It’s no secret that the fashion industry is destroying the planet. Responsible for up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 20% of water waste, the world’s second-largest industry must make big changes if it can ever claim the “sustainable” label.
The sportswear market, in particular, needs urgent improvement. That’s largely because of the materials it relies on to make stretchy, durable garments: fabrics like polyester and nylon, both of which are made with petroleum-derived plastic. Adidas, which is often seen as a leader in sustainable sportswear, is trying to phase out virgin polyester for good in favor of more planet-friendly options. But is this enough to reduce the environmental impact of the sportswear giant?
Adidas swaps polyester for paper pulp
In the 1950s, a “miracle fabric” hit the clothing shelves. It was durable, yet inexpensive, and could be washed over and over again without losing its shape. Called “polyester”, it was a clothing retailer’s dream. It’s no surprise, then, that polyester is now as common on a clothing label as centuries-old cotton, with over 50 million metric tons produced each year. But the world’s love affair with this miracle fabric has a major downside.
Because it is made from plastic, polyester does not biodegrade. So even when thrown from cupboards, it’s still lying around, wreaking havoc on the ground and oceans in the form of microplastic. In fact, an estimated 75% of microplastics in the Arctic come from polyester. (Read more about the damage they cause here.)
To reduce its dependence on polluting material, Adidas recently announced a new partnership with Spinnova. The Finnish company makes low-emission, biodegradable and plastic-free fibers with wood pulp. According to Marwin Hoffman, global vice president of marketing for Adidas Outdoor, Spinnova will help the retailer phase out virgin polyester and “change the way sportswear will be made in the future.” His first garment to use the sustainable fabric is his Adidas Outdoor Terrex HS1 hoodie, designed for hikers.
By 2025, the company aims to have nine out of 10 of its products feature “sustainable technology, material, design or manufacturing method,” Hoffman says. He adds that the change will help the company reduce the carbon footprint of each product by 15%.
Frankly, it was about time. While Adidas isn’t the only retailer looking for a way out of its addiction to destructive synthetics, it’s one of the biggest brands in the world. In 2020, the Adidas group produced 465 million clothing units (379 million pairs of shoes alone). This means that the impact of integrating truly sustainable practices would be enormous. But they are not there yet.
While Adidas and other major brands strive to integrate sustainable fabrics into their supply chains, they have not overcome their need for colossal production levels. And without slowing that down, a sustainable future for fashion is hard to imagine.
Sustainable materials must go hand in hand with lower production
Selina Ho, founder and CEO of sustainable fashion advisory platform Recloseted, believes that Adidas’ Spinnova partnership, and others like it, is positive progress. She understands why brands take a cautious approach first, often launching new sustainable textiles in one or two products before a larger launch. “In my opinion, this is a more conscious approach, as it is important to assess demand and resolve any issues before scaling up,” she explains. “Otherwise, there could be a lot of wasted products that aren’t sold or don’t pass quality control inspections.”
That said, she notes that the introduction of sustainable innovations must go hand in hand with a slowdown in production. “If a brand really cares and wants to prioritize reducing the amount of textile waste they send to landfills, then they definitely need to look at how much they produce,” Ho says.
Adidas’ head isn’t totally in the sand when it comes to overproduction. Hoffman spoke about Adidas’ commitment to pursuing circularity. He described the Choose to Give Back program, which encourages US consumers to return their used clothing and accessories, regardless of brand, to Adidas. The company then forwards the goods to ThredUp online thrift store for refurbishment and resale.
At first glance, the Choose to Give Back program seems like a noble undertaking. But its limitations are reflected in its name. The burden is on customers do what it takes Choose send back their old clothes. Some will, but many will not. Putting responsibility on individuals to make a circular system work is tricky because you come up against individual human nature and in many cases accessibility issues as well.
According to a 2019 survey by NPR/Marist, 91% of US consumers rarely or never return items they purchase online. Not all of these purchases are flawless, but rather people are busy, lazy, imperfect. None of us are perfect. The survey found that most online shoppers don’t return items just because of the hassle.
With regard to recycling, the problems are similar. According to a recent survey by the World Economic Forum, 16% of people find recycling impractical, while 15% don’t trust recycling programs. And for some, it’s not a matter of choice at all. Over 40% of consumers said they did not have the resources to recycle. Adidas itself does not offer the choice to give back everywhere. It sells in 160 countries, but the project is currently only in the United States, although Hoffman has confirmed that he plans to expand in the near future.
Fast fashion companies can reduce production through rental and resale
Despite good intentions, fashion is still far from achieving true circularity. Each year, 92 million tons of textile waste are created worldwide. In the United States, 85% of all clothing waste is burned or sent to landfill. And for every person in the UK, 1.7kg of textile waste is created each year.
It’s discouraging. And when it comes to a sustainable future for 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 big brand to be truly sustainable, because that would mean going out of business completely and closing its doors.
It’s grim, but we must not lose hope. Instead, Ho thinks top brands can seek balance. And when companies invest money in sustainable materials, they get closer to that balance. But, in simple terms, this is not enough. Adidas could and should do more to limit the amount of clothing it puts on the market. In fact, it is absolutely essential to address the climate crisis.
While it undeniably strives to do better, another key material that Adidas now uses is recycled polyester. It’s better than producing more virgin polyester, but recycled polyester still releases microplastics with every wash (a single cycle can release over 700,000 plastic fibers into waterways, according to a UK study). It’s also not a permanent solution: polyester cannot be recycled indefinitely.
According to a new report from the Stockholm Resilience Center, plastic and chemical waste has already greatly exceeded safe limits, and slowing production across all sectors is now a necessity. Bethanie Carney Almroth, one of the study’s authors, said: “Perhaps we should say, ‘enough’. Maybe we can’t tolerate it anymore. Maybe we need to limit production. Maybe we should say, “we can’t produce more than that.”
According to Ho, resale, consignment and rental are potential alternatives for large fashion retailers. None are perfect, with shipping impact to consider, but as we’ve established, a trendy no-nonsense solution doesn’t exist. But each keeps the same clothes in circulation, and reduces the need to produce more and more.
And maybe there’s room for those options in Adidas’ business model. He’s already dipped a toe into reselling with Choose to Give Back, and he’s also experimented with renting. He piloted a platform in France last year. But when asked specifically about the progress of the project and whether there were any expansion plans, Hoffman vaguely said 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. The sustainability section of its website also goes into depth on issues such as plastic waste and innovation. But ultimately, correcting fashion’s monstrous impact on the environment is going to take more courage from major retailers than they currently do.
Instead of swapping out a few plastic cogs and hoping that’s enough, Adidas and similar retailers have to take the whole machine apart and start afresh. The bottom line is this: a wood pulp hoodie is fine, but if you want to save the planet, stop producing so many clothes. There is nothing else to it.