Sports brands step up for sustainability

The scale of waste in the fashion sector is well known. It can take 3,000 litres of water to make one cotton T-shirt, and of the 23 billion pairs of shoes produced annually worldwide, 300 million end up in landfill.

Lucy Gilliam, co-founder of microplastics research project Exxpedition, says shoes are a big pollution problem: “Shoes and flip-flops in particular are a distinctive part of marine plastic washing up.”

US footwear brand Allbirds is striving to use more sustainable materials, and is developing a range of flip-flops and shoes made from sustainable materials such as merino wool and sugar cane. Sportswear giants are also embracing new sustainable materials: Reebok recently launched an organic cotton sneaker with soles made from corn.

The secret sauce is scale – companies that can scale sustainable products will succeed

Eric Sprunk, chief operating officer at Nike

Natalia Zawada, founder of ethical and sustainable yoga brand Starseeds (pictured above), believes that in the near future fabrics such as tree-based fibres, recycled and natural synthetics, and Tencel, a material made from wood pulp, will join organic cotton, hemp and linen in the line-up of mainstream sustainable textiles. Nevertheless, it takes years for many of these materials to be refined enough to be a desirable choice for brands and fashion retailers to use.

Zawada says: “I have seen massive progress in  recycled materials. It used to be only recycled polyester, which was very ugly and didn’t feel good. In fashion the focus is all about the look, but designers who work for these brands need to consider the environment and materials they are using.

“Recycled nylon is finally available. It took four to five years to develop, but I can see popular sports- and performancewear brands taking the lead in educating consumers.”

Nike, , Reebok and Adidas have all announced initiatives to incorporate advances in materials into their products.

Eric Sprunk, chief operating officer at Nike, says the brand has bred sustainability into the fabric of the company: “You can produce 100 pairs of a style that is sustainable. The difficulty is doing it at a scale that matters, so consumers can see the impact.

“The secret sauce is scale: companies that can scale sustainable products will succeed. We’ve made World Cup team kits out of recycled plastic bottles, and the NBA uniforms are made from recycled polyester. We have a powerful brand and we use it to stand up for values that we believe in.”

Sprunk adds that Nike Air products use up to 90% recycled materials and the business is working towards sustainability in all of its core products: “We have been working on a good sustainable alternative for leather for years. It feels as great as real leather, but is made with less water and is better for the environment. But it takes investment and diligence.”

Sportswear is a big part of the trend, and can have an impact on other brands

Tiffany Hogan, Kantar Retail

Reebok has produced plant-based trainers

However, Ben Matthews, creative director of UK sustainable sportswear brand Ninety Percent, cautions recycled materials may not be a perfect solution: “Recycled plastic [in sportswear] is very much a mainstream thing. It’s great that it’s recycled but it will end up in a landfill in the end [if the final product is not also recycled].”

He adds that his brand uses “organic cotton and Tencel. Going forward, we are introducing linen and cupro, which have good sustainable credentials.”

Tiffany Hogan, senior analyst, apparel, at Kantar Retail, points out that sustainable methods come at a price, but consumers are happy to pay more for sportswear that matches their views.

She says: “We are seeing this most strongly with Generation Z, who self-identify with what they wear as a reflection of who they are.

“Sportswear is a big part of the trend, and can have an impact on other brands. Nike is [similar to] H&M – it’s a part of how shoppers compare brands. They are leaders and others will follow them.”

Indeed, many are happy to go further and invest in green initiatives. In 2015, Australian sportswear brand Kusaga Athletic raised £8,900 via a Kickstarter campaign for its “greenest tee on the planet”, which was made with its biodegradable and compostable own-brand fabric, named Ecolite.

With new materials emerging and customers who are willing to pay for them, sustainability is proving to be a winning tactic for sportswear brands.

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