The Materials Development teams at the adidas Group are responsible for researching and developing new materials that meet the needs of the different categories such as Running and Tennis. One of those needs is an understanding of the environmental qualities of the materials.
"If we have to develop materials to meet a performance need, we should do this on a platform of sustainability, so we are already taking into account environmental criteria," says Joan Anderson, Head of Footwear Material Development for the adidas brand.
That platform is provided by a material toolbox that promotes consolidation and a set of material guidelines that rank materials on sustainability criteria.
Both the footwear and apparel businesses work with material toolboxes. A material toolbox is a set of pre-selected approved base materials and colours. "Just by choosing a material from the toolbox a Product team is contributing to waste reduction," says Joan. "The choices in the toolbox are volume-driven so you have production efficiencies, less water and electricity use, less cutting and so on."
Continuous efforts are put into reducing the overall number of materials and colours within the toolboxes. The work now being undertaken by the Design teams to consolidate colours is the next phase in reducing complexity as it will reduce the number of colours per material.
"The toolbox encourages us to reduce the variations of fabric type - weight, construction and knit - which helps to reduce environmental impacts," says Christine Volkholz, Head of Apparel Material Development & Innovation for the adidas brand.
Alongside the material toolbox sit the material guidelines, which document what is known about the variants of each material type and what the opportunities are to make them more sustainable. They indicate where materials are on the sliding scale towards sustainability that adidas uses in its products.
"The material guidelines are a growing database of information," says Heini Lang, a Senior Manager in Joan's Footwear Material Development team. "They are evolving, with new materials coming on stream every season. We get data from suppliers if they have it; ideally it is life cycle analysis information such as we have for recycled polyester. But it is also a question of reviewing current research ourselves to rate the materials. And we might re-rank an existing material if a better material comes along."
"Cost is the biggest challenge. In many cases more sustainable alternatives are more expensive," says Heini. "That can be because of a limited supply or simply because it is new and you don't have a large product base to use it on," explains Joan.
This is certainly the case with e.g. organic cotton. However, the adidas Group was a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which aims to help farmers produce sustainable cotton more effectively and offer them in mainstream market. The first harvest of 'Better Cotton' was only in October 2010, so there is only limited supply yet. And the adidas Group has committed to using 100% Sustainable Cotton by 2018. "It is a volatile market so we think we are helping to ensure our own security of supply by developing relationships with the spinners and cotton farmers and further strengthen the partnership with our direct fabric suppliers," says Philipp Meister from the Apparel Materials Development team. "Our commitment to sustainability is effectively driving us deeper into our supply chain."
Successes this year
To address some of the challenges around cost and supply, the Apparel Development team works together with the suppliers in order to set a seasonal guideline for the sustainable material premium those suppliers can charge for organic cotton or recycled polyester. This allows the Product teams to calculate their margins with more certainty earlier in the process which encourages them to choose the more sustainable option.
The Footwear team has made great strides in recycling factory waste. Working with companies that make injected plastic plates for football boots, they are now recycling 99% of that waste back into production. And they have also been able to increase the percentage of rubber and EVA that can be reground and reused in shoes.
It has been more than ten years since the adidas Group first produced a restricted substances list and nearly as long since it stopped using PVC in mainstream applications. Now the material guidelines are updated twice a year for each new season. So things have come a long way in that time. Joan is convinced that even closer working with other brands and suppliers is key to more success in the future. "Protecting the environment is not a point of competition between brands. It is a substantial, base-line principle: consumers just expect it now. So ideally the brands should collaborate more. The cleaner and more consistent our message as brands is to suppliers, the easier it will be for them to take waste out of their systems."