Jun 06, 2024
by Karl Smith
Have We Reached Sportswear’s Sustainability Turning Point?
by Karl Smith
Jun 06, 2024

Sportswear, huh, what is it good for?

Well, we wouldn’t go so far as to “absolutely nothing,” but there’s definitely room for improvement. The good news, though, is that improvement already seems to be underway. Even if things aren’t moving quite as quickly as we’d like or, for that matter, as fast as the planet needs, movement is in the right direction – and it’s gaining serious momentum.

But before we get into the solution, let’s talk about the problem: profligacy and pollution – the two Ps – which, in a sense, are really one and the same. The issue of overproduction and of the chemical havoc that wreaks on the Earth.

And these crises are nothing new, of course – in fact, you’ve surely heard it all before – but this only serves to make it all the more frustrating. That we’re still asking all the same questions should be a source of shame, for brands and for the industry at large.

If all that sounds like hyperbole – well, okay, the prose may be a little purple. But the facts really do speak for themselves. Facts like 1.92 million tonnes of textiles waste being produced each year, like 10% of ocean microplastics coming from textiles, like it taking 20,000 liters of water to produce a single kilo of cotton, for example. Or like the fact annual consumption has risen over 400% in two decades and 150 billion items of clothing are produced very single year. Cold hard data, you could call it if such a thing existed – but digits are not inherently devoid of feeling; they tell the same story as the words, they’re just harder to argue with.

Still, while we may be asking the same questions, we may also finally be getting some satisfactory answers. Whether through conscience or self-preservation, it seems that the brands are coming around to progress. There’s no sportswear on a dead planet, after all. And there are certainly no profits.

In terms of who’s leading the charge, there’s a degree of the usual suspects to it – brands that have made and established their names, to some degree at least, off the back of their sustainability efforts, are not only continuing to do so but actually pushing the envelope in terms of what that means. What’s more, they’re being rewarded for it by consumers.

Take for example how the Swiss sportswear operator On has positioned lower-impact materials and modes of production: not only as an essential part of its brand identity, but as being equal to technical performance in its product offering. Now think about how well that’s working for them and consider that, where fourteen years ago On didn’t even exist, its annual sales are now CHF 1,792.1 million; think about how, not so long ago, no one had even heard of the European label and now they have ongoing collaborations with one of the biggest sports stars and one of the most esteemed fashion houses in the world; anecdotally, think about the fact that – on a recent trip to Tokyo, where they have a flagship-level store for basically every brand you can imagine – only the On store ever had a queue around the block.

The fact is these shoes are everywhere. But why? It’s not like they’re aesthetically revolutionary, not like they have a legacy of any kind or some deep-rooted cultural significance. It has to be down to what the brand is doing differently. And, in a poor reflection on the industry as a whole, what it’s doing differently is giving thought to its impact on the Earth.

And knowing this has allowed On – perhaps even pushed it – to keep experimenting with that USP; to try new things, like clothing made in part from carbon emissions, and subscription-only running shoes which the brand recycles on its own time. Knowing that the consumer buys in to what they’re doing has meant a constant evolution of exactly what that entails. It is, by all accounts, a sustainability success story.

So, why isn’t everyone doing it?

This, unfortunately, is one of those questions with obvious answers. And that answer is money. Not just that working more sustainably is more expensive – it isn’t necessarily – but more in the sense that, for existing brands, the status quo is a known (and profitable) quantity.

Never mind the fact that the apparel industry’s global emissions are set to increase 50% by 2030, the sportswear industry was valued at around $320 billion USD in 2022 and those are also pretty hard numbers to argue with.

But On isn’t the sole outlier. There are other brands actively working to shake up the space and prove, among other things, that the Swiss label isn’t some kind of fluke.

Canadian running brand norda, for example, is quietly revolutionary before you even get into the material detail of its products; that, after four years, the Montreal-based label has only released three shoe models and a very small range of apparel is itself very much a counter to the excesses of the industry. But the materials do matter, and norda’s choices reflect that: bio-based Dyneema®, Vibram Metaflex, and recycled fibers are deployed across their footwear range, Polartec® Power Stretch® Pro™ featured in their recent apparel collaboration with Reigning Champ, and eschews unnecessary plastics in everything it does. None of which, it’s essential to mention, have ever caused anyone to question any element of its technical performance.

And what have they earned in return for this commitment to progress? For one thing, much like On, this focus has secured them collaborations with the kinds of labels which bigger brands would fall over themselves to land. For another, much more importantly, it’s earned them a dedicated fanbase and helped norda to build a thriving community around not only the act of running but also the appreciated and conservation of nature.

The story is similar with Paris-based Satisfy, too – a sportswear brand which encompasses footwear, apparel, and various accessories – having turned an upstart activewear label into a an online and offline community, a much-anticipated magazine, and a self-described cult. Part of that, as with norda, is owed to the aesthetic strength and technical efficacy of its running gear – but there’s also no doubt that the brand’s commitment to lowering its impact, through material innovation, through deadstock upcycling and comprehensive repair programs, plays a huge part in the love that Satisfy gets.

Circle Sportswear also deserves a shout out here – a big one, in fact. This is a brand which, rather than starting in the same place as its fossil-fuelled peers in athletic apparel and then retrofitting sustainability onto those same designs, began with an Earth-friendlier modus operandi as a non-negotiable part of its DNA. Its signature running shoe, the “Supernatural Runner,” is recyclable, made from 75% biosourced materials, and manufactured in Europe; its technical T-shirts are produced from 84% recycled materials and are 100% recyclable; even its yoga mats are made from cork.

Then there’s PANGAIA. The London- and New York-based materials science brand is not so much an activewear outfit in and of itself, but – in using the knowledge and infrastructure it has acquired through producing Earth-friendlier fashion – it has nonetheless made its own contribution to the market niche with bio-based alternatives to traditional fossil-based fibers. That being said, comments on a recent Financial Times piece have pointed to issues with PANGAIA’s process in this regard. According to one response, “[The material] is sourced from castor oil but chemically it is just a nylon. It is not biodegradable at all, and the use of a bio source for the feedstock just means it has a massive carbon footprint.” Which is certainly something to think about when it comes to assessing the claims that these brands are making versus the actual impact they’re having on the world.

“If we know — and we do know – that sportswear itself can be made more sustainably, and we know that the act of manufacturing those products can be undertaken with a much lower toll on the environment without losing money, what excuse do big brands have to not to follow this path?”

And these are just the names you might’ve heard of – the top level, public-facing brands who make it their business to give the details of their product as much air time as possible. Beyond that, there are other organizations who keep a much lower profile. Not because they have anything to hide – far from it – but because interacting with the end-consumer just isn’t part of their day-to-day. Companies like Hyosung, which manufactures a material called CREORA spandex and which has consistently committed to lowering the impact of that innovation at every possible opportunity, increasing the renewable content and tapering off in dealings with the petro plastics industry.

Hyosung isn’t some fringe element, however – it also happens to be the world’s leading spandex manufacturer, boasting a 30% market share – supplying not just sustainably-inclined brands such as PANGAIA with the materials for swimwear, but also household names like Speedo. That the Korean innovator is constantly upping the ante, consistently evolving the Earth-friendlier credentials of its flagship product and simultaneously pushing its partner brands to do better by default, is a sign that the industry as a whole is heading down a more progressive path. It’s great to see single products shaking up the marketplace with big-ticket marketing campaigns, but the notion that – behind the scenes – a new baseline is quietly being established at the highest and broadest level is truly groundbreaking.

Systemic change might not exactly be sexy, but it is necessary and long overdue.

Of course, much as we’d like it to – and much as that would be a huge sigh of relief – change cannot come all at once. Or, rather, it could – but it won’t. The system we’ve built, in which we – as brands, as manufacturers, as consumers, as media outlets – have all undeniably been complicit is too big now to simply shift trajectory over night. From shareholders to infrastructure, there are too many moving parts for an immediate turnaround. But it has started to feel like we’re turning.

What’s most interesting in some ways, though, is a brand that consistently ranks in the top global sportswear operators but which rarely enters, for whatever reason, the culture conversation in the same way as its peers: PUMA.

It doesn’t have the gravitas of Nike or its three-striped German compatriot, but it has made (and is making) quantifiable, tangible commitments to sustainability in terms of product, in terms of manufacturing, and in terms of operations.

A recent article in the Business of Fashion notes that, “Nearly all of the company’s cotton and leather now fall under some form of sustainability certification and almost two thirds of its polyester is recycled,” not highlighting these only as achievements in and of themselves but pointing to the fact that, “As a result, raw material emissions have halved since 2017.” The same article also relays that, “Fast, but polluting air freight is now used for fewer than one percent of shipments – a move that’s helped offset the impact of increased e-commerce deliveries.”

Particularly interesting within these statistics is that BoF points out that PUMA is not isolating itself with these efforts – that, in fact, it is using its successes in this arena to help address the situation more broadly. “The company is working in close collaboration with suppliers to support their decarbonisation targets. Last year, for example, suppliers were able to access Puma’s superior credit rating to fund nearly $500 million in working capital thereby creating more ability for suppliers to advance initiatives like replacing polluting coal-fired boilers, improving eco-efficiency of production processes and installing solar arrays.”

These are real measures of impact, backed up by numbers and by science. As well as this data, though, what the brand also has is equally quantifiable revenue growth; PUMA is making money hand over fist, and it isn’t all down to Rhianna.

According to Ken Pucker, Professor of Practice at the Tufts Fletcher School, “[S]ince 2017, Puma has doubled revenues to $9.3 [billion USD]… while cutting carbon emissions by 30%. On a per unit basis, that is a 66% reduction.”

To say that PUMA’s success is tied to its Earth-friendlier efforts is a bit of a reach – but it also isn’t really the point. It’s not that the brand is making money from sustainability – in fact, when it releases a more progressive product, like the recent HyphaLite collaboration with Perks&Mini, it barely seems interested in shouting about those eco credentials at all. Instead, the kicker here is that PUMA is making big moves in terms of sustainability, not just holding things together financially but growing at a rate that would be impressive under any circumstances.

PUMA has quietly nullified the argument that lowering impact means lowering profits; it has proved that sustainability isn’t just an effective marketing tool to whip out now and again as a way to reel in more conscious consumers, but something that can be implemented in a meaningful way, quietly, as part of a progressive business model that still keeps the shareholders happy.

More than this, it has effectively backed its cohorts into a corner.

If we know — and we do know – that sportswear itself can be made more sustainably, and we know that the act of manufacturing those products can be undertaken with a much lower toll on the environment without losing money, what excuse do other big brands have to not follow suit? By the metric of sales, PUMA was the third-largest sportswear brand in the world in 2023 – if they can make these changes, what’s stopping their colleagues and competitors from embracing progress at such an all-encompassing level?

That Nike, the world’s biggest sportswear manufacturer and a global forced to be reckoned with by any measure, last year felt compelled to release a running shoe that not only delivered on the performance side but also on some serious planet-forward credentials feels like a significant moment in how high-functioning sportswear is judged; like progressive material choices are no longer just a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” That a giant like Nike is setting that bar, rather than a brand which has made sustainability its sole mission from the get-go, feels hard to ignore. (Although, of course, there are a lot of things that ought to have been hard for the industry to ignore and which it has made a pretty good job of brushing aside thus far.)

But, again, Nike isn’t out here all alone. adidas has its longstanding and expansive collaboration with Parley for the Oceans and its work with Allbirds; ASICS recently released its first circular running shoe, the Nimbus Mirai; New Balance just launched a new resale platform and pushed a successful collaboration with GANNI back in 2023; Reebok has its Ree[GROW] and Ree[CYCLED] programs and has committed to a goal of using 100% “sustainable materials” by 2030.

These aren’t all revelations, exactly, but they’re also not nothing. These are the biggest sportswear brands on the planet we’re talking about here. Ultimately, it’s their input and a shift in their output which are going to move the needle in the most significant ways.

The question now, then, isn’t whether brands can make sportswear sustainable – we’ve seen more than enough proof by this point that they can – but whether, having made a statement, they’ll still stick to it and keep on pushing. It’s a question of whether the noise created by loud, one-off proclamations will be capitalized upon and turned into permanent progress or whether these campaigns and commitments will end up as a blip in sportswear’s history. This could be a turning point, the start of something great, but to be anything at all it has to keep growing. The message is important, and we need big-name brands to amplify that in a way that their smaller peers just can’t do, but we also need more from them than we’ve had so far.

Words are great, but actions speak louder.