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The adidas Sustainability Series

Would you be interested in saving the oceans? This was the question that kickstarted the adidas x Parley partnership from an idea, to a commitment, to real impact on the world of sustainable fashion.

In 2015, a year after this question was posed, adidas stood in front of the United Nations assembly to set out its intention: to end plastic waste.

Read on to learn how the adidas x Parley partnership developed to turn marine plastic pollution into a sustainable fashion line and more importantly a revolution in the industry.

2015-2016: LAUNCH OF THE ADIDAS X PARLEY PARTNERSHIP

Just as adidas founder Adi Dassler started making sports shoes back in the 1920s, our foray into sustainable fashion also started with a running shoe. This trainer would be made entirely out of marine plastic waste. Within the first year of its launch, we gave away 100 pairs of adidas x Parley shoes to consumers and released football jerseys made from ocean plastic for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

Plastic is a design flaw – this is how to fix it

Cyrill Gutsch is the founder of Parley for the Oceans and the person who first asked the question that led to our collaborative commitment to save our oceans from plastic pollution through the development of sustainable fashion.

When you work with issues impacting every single person on this planet, the weight of the world can feel heavy on your shoulders.

Cyrill knows this well. “When I started Parley in 2012, the forecast was that by the year 2048 the oceans will die, leading to irreversible damage to our planet. Turns out, this was too optimistic; we actually have 10 years to spin things around,” tells Cyrill, admitting it’s difficult to relax with the clock ticking.

Man with black framed glasses explaining an idea, Cyrill Gutsch, founder, CEO, Parley for the Oceans, sustainability, plastic waste, innovation
"We are heading towards true eco-innovation," believes Cyrill, founder of Parley for the Oceans.

Change comes with pain and change is usually met with resistance. But change also needs time, so Cyrill is taking action to end marine plastic pollution with sustainable fashion.

The adidas x Parley partnership making waves

A small and agile organization at heart, Parley knew they’d need a strong leader on their side, one equally committed to cleaning up the oceans to save marine wildlife by taking plastic out of the food chain.

Cyrill explains, “adidas is both structured and flexible, but also confident to let us be demanding, annoying even. Plus, they knew they were producing plastic waste, and were determined to cut it down.”

After the adidas x Parley partnership was announced in April 2015 at the UN, the message about innovating sustainable fashion was heard throughout the fashion and sporting industries.

Man wearing blue shirt holding up a sneaker while giving a speech on stage, Eric Liedtke, Cyrill Gutsch, CEO, founder, Parley for the Oceans, United Nations, sustainability
A highlight of adidas x Parley was the presentation of the first sustainable running shoe made of ocean plastic at the UN in 2015.

A branding and marketing professional himself, Cyrill believes the creative industries have more power than they realize.

Just a year after the announcement Cyrill says: “Comparing the conversations I had a year ago to the feedback I get today, the difference is huge. The major players – consumer brands and polluters – take us seriously. They have adopted our way of talking about sustainability.”

The sustainable fashion movement that the adidas x Parley collaboration is championing has replaced defensive environmentalism with innovation and design. “Let’s forget the concept of sustainability. We can’t stand still anymore. Eco-innovation is the only answer to the threat we are facing: the threat of extinction,” explains Cyrill.

Man wearing black framed glasses smiling and looking at materials, teamwork, sustainability, Parley for the Oceans
The adidas x Parley partnership is an ongoing learning process.

Following this philosophy, Cyrill calls plastic a design failure; it’s not meant to end up in the stomachs of animals, and at the end of the food chain in humans.

Parley’s long-term solution for plastic pollution is to re-invent the material. In the short term, their A.I.R. strategy guides everyone to AVOID plastic wherever you can, INTERCEPT plastic pollution, then REDESIGN the source of the problem: the material.

Taking ownership of the supply chain to create sustainable fashion

According to Cyrill, major manufacturers have a tendency to act like professional consumers: they buy standard material, put it together in garments in factories they don’t own, then sell the garments.

“Consumers expect brands to act responsibly, but how can companies be responsible for their product when they don’t know how it’s essentially made?” he challenges.

This is what adidas x Parley did by first tearing open the supply chain and putting every part under the microscope. As a result, the innovative adidas x Parley shoe made from recycled ocean plastic was born.

Blue and white sneakers being worked on during a team discussion, Parley for the Oceans, sustainability, end plastic waste, adidas
The adidas x Parley shoe is a product of unique collaboration.

“When we look at the yarn we used for the shoe, we can name the people who collected it. We know who shipped it. We know exactly how the material was recycled and where the yarn was spun.”

In addition to the shoe, Cyrill cites the creation of the new supply chain as a major feat in its own right. Sustainable fashion goes beyond the mere product. “Ideas lead to strategies and, by becoming a system, strategies lead to big-scale change,” he summarizes.

Designing the future together

Since 2016 Parley Ocean Schools around the world, such as in Maldives, Seychelles, and Grenada support local communities to protect the oceans.

Sometimes Cyrill wishes his job would be simpler; the role of an intermediator trying to reconnect mankind with the oceans is stressful. But with influential brands with big platforms shaking things up and raising awareness of plastic pollution, people just might eventually let go of the thought ‘someone out there will take care of my trash’.

adidas x Parley: From fishnets to footwear in just a year

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The adidas x Parley shoe, made out of ocean plastic.

Eco-innovation is at the heart of developing sustainable fashion at adidas and ending marine plastic pollution. Kelli George, now Material Innovation Manager at adidas, worked on the first adidas x Parley shoe in 2016. She recalls her excitement about the innovation that goes behind creating sustainable fashion in those early years of the partnership.

Woman holding green net and smiling, Kelli George, adidas, employee, plastic waste, materials, innovation
Kelli George, Senior Manager Materials Footwear at adidas, found purpose in creating sustainable footwear materials with the adidas x Parley partnership.

This is Kelli’s story:

Having grown up in the landlocked state of Vermont, I never really had any connection with the ocean. All this changed when I joined the Parley for the Oceans project in April 2015 – just before adidas presented a prototype shoe made from ocean plastic at the United Nations in New York. There, we as a sportswear company committed to sustainable fashion, turning that concept into a consumer-ready product within a year, while I took on one of the most exciting and challenging projects of my career.

My role in the adidas x Parley for the Oceans project was pretty fundamental when it comes to this shoe: I was responsible for turning gillnets retrieved from the water into a workable material which would essentially become part of the shoe’s upper.

Partnering up

The challenge I had was to solve the problem of creating enough yarn for a limited edition of that iconic shoe and our first foray into sustainable fashion: no yarn = no shoe.

One of the textile suppliers involved in the adidas x Parley project was very interested to see if they could help us, since they were also interested in the concept of recycling fishing nets. At first, they weren’t sure if they’d be able to assist due to the type of nylon, but they were more than happy to see what they could do. Since this was something we’d never done ourselves, we took all the help we could get!

It was now fall 2015 and we only had a few months to secure workable yarn and the pressure was on – if the yarn failed we had almost no time to recover!

Cleaning the gunk from the junk

Old ocean nets in trash bags, materials, sustainability, adidas, innovation
Innovating with ocean waste – this is the unusual raw material that brought the adidas x Parley shoe to life.

For our supplier to be able to work on the raw material, test and produce it, it needed to be clean, and they needed 150kg of it.

Manually unpacking the cords, shaking out the ocean gunk, and hand washing and drying the material took forever, believe me, so one of my colleagues suggested using a washing machine. Pretty simple idea, but we weren’t sure how it would work out, so off I went to the local laundromat with one small box of netting and it worked!

Now all we needed to do was expand the scale of this operation to 150kg of the stuff.

One thing’s for sure: I’m pretty certain none of this was in my job description!

The feeling of success

Fast forward again to January of 2016 and I finally got the email I was waiting for: the yarn trial was successful!

I received a sample of the most beautiful teal green yarn. I made everyone look at it, I told my children about it (who frankly didn’t get what was so exciting about it!), I oohed and ahhed over it. It is quite beautiful, though I may be a little bit biased!

The harder we work on getting waste out of the waters through initiatives such as Parley for the Oceans and making the process of creating sustainable fashion out of it more affordable, the better chance we have of growing this program and the greater the impact will be on our environment.

We have succeeded in creating something quite spectacular out of trash, but in an ideal world we shouldn’t need to.

This shoe has a story, and this story has a future, but more importantly, I hope that these shoes will make people think more about waste.

2017-2019: ADIDAS X PARLEY PARTNERSHIP SCALES UP

The adidas x Parley partnership moved our sustainable fashion efforts from 1 shoe in 2015 to 1 million pairs of shoes in 2017, to 11 million by 2019. Between 2015 and the end of 2020, adidas will have made more than 30 million pairs of shoes with Parley ocean plastic.​

Our vision to innovate sustainable fashion also sparked a running movement committed to ending plastic waste – ‘Run for the Oceans’. 60 thousand people joined the first run in 2017, growing to 2.2 million runners in 2019.​

Can a little running make big waves for our oceans?

Florian Gschwandtner, co-founder of Runtastic and former adidas Running General Manager, André Maestrini tell the story:

Innovating sustainable fashion goes beyond the product itself. It includes the way we create from production to shelf but also how our consumers relate to our commitment to end plastic waste. Run for the Oceans was the first global initiative together with adidas Runtastic to harness the power of sport to raise awareness for marine plastic pollution and how to end it.

Male and female runners running as a group, Run for the Oceans, adidas, event, sustainability, end plastic waste
The adidas x Parley Run for the Oceans, the first global initiative harnessing the power of sport to raise awareness about the fragility of our oceans.

In today’s society, we measure business success by looking at KPIs. As athletes, we measure our personal best by looking at our achievements against the goals we set up. What happens when you decide to go beyond business and personal KPIs to do something for a bigger cause?

From idea to global movement

“When Runtastic joined the adidas family, it didn’t take us long to learn first-hand how passionate and committed adidas is to eco-innovation,” Florian explains. “It was clear that adidas – from Board members to the entire team – are taking the problem of marine plastic pollution and their partnership with Parley for the Oceans really seriously. This passion inspired us. We wanted to be a part of it. The idea was born to use our app to create a global movement for the oceans.”

Man wearing black t-shirt holding up white flag in black lettering, Run for the Oceans, running, runners, event, sport, purpose, sustainability, adidas
The adidas x Parley Run for the Oceans was initially created in 2017, together with adidas Runtastic as a collaborative effort to address the growing problem of marine pollution and enable consumers to take action.

“When Runtastic came to us with the idea to harness the power of runners around the globe and create a digital run through the app, we didn’t think twice.” Andrè goes on. “With adidas x Parley we decided to activate our global running community to raise awareness about the fragility of the oceans and their importance for mankind. World Oceans Week was the perfect platform.”

The idea to run for a cause is not new for adidas. In partnership with the AKTIV foundation, we ran against cancer, with 261 Fearless, we ran to support women’s empowerment. “And now with Run for the Oceans we can go even further, with the digital component that can help us harness the power of runners where ever they are, literally. We believe in the power of sport,” says André.

Bringing Run for the Oceans to a wider audience

“Run for the Oceans was not a one-off activity, but the start of a long journey to make eco-innovation and sports work together to raise awareness of ocean pollution and the need for sustainable fashion,” continues André.

Woman wearing sportswear running on the beach, phone, mobile, Runtastic, adidas, Run for the Oceans, event, running
Through the adidas Running app, runners around the world raised awareness and funds to stop marine plastic pollution.

Together, a variety of team members across adidas and Runtastic helped to create and refine the concept together with Parley.

How Run for the Oceans can change lives

Running can help people to make a difference in their personal lives by being more active, boost their self-confidence by achieving personal goals and increase their sense of belonging when they are part of a running community.

If there are no oceans, there’s no air, no life and certainly no running.

Florian finishes, “Today’s most valuable resource is time and that’s why we wanted folks to take a few minutes and run for a cause that matters and impacts us all – whether we see the problem or not.”

Run for the Oceans 2018

When it comes to leading any change, awareness is a good start, but impact needs to be followed by action. In 2018, adidas raised over $1 million to fight marine plastic pollution. That year, Harm Ohlmeyer, adidas Executive Board member Finance, shared his learnings from the run and insights how anyone can start a movement that matters.

2020-BEYOND: THE FUTURE OF ADIDAS X PARLEY

The adidas x Parley partnership has grown stronger and more impactful since launching in 2015. It’s a true eco-innovation collaboration that not only develops sustainable fashion but also supports a running movement that invites consumers across the globe to join the adidas commitment to end plastic waste.

Watch Cyrill explain how the adidas x Parley collaboration is reinventing the role plastic has in our world.

Man with black framed glasses explaining an idea, Cyrill Gutsch, founder, CEO, Parley for the Oceans, sustainability, plastic waste, innovation
Watch Parley founder Cyrill Gutsch explain how adidas x Parley is reinventing the role plastic has in our world.

Sustainable fashion goes circular

2020 saw the introduction of ‘Primeblue’ and ‘Primegreen’ performance fabrics, where 100% of the polyester used is recycled and we keep on pushing the boundaries of sustainable fashion to achieve true circularity.

Watch James Carnes, VP of Brand Strategy, explain the Three Loop Strategy guiding adidas to end plastic waste and support a circular future.

A man is holding up a white tank top. plastic waste, James Carnes, adidas, Sustainability, GamePlan A
Watch James Carnes, VP of Brand Strategy, explain the Three Loop Strategy guiding adidas to end plastic waste and support a circular future.

Check back for further developments in our adidas x Parley partnership as we continue to push to achieve our goal to end plastic waste through sustainable fashion.

The adidas Sustainability Story – Leading the Change

How adidas is driving innovative sustainable solutions designed to transform our industry and our planet.

Learn more

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