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Parley for the Course

A question of sustainability

As with the rest of the nation, I had great excitement for April 12th, not just as the beer gardens were opening once again, but because I could indulge my passion of longingly staring at sneakers.

While perusing the shelves a silhouette popped out at me, a Human Race NMD, a shoe I’d admired but always felt was too expensive. However, in the madness of this first post lockdown sale, the price was right at 75% off the RRP and I decided to treat myself.

Having spent too much time in sneaker shops, the adidas and Parley project is something that’s always intrigued me. This collaboration is intended to use materials that were reclaimed from the ocean to craft shoes and apparel.

What made the fashion distinctive was the bright pops of teal from the recycled fish nets that were dumped in the ocean. This teal just so happened to be a similar colour to the trainers that I had just bought. Clearly then this Human Race NMD must have been made from reclaimed plastics?

Yet, unfortunately, there appears to be no recycled materials in this shoe. But why? Surely if adidas and Parley have this project, they would use it across every sneaker?

Parley and adidas a match made in the ocean

Parley for the Oceans, given its full title, is an innovative company that focuses on reusing ocean waste plastics in new products. Parley works effectively by collaborating with other companies to allow for the waste they reclaim and clean from the oceans to be reused.

Parley’s strategy for cleaning the oceans has three main ideas. Initially and foremost, avoid using plastic wherever possible. A simple idea, but a complex one to enact, due to the sheer amount of plastic used today. Secondly, they intercept plastic waste from going into the ocean.

The recent documentary Seaspiracy on Netflix, highlighted just how much waste there is in the oceans and how most of the waste itself is formed from fishing equipment. Parley intercepts this fishing gear before it can be dumped into the ocean, which forms a vital part of its operation alongside cleaning up beaches. Lastly, the reclaimed material is reused and this is where adidas comes in.

“Parley is the space where creators, thinkers, and leaders come together to raise awareness for the beauty and fragility of our oceans and collaborate on projects that can end their destruction.” [Taken from Parley’s website]

adidas and Parley launched their initial shoe to the audience at a United Nations summit in 2015. The distinctive white and teal shoe, that eventually became the Ultraboost DNA, was produced from reclaimed fishing nets that were dumped in the ocean.

Since then, adidas has created a cumulative 17 million pieces of apparel crafted from the reclaimed plastic that Parley provides. Each one of these items helps to clean the oceans in the hope that one day plastics in the water will be a thing of the past.

It’s not all smooth sailing

However, while these adidas and Parley shoes, and associated apparel, clean up the oceans, they do not help to fight the war on climate change as much as it may seem or as is advertised. While cleaning the ocean is a noble effort, for sustainability to be effective it needs to help heal the earth in its entirety.

A recent report found that the Ultraboost Parleys only contribute to a 9.6% reduction in carbon emissions and doesn’t take into account the miles travelled by the recycled materials. This small reduction in emissions and the increased price of the Parley collaboration shoes, compared to standard pairs, makes it one of the costliest ways to reduce carbon.

Such a small shrinkage in emissions is because recycled plastics are only used in the upper of the shoe, everything above your foot in the sneaker, bar the laces. Therefore, the reduction is only due to less processing being needed for recycled plastics to be converted into the Primeknit upper.

To the credit of adidas, they have lofty goals when trying to reduce their carbon emissions, with a target set of reducing their CO2 emissions by 15% by 2020 and 100% by 2050. Whilst adidas hit this target by reducing CO2 emissions by 55% as of last year, this came with a large asterisk of offsetting.

The energy & carbon KPI was overachieved in 2020 due to the divestiture of various facilities as well as the purchase of EACs (RECs and GOs). [Taken from adidas Green Company Performance Analysis 2020]

To translate the above; adidas have offset their emissions by returning some of their own energy back into the grid and therefore their actual percentage reduced would be lower. For the sportswear giant to actually meet their targets, they need to consider sustainability in all parts of the construction of their trainers and garments. adidas and Parley are certainly heading in the right direction when it comes to sustainability but there is still a long road ahead, which needs to be travelled fast if the damage that has already been done to the planet is to be rectified.

There’s still hope

To return to the original question of this piece, why weren’t the shoes purchased made from recycled materials? To put it simply, there is little rationale other than it being a scaling issue, but the good news is that it is coming. From 2024 adidas will exclusively use recycled plastics. Consequently all their shoes and garments will save on CO2 emissions and clean up the planet of waste materials.

However, as previously stated, every aspect of fashion needs to be made sustainably if there is to be an impact. adidas is seemingly trying to perfect different sustainable measures across each of its shoes.

Within the Yeezy branch of the company, Kanye West and his team have developed a sole created by using algae for use in the Foam Runner. While a fully recyclable sneaker, the DNA Loop, is being trialled and, once outworn, they will be recycled and form the foundation of the next generation of the DNA Loop.

The hope therefore is that adidas can combine these different technologies sooner rather than later and create a future where we don’t have to wonder whether what we are buying is sustainable, it just will be.


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