho shares that sentiment. “If you think about it, the most sustainable thing for us to do would be to sit at home in the dark, walk everywhere, wear rags, and make our own food,” she says. “But that’s not realistic in today’s society. I don’t think it’s possible for a major brand to be truly sustainable because that would look like completely ceasing operations and going out of business.”
It’s grim, but we don’t have to lose hope. Instead, Ho believes the best brands can strive for is balance. And when companies pour money into sustainable materials, they are getting closer towards reaching that balance. But, put simply, it isn’t enough. Adidas could, and should, be doing more to limit the amount of garments it’s putting out into the world. In fact, it’s absolutely essential for tackling the climate crisis.
While it’s undeniably striving to do better, another key material Adidas uses now is recycled polyester. It’s better than producing more virgin polyester, but recycled polyester still releases microplastics every time it’s washed (just one cycle can release more than 700,000 plastic fibers into waterways, according to one UK study). It’s also not a permanent solution: polyester can’t be recycled forever.
According to a new report by the Stockholm Resilience Center, plastic and chemical waste has already gone way beyond safe limits, and slowing down production across industries is now a necessity. Bethanie Carney Almroth, one of the study’s authors, said: “Maybe we have to say, ‘enough is enough.’ Maybe we can’t tolerate it anymore. Maybe we have to put a cap on production. Maybe we need to say, ‘we can’t produce more than this.’”
According to Ho, resale, consignment, and rental are potential alternatives for major fashion retailers. None are perfect, with shipping impact to consider, but like we’ve established, a flawless solution to fashion doesn’t exist. But each keeps the same garments in circulation, and reduces the need to produce more and more.
And maybe there is room for these options in Adidas’ business model. It has already dipped a toe into resale with Choose to Give Back, and it has experimented with rental too. It piloted a platform in France last year. But when questioned specifically on the project’s progress and if there were plans for expansion, Hoffman vaguely stated the pilot was part of the company’s “wider aspirations towards a circular economy.”
It’s admirable that Adidas remains dedicated to the sustainability conversation. Its stores have “sustainability zones,” says Hoffman, where customers can learn more about its commitments to the environment. Its website’s sustainability section also goes in depth on issues like plastic waste and innovation. But the bottom line is, correcting fashion’s monstrous environmental impact is going to take more bravery from major retailers than they are currently displaying.
Instead of swapping out a few plastic cogs and hoping that’s enough, Adidas and retailers like it have to dismantle the entire machine and start fresh. The bottom line is: a wood pulp hoodie is great, but if you want to save the planet, stop producing so many clothes. There’s nothing else to it.